Buddhist Extremism on the Eve of Transition in Burma

 In discussions of contemporary religious extremism, Burma (Myanmar) is often overlooked. Yet in the past year, a Buddhist extremist movement in Burma known as 969 has become one of the most influential extremist groups today. 969 is the main vehicle for persecution and violence against the country’s minority Muslim population. In the last year, attacks which were largely contained in the western Rakhine state have now spread to the centre of the country suggesting that the violence is on the rise. According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been displaced while thousands of others have been killed or injured”[i]. While police have not formally charged or linked the violence to members of 969, the attacks are widely reported by citizens and local media to be a product of the movement’s inflammatory anti-Muslim politics[ii].

 Ashu Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, is the founder and leader of 969. Under the former military regime Wirathu was jailed from 2003 to 2012 for inciting religious hatred. However as part of the current government’s reform process, political prisoners including Wirathu (and most notably Aung Sung Suu Kyi) continue to be sporadically released. Paradoxically, Wirathu now preaches with no opposition from the government. The Prime Minister of Burma Thein Sein has denounced critics of Wirathu even calling him “a son of Buddha”[iii]. In a period of extraordinary political and economic transition, 969 has achieved widespread popularity for its aggressive Buddhist nationalist political agenda in a time of great change and uncertainty.

 The troubling narrative of 969 is that Muslims are “taking over” Burma. According to the group, Muslims are dominating the economy by taking over Buddhist shops, wrongfully acquiring  Buddhist land, and abusing and stealing Buddhist women to achieve a Muslim majority. To address these “problems”, 969 is openly advocating for vaguely defined population control measures in order to maintain Burma’s Buddhist majority. 969 has received approximately 2.5 million petition signatures in favour of its aggressive anti-inter-marriage campaign.  The petition was also recently endorsed at a meeting of Buddhist leaders which implies the motion will be recommended to parliament[iv].

 Unlike many radical groups, Wirathru embraces the depiction of himself and 969 as extremist movement. Speaking to the BBC he said, “At first the word extremist felt very bitter but later it became sweet. I have a deep love for this country”[v]. In the same interview, Wirathu also remarked that  “when alone Muslims usually behave well” but “in large packs they hunt on other animals”[vi].

 The danger of Wirathu’s comments is further compounded by his “celebrity monk” status.  At 969 public speaking events, the crowds that come to see Wirathu are often in the hundreds. DVDs of past speeches and Wirathu’s written works are readily available. At a speaking event attended by the BBC, there was also a large display of highly graphic images of people allegedly killed in past clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, further encouraging a culture of distrust and hatred[vii]. Stickers with the 969 prayer wheel insignia were also available. Buddhist shopkeepers are encouraged to display them in their windows to encourage loyalty to Buddhist stores, effectively introducing a culture of segregated shopping.

 969 also appears to be increasingly dedicated to fostering a greater audience in Burma and beyond via the internet. A keyword search for “Ashin Wirathu” on YouTube reveals pages of recorded speeches.  His book, The Guilty Side of the Burmese Regime, is also available on Amazon.com with the embarrassing approved biographical description; “well respected monk…active in movement for freedom of religion and human rights”[viii].  In June 2013, a Facebook fan page was also created for Wirathu. The page has 1470 “likes”, and the comments display a polarizing exchange between supporters and critics. Many of the offensive comments posted about Burma’s Muslims echo details from the 969 anti-Muslim narrative including that Buddhists are overwhelmingly under attack from Muslims. For example poster “Cat Ji” commented that Buddhists, “are bullied in every town…every single word he [Wirathu] says is true”[ix]. It remains unclear whether the fan page was created by 969. The dispersion of 969’s anti-Muslim narrative across a variety of online platforms underscores the extremity of the group’s message. That such a discourse exists on three well known websites without controversy is also arguably indicative of a continued lack of awareness or attention to Burma’s Buddhist extremism problem from the international community.  

