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)

Out of the shadows: Anti-Semitism in the streets of Hungary

Contrary to the popular saying, historians if asked will often tell us that history does not repeat itself. However, this is not to say that how we understand the past does not affect the present. To paraphrase esteemed historian Margaret MacMillan, history can serve as helpful guide to the present however the potential “uses and abuses” of history are endless and call for careful consideration[i].

Internationally celebrated Hungarian composer Ivan Fischer has recently debuted his opera The Red Heifer, which he hopes will help challenge the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary that has occurred in recent years. The opera is based on an infamous Hungarian blood libel from the 19th century in which a group of Jews were falsely accused of murdering a young Hungarian girl. A cautionary tale against the perils of prejudice, The Red Heifer represents a positive use of history to comment on contemporary affairs. Speaking to The New York Times, Fischer said the increased popularly of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party spurred him into action[ii].

Jobbik, in contrast, manipulates history in ways that encourage social discrimination to achieve its political aims. Originally founded as an extremist youth group in 1999, Jobbik established itself as a political party in 2003, and became the third largest party in the 2010 parliamentary elections with an openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma platform. While there are innumerable factors that have contributed to Jobbik’s increased popularity, one of the most important appears to be the party’s mobilization of the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism”.  Since the 1919 revolutions in Central Europe, supporters of the myth have traditionally perceived and portrayed Communism in Hungary as a political occupation or conspiracy directed by and serving “Jewish interests”[iii]. In its simplest terms, “Jeudo-Bolshevism” equates Hungarian nationalism with being anti-Communist (counter-revolutionary) and anti-Semitic. According to historian Eliza Ablovatski, “anti-Semitism was not only used to justify anti-Jewish violence in the counterrevolution, but anti-Semitic ideology actually held the counter-revolution together”[iv]. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, she continues, provided a “seemingly coherent political and historical narrative” which unfortunately continues to resonate today[v].

A recent succession of troubling events in Hungary suggests that the 2010 electoral shift to the right marks a progression towards a normalization of anti-Semitism in the public sphere. In May 2013, Hungary captivated the attention of the international media when hundreds of Jobbik supporters and Hungarian “ultra nationalists” protested the Jewish World Congress Meeting, which was held in Budapest[vi]. In November 2012, deputy group leader of Jobbik, Marton Gyongyosi, caused a scandal after publically requesting that a list of all Hungarian officials of Jewish origin be compiled since they pose a potential “national security risk”[vii]. This volatile sentiment also fits into the “Judeo-Bolshevik” myth that Jews do not have roots and are not truly Hungarian. The Hungarian government has recently hired a well known American public relations specialist which suggests it is aware the situation is becoming worse[viii]. However, the lack of government intervention into the increasing depictions of far-right support in daily life throughout the country may indicate their efforts continue to be merely cosmetic.

In May 2013, a Budapest street was named after openly anti-Semitic Hungarian author Cecil Tormay (1876-1937). According to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, Tormay’s work was highly influential amongst the political leadership of Hungary during the 1940s[ix]. Despite appeals to the mayor for the signs removal, no action has yet been taken[x]. Similar far-right authors from the 1940’s such as Nazi supporter József Nyírő have also been reportedly added to the Hungarian curriculum[xi].  Despite being one of the most controversial figures in Hungarian history, former state leader (1920-1940) Miklos Horthy is also being re-written into daily life in Hungary.  In what The Economist referred to as a “controversial Renaissance”, commemorations to Horthy have been unveiled throughout the country, including a statue in Csókakő, an honorary plaque at Horthy’s college, and the renaming of the town square in Gyömrő [xii].

 The implied permanence of these changes to Hungary’s educational and physical landscapes amidst what appears to be at best a growing indifference towards anti-Semitism, is ominous. The unquestioned re-integration of such social and political figures in Hungarian history could also be used to support Jobbik’s misrepresentations of Hungarian history. Despite the negative international coverage such events have received, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said the power to make decisions regarding such monuments lies with the local governments[xiii]. A hands off approach does not bode well for social unity and given that Orbán’s Fidesz party will likely need to court far-right support in order to maintain a majority in the upcoming 2014 elections, far right politics in Hungary are poised to benefit from further leniency in coming months.

Notes

[i] MacMillan, Margaret. “In conversation with Allen Greg, the Uses and Abuses of History”. TVO. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT3DVexxa3U (date accessed October 31st, 2013)

[ii] Donadio, Rachel. “In Hungary a New Opera Joins the Chorus Against Anti-Semitism”. New York Times. 20 October 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/arts/music/in-hungary-a-new-opera-joins-the-chorus-against-anti-semitism.html?_r=1& (date accessed October 31st, 2013)

[iii] Ablovatski, Eliza.  “The 1919 Central European revolutions and the Judeo-Bolshevik myth”. European Review of History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (June 2010): 474.

[iv] Ibid, 474.

[v] Ibid, 474.

