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Understanding and Monitoring 969, Burma’s state-ignored neo-Nazi Buddhist Movement

How popular/widespread is the 969 movement, and how likely is it to keep gaining steam? 


Dr. Maung Zarni:
April 4, 2013

As a new nationalist movement with a clear message of ‘racial and religious purity’, a false sense of Buddhist victimhood and cultural and economic nationalism — not dissimilar to Germany’s Nazism in the 1930s – 969 is gaining popularity for 3 reasons: first, some of the militant Buddhist preachers from nationally well-connected Buddhist teaching colleges (such as Wirathu) effectively scapegoat the country’s Muslims for the general economic hardships and cultural decay in society, portraying the Burmese as victims at the hands of organized Muslim commercial leeches and parasites; second, 969 preys on the historical and popular anti-Muslim racism among the majority Buddhists; and, last but not least, virtually all state institutions at all levels, including the police, intelligence, the army, local civil administration and even fire departments, under President Thein Sein’s management have evidently offered this Buddhist neo-Nazi movement with both impunity and passive cooperation.

What is Naypyidaw Government doing to crack down on this neo-Nazi movement?

Since President Thein Sein’s official report on the anti-Rohingya violence in Western Burma to the Parliament (submitted in August 2012) where he blamed political parties and Buddhist monks for spreading ‘ethnic hatred’ towards the Rohingya (Muslims), his administration has not taken a single action against anyone who openly incites anti-Muslim hatred or ethnic hatred towards the Rohingya.  Nor has Thein Sein’s government detained or event deterred a single Buddhist preacher of hate from any acts of spreading anti-Muslim hatred in society and inciting blatant calls for eliminating Muslims and their influence in Burmese society ‘phase by phase’. 

Here is Thein Sein in his own words: “Political parties, some monks and some individuals are increasing the ethnic hatred. They even approach and lobby both the domestic and overseas [Arakan] community,”
There is an unbridgeable gap between President Thein Sein’s messages of ‘coexistence’ and tolerance which the western mainstream media covers and his government’s in-actions which don’t get reported in the media beyond the level of local police standing by idly when the organized mob violence unfolded before them. 

All over Burma, one can easily find numerous publications, DVDs, CDs and other propaganda materials. It is not illegal to spread anti-Muslim misinformation and hateful views. The Burmese government sued the Voice Weekly for printing a single article about corruption in the Ministry of Mine; but it has left the Voice and other anti-Muslim publications such as Eleven Media Group to print any rumors, slanders and misinformation about the Muslims in Burma.  It is evidently more concerned about being correctly described as highly corrupt than the sustained and open calls in Burma for turning the country into a ‘graveyard of Muslim leeches’.

Unless President Thein Sein government matches its words with actions by systematically cracking down on the those who promote and organize Islamophobic violence and popular speech in Burmese society and effectively ending its long-standing policy of impunity towards the Muslims (and other ethnic minorities) 969 will turn into a full-blown genocidal movement. 

After all this is the regime with 50-years of experience in cracking down any organized movement, if it wants to. It certainly has experience – plenty of it – in making sure the messages that it doesn’t want spread in society gets censored or stopped effectively.

As a matter of fact, in his article “Challenging the Authoritarian State: Buddhist Monks and Peaceful Protests in Burma Issues and Policy” published in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (Winter 2008), Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Burmese academic from the City University of Hong Kong and President Thein Sein’s adviser who now directs the government’s Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) observed the military’s central role in inciting anti-Muslim riots in the past.  

Here is the presidential adviser in his own words:

“In 1997, the junta became aware of the monks’ plan to protest against the regional (military) commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddhist statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protests, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot. Some observers noted that that intelligence agents often instigate anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry Buddhist monks from engaging in anti-government activities” (pp. 137-138).

As recent as 30 March, Professor Donald Seekin, the author of “The Disorder in Order: the Army-State in Burma since 1962”, wrote, in an approving response to New York Times’ Kristallnacht in Myanmar (29 March 2013),:

“Hatred of Muslims is deeply rooted in Burmese society, and was actively encouraged by both the Ne Win and SLORC/SPDC regimes during the 1962-2010 period. One of their favorite tactics was to spread rumors that Muslims had raped Burmese Buddhist women, and plotted to convert the entire Buddhist population to Islam. The “divide and rule” tactic used by the authorities in the recent past possibly grew out of the British colonial regime’s policy of fostering a “plural society” with minimal national unity.”