 However technology is also being used to raise awareness of anti-Muslim violence in Burma. At one of the deadliest massacres in the central city of Meikhtila this past March, cell phones were used to record the horrific scene and the footage is said to clearly show Buddhist monks and the police participating in the violence[x].  Such videos have been an instrumental help to human rights groups and the media seeking to gage the situation in Burma. Yet despite this public criticism and the overwhelming posted footage of the massacres online, no formal acknowledgement of the attacks or investigation has been launched by the government[xi].

 Further troubling is the chillingly non-committal stance maintained by Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi.  In a recent interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi expressed that she does not feel the killings should be considered ethnic cleansing and stressed that “fear on both sides” is the main social problem.  Suu Kyi also commented; There’s a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great. And certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world, and in our country, too”[xii]. Suu Kyi’s statements appear to be a political tactic with the 2015 presidential election in mind. To be elected, she would need the support of the majority Buddhist population. However whether Suu Kyi will be able to run also remains to be seen. Section 59 of the constitution prevents individuals with foreign born descendants from running and was specifically entered to bar her from the presidency. So far motions to appeal the constitution have been ignored[xiii].

 In defence of her comments Suu Kyi has since stated that she “is a politician not a saint”[xiv].  However politician or not, as an iconic figure of peace inside Burma and internationally, Suu Kyi’s voice is needed in the discussion perhaps more than ever. The greatest advantage that 969 enjoys is the silence of the majority population. Fear and violence have a leader in Wirathu and despite its current overtures to democratization, the Thein Sein government has consistently demonstrated its unwillingness to intervene.  The future of Burma could very well hang on the action (or inaction) of the Buddhist majority.  Without a concerted effort to silence and discredit the fear-mongering narratives of 969 and its supporters, Burma faces the heartbreaking reality of emerging from a decades long political nightmare only to enter a new period of division and brutality.

[i] Human Rights Watch. “All you can do is prey: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State”. Human Rights Watch. April 2013. Pg 19. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/22/all-you-can-do-pray-0 (date accessed November 28, 2013).

[ii] Michaels, Samantha. “In Burma, Mixed Reactions to Suu Kyi’s BBC Statements”. The Irrawaddy. 25 October 2013. http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/burma-mixed-reactions-suu-kyis-bbc-statements.html (date accessed November 28, 2013).

[iii] Hindstrom, Hanna. “Burma president backs anti-Muslim ‘hate preacher’ Wirathu”. DVB. 24 June 2013. http://www.dvb.no/news/politics-news/burma-president-backs-anti-muslim-‘hate-preacher’-wirathu/28955 (date accessed November 28, 2013).

[iv] Heart and Soul. “969: How Burma’s Buddhist Monks Turned on Islam”. The BBC. 1 September 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fnz3d (date accessed November 28, 2013)

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[ix] https://www.facebook.com/AshinWirathu (date accessed December 1, 2013).

[x] Heart and Soul. “969: How Burma’s Buddhist Monks Turned on Islam”. The BBC. 1 September 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fnz3d (date accessed November 28, 2013)

[xi] Pittman, Todd. “Massacre Of Muslims In Myanmar Ignored”. The Huffington Post. 13 June 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/06/massacre-muslims-myanmar_n_3554547.html (date accessed December 8, 2013).

[xii] Michaels, Samantha. “In Burma, Mixed Reactions to Suu Kyi’s BBC Statements”. The Irrawaddy. 25 October 2013. http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/burma-mixed-reactions-suu-kyis-bbc-statements.html (date accessed November 28, 2013).

[xiii] Pederson, Rena. “Things are Changing in Burma-or Are They?” The Huffington Post, 3 December 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rena-pederson/things-are-changing-in-bu_b_4380090.html (date accessed December 3, 2013).

[xiv]DVB. “I’m a politician not a saint, says Suu Kyi”. DVB 28 November 2013 https://www.dvb.no/news/im-a-politician-not-a-saint-says-suu-kyi-burma-myanmar/34733 (date accessed December 4 2013)