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Anti-Muslim monk stokes Burmese religious tensions

By Jonah Fisher
August 29 2013
Time magazine labelled
Wirathu “The face of Buddhist terror”
This week, religious
violence has once again flared in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Hundreds of
Muslim homes have been burnt to the ground in Sagaing region after being
attacked by Buddhist mobs.
In just over a year more
than 200 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed and many more displaced as
unrest has spread from Rakhine state in the west to towns across the country.
Many are blaming a
controversial monk and the nationalist organisation he helps lead for the
rising tensions.
In a classroom at one of
Mandalay’s most famous monasteries, a teacher is at work. Shin Wirathu is
taking a class of young monks at Masoeyin through the five precepts or pillars
of the Buddhist faith.
This morning, he is
lecturing on the importance of avoiding sexual misconduct.
“Yes venerable
monk,” the young men chant in unison, as Wirathu softly delivers his
advice on the need to avoid temptation.
 
Monk Kaylar Sa said the 969
movement was unnecessary

When the class is over, he
shows me outside. On the wall of the monastery courtyard are graphic posters of
the Buddhist victims of recent religious and ethnic violence in Rakhine state
in western Myanmar.
They are unpleasant
viewing. The pictures from October last year show dead children with their
heads cut open and the bodies of women with their internal organs spilling out
of their torsos.
Wirathu said he put them up
as a reminder to Buddhists that the country is under attack from Muslim
“invaders”.
“Muslims are only well
behaved when they are weak, ” he said. “When they become strong, they
are like a wolf or a jackal, in large packs they hunt down other animals.”
Wirathu believes there is a
Muslim “master plan” underway to turn Myanmar into an Islamic state.
If he is right, it is a
long-term project. Latest estimates suggest that of Myanmar’s 60 million
people, 90% are Buddhist and about 5% Muslim.
“Over the past 50
years, we have shopped at Muslim shops and then they became richer and
wealthier than us and can buy and marry our girls,” Wirathu said. “In
this way, they have destroyed and penetrated not only our nation but also our
religion.”
‘Master plan’
Muslims keep watch over
Joon Mosque, the biggest in Mandalay, every night

Wirathu’s solution lies in
a controversial nationalist organisation called 969. It calls on Buddhists to
shop, sell property and marry within their own religion.
Small, brightly-coloured
stickers have been distributed to clearly brand businesses as Buddhist-owned.
Supporters of 969 argue it
is a purely defensive organisation, created to protect Buddhist culture and
identity. Listening to the rhetoric of Wirathu and 969’s leaders, there is no
doubt it is squarely aimed at Muslims.

“In
the past, there was no discrimination based on religion and race. We all stayed
together in a brotherly way,” Wirathu said. “But when their [Muslim] master plan has been revealed we can no longer stay quiet.”
From
Rakhine state in the west, to more central towns like Meiktila and Okkan, the
link is being made between heightened religious tensions and the preaching and
activities of monks and 969.
The
outbreaks of violence usually have a depressing symmetry.
A
small flashpoint, often a crime or perceived insult perpetrated by a Muslim
against a Buddhist, triggers a disproportionate wave of reprisals against the
entire Muslim community.
Ten
years ago, under the military junta, Wirathu was jailed for his anti-Muslim
views. Now in these times of change, his message is widely disseminated through
social media and DVDs. Far from being condemned, Wirathu now has backing from
the very top.
In
June, as his infamy reached its peak, Wirathu appeared on the front cover of
Time magazine labelled “The face of Buddhist terror”. Burmese monks
were outraged and Myanmar’s President Thein Sein quickly leapt to Wirathu’s
defence.
The
Time issue was banned and a statement released with the president lauding
Wirathu as a “son of Lord Buddha”.
‘Obstacle
to reform’
Smar
Nyi Nyi said religious tensions distracted the public from important issues

There
is no shortage of theories inside Myanmar as to why Wirathu is now flavour of
the month.
One
theory is that continuing ethnic and religious violence could be used by the
military as a pretext for maintaining a dominant role in Burmese politics. It
is certainly an argument Myanmar’s generals have made before.
“We
are also wondering about this,” Kaylar Sa, a monk jailed for his part in
the Saffron revolution of 2007, told me as he chain-smoked his way through a
pack of Red Ruby cigarettes.
He
pointed out that the government has acted decisively and violently to end
monk-led demonstrations against an army-backed copper mine last year, and yet
now was unwilling to tackle them over hate speech.
“At
the moment, we firmly believe that the 969 movement is unnecessary,” he
said. “If this movement continues to be taken seriously, it could become
an obstacle to democratic reform.”
A
short drive from Wirathu’s monastery, Muslim volunteers guard Joon Mosque, the
biggest in Mandalay, each night. The men told me that in the event of a
Buddhist attack, they expect no protection from the (Buddhist-dominated) police
or the army.
Smar
Nyi Nyi, a veteran of the 1988 student uprising and one of the elders at the
mosque, took me to one side. He expressed views that many Burmese share, that
shadowy elements within the establishment are stoking the unrest.
“Everybody
is talking about the violence between Buddhists and Muslims,” he said.
“Nobody is interested in the dam on the Irrawaddy River. No one is
interested in the gas pipeline. If somebody is controlling things, he is a
smart man!”
Some
Muslims cling to the hope that there exists a silent majority of moderate
Buddhists appalled by recent events, secretly rooting for them.
“Most
of the Buddhists, they are just onlookers ” a retired Muslim doctor tells
me with a shrug. “A few might pass a heartfelt regard and say they’re
sorry, but that doesn’t come above the surface.”
For
Wirathu, each fresh outbreak of religious conflict reinforces his view that
Myanmar is part of a global war on militant Islam and that he is being badly
misunderstood.
“We
don’t use drones – we haven’t killed [Osama] Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or the
Taliban,” he told me.
“We
are just preaching and posting on the internet and Facebook for the safety and
security of our nation. If we are all protecting our own nation who’s the bad
guy – Wirathu or Barack Obama?”