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.