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969 – hate by numbers in Myanmar

A woman carries a load on her head through a
neighbourhood that was partially burned down during the clashes between Muslims
and Buddhists earlier this year, in Meikhtila.
Image by: DAMIR SAGOLJ / REUTERS
Sapa-AP
April 28, 2013
Wrapped in a saffron robe, Buddhist monk
Wirathu insists he is a man of peace.
Never mind his nine years in prison for
inciting deadly violence against Muslims. Never mind the gruesome photos
outside his office of Buddhists allegedly massacred by Muslims.
Never mind that in the new Myanmar, the man
dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden” has emerged as the spiritual leader of a
pro-Buddhist fringe movement accused of fueling a bloody campaign of sectarian
violence.
Wirathu insists the world has misunderstood
him.
“If they knew my true ideas, they would call
me saviour,” he says.
Wirathu has become the figurehead of a
virulent strain of religious nationalism being spread by some of the most
venerated members of Burmese society: Buddhist monks. Their core message is
that Buddhists must unite against a growing Muslim threat.
While these monks are a minority, some argue
they provide an ideological justification for the religious violence that has
ripped through Myanmar over the last year, threatening to destabilise the
country’s still-fragile democracy and raising the spectre of a return to
military rule. Their rhetoric also reinforces a vision of a divided society as
Myanmar tries to integrate its many ethnic and religious minorities after
decades of internal conflict.
The spread of this new radicalism has been
helped by the very reforms it threatens to derail. A quasi-civilian government
came to power in 2011 after five decades of brutal military rule. New freedoms
of speech and assembly soon followed, which have made it easier to disseminate
radical views. Wirathu himself was unleashed in early 2012 as part of a
widely-praised amnesty for political and other prisoners.
A short man, with a quick smile and evident
charisma, Wirathu is the public face of a fast-spreading but still small
campaign called “969.” Each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his
teachings and the community of monks. The campaign urges Buddhists to shop only
at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to
Muslims. Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem have been popping up on
shops, taxis, and buses, marking them as Buddhist. Local 969 groups have been
starting religious education classes for children.
The movement, says Wirathu, has one aim: “To
protect race and religion.”
To suggest that Wirathu is the main force
behind anti-Muslim propaganda is to overstate his influence and underestimate
how dispersed the ideas he espouses are.
Countless grassroots movements, some branded
as 969 and others not, propagate the ideas of Buddhist supremacy through
sloppily photocopied handbills, unmarked bootleg DVDs, videos that have gone
viral on mobile phones, and for the few with Internet access, social networking
sites like Facebook.
By cloaking itself in piety, the 969 campaign
and others like it have managed to tap into widespread anti-Muslim feeling and
temper critics wary of being seen as anti-Buddhist.
Wirathu and others insist 969 is merely a
peaceful movement to strengthen Buddhism and that it is being wrongly blamed
for inciting religious violence that rolled through central Myanmar in March.
Mobs, including monks, led a 10-day streak of
anti-Muslim riots that left over 40 dead as police stood idly by. Irrespective
of its role in the latest violence, the movement has successfully opened an
economic front in the religious war brewing in Myanmar.
One Muslim shopkeeper in northern Yangon,
Myanmar’s largest city, says his sales have fallen by two-thirds since a video
of Wirathu preaching began circulating a month and a half ago.
Buddhists, he says, stopped coming to his
shop. If business doesn’t pick up, he’s considering becoming a taxi driver.
“969 is very dangerous,” says the man, who
spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution.
“They want to hurt Muslim businesses. When our
business goes down, the Burmese will be rich.” Followers say 969 is a response
to 786, a number long used by Muslims in Myanmar to mark halal restaurants and
shops.
Some erroneously read into 786 — a number
whose digits add up to 21 — a secret plan for Muslim world domination in the
21st century.
The number is actually derived from a short
prayer invoking the name of God. The Arabic letters in the phrase have numeric
values that add up to 786, explains Maung Maung, a Muslim tea shop owner in
Mandalay, Myanmar’s spiritual capital and Wirathu’s base.
Maung Maung, who helped form an interfaith
group after Buddhist-Muslim violence in western Myanmar last year, says he has
no problem with Buddhists using 969 to mark their shops but is troubled by the
minority of religious leaders, including Wirathu, who use the symbol to
campaign against Muslims.
“Some people are trying to use it in the wrong
way for their own ends,” he says. “They don’t represent the monks’ community or
the community at large.” In western Yangon, 969 and 786 signs hang side by side
above chunks of goat meat gathering flies at Kyimyindaing market. A woman
nearby holds an orange peel to her nose to block the smell of pig ribs ripening
in the April heat.
Aye Aye Khine, 41, sits beneath two 969
placards at her meat shop. She made the signs herself, copying them from the
cover of a 969 DVD a friend gave her. “Before I didn’t think about whether
people were Buddhist or Muslim,” she says. “After listening, I learned how to
keep the Buddhist faith.” Business is up 50% since she posted the signs a month
ago, she says.
Much of the Buddhist-dominated market has been
won over to 969, thanks to a few enterprising shopkeepers who decided to start
their own chapter.
All men, they met in tea shops and came up
with a manifesto, which they photocopied and passed around the neighbourhood.
They printed T-shirts with the 969 logo and
the words “Spread Good Deeds,” and say they have recruited 50 members and
raised 150 000 kyat ($170) in donations since launching on March 27. They hope
to link up with other chapters.