In light of the fact that the Burmese military rulers have a well-documented history of exploiting religious and ethnic prejudices in the multi-ethnic society for their own political and strategic ends, it is not going to far or conspiratorial to suggest that President Thein Sein’s government itself may want this anti-Muslim hate speech spread in society like wild fire for its own sinister political ends (such as to keep the public unsafe without a steady dictatorial hand of the Generals and their Military). 

This, in spite of Thein Sein’s softly-softly official messages of religious harmony and coexistence in society.  As a matter of fact, President Thein Sein has not done a single thing to nip the neo-Nazi Buddhist movement of 969.  His inaction is not rooted in the change of heart or a new acquisition of a soul.  Nor has the military embraced free speech unconditionally; but the impunity and the inaction are anchored in Naypyidaw’s strategic calculations to create a general climate of fear and uncertainty.  Yes, it is a general conspiracy of the generals and ex-generals against the multiethnic public, a divide-and-rule conspiracy designed to keep the oppressed and downtrodden squaring off one another while the military continues to exert its unrivaled control and influence over the affairs of the State and Economy. 

For Naypyidaw has been emboldened by the fact that global capitalists in Washington, London, Brussels, Tokyo, Berlin, Delhi, Beijing and Paris who are hell-bent on ‘doing Burma’ ain’t going to stay away from the emerging frontier market and the last brothel of resources, no matter how Islamophobic and genocidal it and its societal proxies behave towards the wretched of Burma, the Rohingya, the Muslims, the farmers and the minorities. 

What is Aung San Suu Kyi, the global icon of non-violence doing to stem the tide of violent neo-Nazi racism among her main supporters – Buddhists of Burma?

Incomprehensibly, Aung San Suu Kyi herself is complicit in the spread of Islamophobic hatred and fear not simply by her silence over violence against the Rohingya and more recently the Burmese Muslims but by her spreading the moral responsibility across both Muslim and Buddhist communities. She ignores blatantly the most glaring facts: 1) violence and hate campaign are one-directional/one-way in that they are directed against the Muslims of Burma, organized by Buddhist mobs, which are made up of BOTH out-of-towners and local community members; 2) the Muslims (and other minorities such as the Kachins) bear the brunt of the violence, death and devastation; and 3) the military and the security forces have 50-years of experience in crowd control, however rowdy and violence-prone.

As a matter of fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has not been quiet on the violence against the Muslims, most particularly in the 3-days attacks against the Muslims in Meikhtila. Immediately after the violence in Meikhtila, she in fact spoke out IN DEFENSE of the way the local security forces handled – which was ‘did nothing’ as the organized mobs went on their spree of slaughter and arson ‘with brutal efficiency’. For 3 days, the security forces let the roaming gangs of armed Buddhists to go around the city to burning down nearly 1,000 buildings including mosques, Muslim businesses and houses. Aung San Suu Kyi came out to defend, in her Burmese language press interviews, the deliberate inaction of the security forces locally, offering an excuse that the latter wasn’t really experienced in the riot control in a democratic transitional period. 

Despite being the Chair of the anti-mine inquiry commission, she apparently forget that the Burmese security forces did use firebombs with white phosphorous to crack down on the anti-copper mine protester-monks at 2 in the morning, if ordered by their superior officers. 

As a matter of fact, 3 days after the deadly violence against the Muslims in Meikhtila which left 12,000, largely Burmese Muslims, displaced, she has not been seen visiting Muslim victims.  But the colored pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi attending the annual military parade on 27 March and sharing intimate moments with the highly decorated Burmese generals were seen in the mainstream media around the world.

On his part, it took 8 days for President Thein Sein before issuing a stern warning against the anti-Muslim attackers. 

So, with this type of criminally negligent opposition and governmental leaders, I fear that this anti-Muslim movement is going to gain steam in the days to come. The worst for the Muslims in Burma is as yet to come. 

Would the rumors and violence provoke existing sentiments that might persuade people to subscribe to the violent/anti-Islamic school of thought?   Where do these rumors come from?

