Democracy Lab

The Monks Who Hate Muslims

Buddhist monks have been major instigators of the recent violence against Muslims in Burma.

In a small wooden office in the Mahamyaing monastery, Kyaw Linn rifles through a carrier bag of stickers emblazoned with 969, the logo that has come to represent Burma's budding anti-Muslim movement. Six months ago the head monk, Oo Wi Ma La, ordered the first batch of stickers from a nearby printing company. Now they're hard to avoid. Taxis, buses, and shop fronts across Rangoon and other major towns now display what some observers consider a symbol of Buddhist extremism -- a symbol that sees Burma's Muslim community as a threat to the country and its dominant religion.

This sentiment has unleashed waves of violence over the past several months that have left more than 40 dead, and 13,000 displaced in 2013 alone. The monastery in Moulmein, southern Burma, is credited as the birthplace of the resurgent 969 movement. Production of the 969 stickers began following rioting in western Burma last year that pitted Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims. The number signifies the attributes of Buddha and his teachings, and is sacred to Buddhists.

"We did it to protect Buddhism," Oo Wi Ma La says, adding that last year's violence in Arakan state made it clear that Buddhism in Burma is under threat. "In Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and so on there used to be so many Buddhists, but the Muslims came and kicked them out, and now they are Muslim countries. So based on history we worry Burma could become like that. "

Around four percent of Burma's population practices Islam. It is where the two religions coexist that problems have emerged, says Oo Wi Ma La. In Moulemin's busy and cramped indoor market, however, Muslim stallholders appear calm despite the wealth of 969 stickers increasingly on display on neighboring stalls. Buddhist taxi drivers and shop owners said they have no problem with Muslims using their services.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone thinks the same way. Last month simmering animosity burst into the open once again. A brawl between Buddhists and Muslims in a gold shop in the central Burmese town of Meiktila triggered two days of violence, during which more than 800 homes in the town, mostly Muslim, were razed. Witnesses say that the Buddhist mobs who perpetrated the violence were well-organized, and that the police stood by and watched as killings were carried out in broad daylight. Such reports have led to accusations of official complicity in the violence. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is threatened by reforms. A Human Rights Watch report released today directly implicates "political and religious leaders in Arakan State" in the planning, organization, and incitement of attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims last October. (The report, which focuses on last year's bloodshed in Arakan, notes that the violence there has resulted in the forcible displacement of some 125,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes.)

Yet even if the military-led government may have helped to ignite the Arakan and Meiktila conflicts, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in Arakan state, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.

That movement has seen a resurgence since the Arakan rioting last year whipped up anti-Muslim fervor across Burma. The situation in Meiktila appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.

Most narratives of the violence have painted the 969 movement as a cohesive anti-Muslim front that seeks to purge Burma of what it considers a pernicious Islamic presence. Anti-violence protests have used 969 as a symbol to rally against (as shown above). Yet the diverging opinions of those who distribute and carry the symbol shows that this is not so clear-cut. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it more as an identifier of Buddhist solidarity, as Christians display crucifixes. Many say the adoption of 969 as the movement's symbol was done to counter 786, a numerologically important symbol to Muslims that is also seen on some shop fronts. "Now our Buddhist people are trying to give life to this 969 concept, and it saddens me," says U Gambira, a former monk who spent four years in jail for his lead role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. "They are basically copying something they hate."

Extremists are trying legitimize an objectionable philosophy by drawing on the spiritual "goodness" of what 969 represents: the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, the religious council that administers Buddhist institutions in Burma. This inevitably gives the movement an immediate appeal among Buddhists, and its leaders can then exploit underlying anti-Muslim sentiment to garner supporters, witting or unwitting.

Carrying the flag for this movement is U Wirathu, head abbot of the Masoyein monastery in Mandalay. Known in the past as a key organizing hub for anti-junta activities, the monastery has more recently developed notoriety following U Wirathu's vitriolic speeches directed at Muslims. Though he acknowledges the possibility of complicity in the recent violence with the military, whom in the past he has fiercely resisted, he considers Islam to be the greater threat. Wirathu chose to be interviewed in front of a wall decked out with self-portraits, a background that made him look more like a cult leader than a humble monk. "According to my research, 100 percent of rape cases in Burma are by Muslims. None are by Buddhists," he claims. "They forcibly take young Buddhist girls as their wives. If the wives continue to practice Buddhism then they torture them every day."

Wirathu is a man of contradictions. His recipe for ending violence and religious tension in Burma is to rid the country of "bad Muslims," but fails to acknowledge that such messages have been a key source of the violence. "If everyone in Burma was like me then there would be peace," he continues, before later handing over a booklet on whose front cover is drawn a lion baring its teeth at a child. The child is a Buddhist and the lion a Muslim, he explains.

U Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim unrest (though he denies any responsibility for the recent violence). But the government's unwillingness to take action this time round has added to the feeling that elements within the government or military could benefit from the spoils that may result from a fractured Burma.

The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham last month, anti-Muslim posters began appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.

This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.

MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

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