“We intend to unite together,” says Wai Phyo,
one of the founders, who spent ten years as a monk before opening a rickety DVD
stand at Kyimyindaing market. “If something happens, we are ready to organise.”
“It’s not to fight,” he adds. “It’s to
protect.”
Outside Wirathu’s office at the New Ma Soe
Yein monastery hangs a large poster of him gazing heavenward next to a dove
with an olive branch in its beak. Dozens of faithful mill nearby, buying DVDs
of his sermons and ogling the photos of dead Buddhists — some with skulls split
like coconuts or faces burned beyond recognition. The thriving monastery houses
2,855 monks, a school, a library and a medical clinic.
The son of a tractor driver, Wirathu does not
have the mind of a philosopher. The family moved frequently when he was young,
disrupting his schooling. When he became a monk at 17, he had only completed
eighth grade. Today, at 44, he prefers the concrete to abstraction. He
habitually makes lists, of reasons, goals and real or imagined atrocities
committed by Muslims against Buddhists. He gestures gently with his small hands
as he talks about the violence. His enumerations of rapes, lynching and hateful
slurs sound a familiar schoolyard complaint: They started it.
He says he began to weld an anti-Muslim
ideology to the number 969 in 2001. He lectured about the need to unite against
the threat of a rich Muslim minority bent on marrying and converting Buddhist
women, buying up land with foreign funding and flooding the population with
Muslim babies.
Only around 4% of Myanmar is Muslim, according
to official statistics. Muslims here are seen as relatively prosperous, which
has fuelled economic jealousies — though Buddhist businessmen with ties to the
old regime and military-linked companies dominate the economy. Still, Wirathu
maintains that Muslim domination is a pressing threat.
“It’s a very dangerous situation because in
some cases the whole village becomes Muslim,” he says. He likens Muslims to
African catfish, an invasive species.
“The African catfish have a very great
population and they eat each other and destroy nature. These catfish are not
allowed into the country to breed.”
969 began to coalesce as a political movement
after Buddhist-Muslim riots in western Rakhine state last June and October.
More than 200 were killed, 70% of them Muslim. Over 125,000 remain homeless.
About 50 monks in the southern city of
Moulmein began meeting late last year, according to Wirathu and one of the
monks involved. They branded the ideas of 969 with a logo: the iconic lion
statue of India’s Buddhist emperor, Ashoka the Great, set against a prayer
wheel and the colorful stripes of the Buddhist prayer flag.
Wirathu says 969 supporters have popped up in
almost every town, but the movement is strongest in Yangon, Mandalay, Moulmein
and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. “It’s because of me the ideas
spread,” he says.
Around four months after the campaign was
born, masked men dressed as monks rampaged through the central town of
Meikhtila with swords, burning mosques and Muslim shops. Muslims also killed
Buddhists. The attacks left charred bodies in the streets and around 12,000
people, mostly Muslim, without homes. The government declared a state of
emergency as the violence spread to 14 more townships. Over 40 people died.
The chaos reinforced the power of the army,
which was called in to restore peace, and fueled widespread speculation that
the instability was orchestrated by hardline interests seeking to derail reform
and strengthen the hand of the military.
“We also condemn these acts,” Wirathu says.
“969 doesn’t accept terrorism.” Human rights groups, however, have documented a
pattern to the anti-Muslim pogroms of the past year: Words precede the
bloodshed.
Human Rights Watch says that before the
October violence in Rakhine, monks distributed anti-Muslim pamphlets with
rhetoric similar to 969’s and political parties advocated ethnic cleansing.
The Burma Campaign U.K. found anti-Muslim
leaflets, without the 969 logo, that were circulated in Meikhtila before the
attacks. The riots radiated from Meikhtila to Bago region, where Buddhists
marked their homes and shops with 969 so they would not be harmed, said Tun
Kyi, a Muslim activist from Yangon who visited two townships there. “Even in
their homes they have to write 969 with chalk,” he said.
“The 969 campaign is more than a boycott. It’s
clearly becoming a rationale for violence,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, South East
Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. “It’s creating an
existential threat to Buddhism and the country that’s not there and then
blaming Muslims for it. Then what we see is this violence.” On March 28, eight
days after the violence in Meikhtila erupted, Myanmar’s president Thein Sein
issued a warning to “political opportunists and religious extremists” who have
“tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths.” Police arrested
dozens of people in conjunction with the March riots, but so far only three —
all Muslims — have been convicted.
Plainclothes police also seized one of
Wirathu’s followers, a 969 supporter named Ye Min Oo. His family members and
lawyer say police accuse him of inciting violence against Muslims and
supporting extremist monks, including Wirathu. Ye Min Oo denies wrongdoing.
“The government is assaulting Buddhism,” Ye
Min Oo shouted, his cuffed hands high above his head, as police pushed him
through a crowd outside a Yangon courthouse recently.
Wirathu says he now fears arrest as well.
To critics, the government’s response, which
comes after allegations from human rights groups that security forces failed to
halt and, in some cases, abetted atrocities against Muslims, is too little too
late.
Moderate voices say Wirathu’s vision of an
“us” and a “them” is not sustainable. Pannasiha, a monk who goes by one name
and teaches at a prestigious Buddhist academy in Yangon, says Myanmar cannot
thrive as a collection of separate communities living side by side. He opposes
the 969 ideology, though he does not see Wirathu as anti-Muslim.