Yes, rumors have been a lifeblood of cultural and political life in Burma for the past half-century since the generals came to power in the absence of free and professional press. The Burmese public soak up rumors,slander, anti-Muslim racist narratives like a sponge.   Even in the new ‘reformist’ age the free media in Burma is jingoistic and has played a vital role in fomenting anti-Muslim hatred and nationalist fear

Quite frighteningly for the Burmese Muslims – who make up about 4% of the total 60 million Burmese – one of President Thein Sein’s own spokespersons, namely ex-Major Zaw Htay or Hmu Zaw himself has served as a major source of anti-Muslim rumors and slanders since the first wave of violence against the Rohingya last June.  On his facebook, this spokesman for the President’s Office, would post crisp one-liners designed to stoke popular anti-Muslim hatred and fear, for instance, ‘we have just received information about a group of armed Muslim terrorists who are crossing the Burmese-Bangladesh borders. Stay tune.”   Like Wirathu, Thein Sein’s spokesman has a huge following himself. 

But Presidential spokesperson is not alone in acting out of discernible anti-Muslim racism.   The state mediaitself was publishing articles with anti-Muslim slants and printing the word “kalar’, he Burmese equivalent of ‘nigger’ in reference to the Muslims and people of Indian subcontinental origin.  

When you have the entire State security and propaganda apparatuses, as well as culturally and ideologically influential figures, all reportedly stoking anti-Muslim hatred and fear the public at large is going to be swayed by this. Culturally, monks are very influential in Burmese society – more so than dissidents and generals. Ideologically, the anti-Muslim racist Burmese public tends to swallow the government’s anti-Muslim rumors and narratives, in spite of the fact the public generally and in most other cases distrust the government-issued news and narratives. 

At this point it is extremely difficult to draw the line between the government’s anti-Muslim activities and propaganda and those carried out by the influential skinhead monks.   Usually anti-Muslim postings, especially death and destruction, are met with thousands of ‘like’ in facebook and solicit approving howls from the Burmese netizens who don’t seem to loose a heart beat in expressing their neo-Nazi worldviews in public domains. 

Also, in recent interviews Wirathu seems to be condemning the violence and saying he was stopping the rioters, etc.  Does this indicate he is toning down on his rhetoric, or is this movement still essentially preaching for Muslims to be wiped out/their businesses boycotted/etc. (despite Wirathu’s calmer tone now)?

In his Burmese language Facebook pages, Wirathu has been posting rather irreconcilable messages; in the morning he would post messages of religious tolerance and compassion and in the afternoon his message would be provocatively anti-Muslim, crying foul of ‘forced conversion of Burmese women who marry into Muslim families’ or change their Burmese names to Muslim and Indian names. 

As a matter of fact, in the BBC interview he gave to Jonathan Head which was aired recently, Wirathu said something like “the threat of Muslims to Burma or Muslim menace must be nipped in the bud”. 

It is inconceivable that a skinhead preacher like Wirathu who was jailed for his public incitement in Mandalay area which finally resulted in the death of an entire Muslim family in an arson attack in a small town called Kyauk Hse in 2003 would be repenting. In fact, there is absolutely no sign of him experiencing any remorse or regret about his role in anti-Muslim violence. 

He has been spreading before he went to jail in 2003, and, since his release from prison, resumed his anti-Muslim skinhead views. 

In Wirathu’s own words 10 years ago:

“The Muslims are responsible for nearly all of the crime in Myanmar: opium, theft, many rapes. They want to deface images of the Buddha like they did in Afghanistan. Now they mock us with these longyis [a common traditional garment]” (Asia Times, 21 Oct 2003).

Ten years ago, he was a fringe figure.  Now with the rise of state-tolerated neo-Nazism in Burma, Wirathu is a cultist pivotal hate-monger, a must-meet for the international media.  The popularity and fame of this neo-Nazi Buddhist preacher does not augur well for the country’s future, and most certainly not for the Muslims and Rohingyas.

What looks most suspicious to the critically minded Burmese about Wirathu is his close association with some of the dodgiest regime officials and ex-officials such as ex-chief of military intelligence Khin Nyunt and ex-Senior General Than Shwe’s confident and a key leader of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party ex-Brigadier Aung Thaung. 

969 movement cannot be understood  outside the interface between Thein Sein’s Government and the racist society at large, nor can be explained without examining the respective roles of a) the State which in effect offers Burma’s neo-Nazi Buddhists impunity, b) President Thein Sein’s inactions, and c) the Burmese opposition leadership’s moral bankruptcy.