[vi] BBC News. “Jobbik rally against World Jewish Congress in Budapest” BBC, 4 May 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22413301 (date accessed October 29, 2013)

[vii] BBC News. “Hungary anti-Semitism: MP condemned over ‘list of Jews”. BBC, 27 Nov 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20510648 (date accessed October 29, 2013)

[viii] JTA. “Anti-Semitic? Us? Hungary launches PR blitz to combat racist image”. Haartz, Oct. 25, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.554364  (date accessed October 26, 2013).

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] A.L.B. “Does Hungary have a new hero?” The Economist, 18 June 2012,http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/06/hungarian-history (date accessed October 26, 2013).

[xii] JTA. “Anti-Semitic? Us? Hungary launches PR blitz to combat racist image”, Haartz. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.554364

[xiii] A.L.B. “Does Hungary have a new hero?” The Economist. http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2012/06/hungarian-history

Warning Signs: Emblem with connections to the far right worn by Dutch Members of Parliament

In coverage of European far right politics it’s important not to sensationalize the already sensational. The vulgarity of an event —such as the recent English Defence League protest in London— should not be used to cultivate a false sense of urgency that the far right is poised to overtake mainstream public opinion. To do so is to jeopardize public trust, future credibility, and potentially cause social unrest. However, the social consequences of underreporting or understating the significance of sensitive events such as these are also real. Due to the increased presence of small yet stable right-wing parties throughout Europe, there is arguably now also a greater risk of public apathy towards instances of right-wing discrimination. How to best understand and respond to rightwing politics that appear to be challenging our general conceptions of what or whom should be classified as the political far right, right-wing, or even centre-right, is becoming an increasingly complex and important discussion for European politics. Recent political events in the Netherlands appear indicative of both the change and the challenges presented by this shifting European political landscape.

Four members of the Dutch right-wing anti-immigration party, the Party for Freedom (PVV) were recently photographed wearing an emblem linked with National Socialism to a sitting of the Dutch parliament. The MPs, including one of PPV party leader Geert Wilders’ top advisors, Martin Bosma, wore emblems of the Prinsen flag. In 1937, Queen Beatrix prohibited the flag because of its connections with the National Socialist movement in the Netherlands. Dutch Neo-Nazi groups such as Volksunie and Stormfront still use the flag today[i]. Supporters of the Dutch monarchy (House of William of Orange) first carried the flag during the 80 Year’s War with Spain (1568-1648). The flag was re-appropriated by Dutch National Socialists during the 1930s as a symbolic expression of their desire to return Dutch society to the “pure” and more prosperous time of the 17th century[ii]. The 17th century is often referred to as the Dutch “Golden Age” and is the era in which the Prinsen flag was made.

The Dutch media has interpreted the PPV MP’s actions as a defiant response to criticism of the party’s recent “anti-austerity” rally during which several party members also wore the emblem. It is also important to note that several PVV supporters were spotted at the rally carrying Prinsen flags and giving the Nazi salute[iii]. So far the PVV has refused to offer an apology or explanation for the continued use of the flag by the MPs despite its well known connections with National Socialist movements. Speaking after the initial criticisms of the rally, Mr. Wilders only commented that, “it goes without saying” that his party does not support anti-Semitism[iv]. This is a disappointing and inadequate response from a public servant. Regardless of what the PPV might wish the Prisen flag to represent, the flag’s continued links to National Socialism are hurtful and relevant. To pretend otherwise is disrespectful. This is also not the first time the PVV has been made aware of the Prinsen flag’s history. In 2011, the Dutch media discovered that the flag hung throughout the PVV main offices. The revelation sparked public outrage and the flags were promptly removed[v]. Compared to 2011, the response here has been notably more subdued. While public fatigue with the PVV’s intentionally inflammatory political tactics is understandable, a growing apathy towards the party’s offensive actions is potentially just as problematic and perhaps more consequential than the PVV itself.

In the Netherlands, postcodes —which are comprised of four numbers followed by a combination of two capitalized letters—still specifically exclude the combinations SS, SA, and SD, because of their historical connotations to the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War[vi]. This is a powerful and moving testament to the importance of respecting how historical symbols effect us, and to how by understanding them we can take better care of our societies. To continue to enjoy the privileges of public office the PVV should be made to publically explain and apologize for it’s continuing provocations with the Prinsen flag. Such mobilizations of historical symbols are not without intended meaning.  While the flag’s popularity with the PVV is not likely because of its connections to National Socialism, it almost certain that the party is similarly attracted to the flag as a symbol of the return to a more “purely Dutch” Holland. This sentiment is dangerous to the harmony of Dutch society and is need of further public discussion.  It is not difficult to discern just who for the PVV, a self-described anti-immigration and anti-Islam party, does not belong inside this fictional yet precariously powerful symbol of a “better” Netherlands.

Russia’s “Anti-Gay” Law: Local Implications and Transnational Connections

It has been twenty years since homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin. Yet instead of a celebratory commemoration of progress, the anniversary was marked this June by a new law targeting homosexual “propaganda”. Commonly referred to as the “anti-gay law”, the new legislation outlaws “propaganda” of non-traditional sexual relations for minors.

But what exactly is meant by homosexual propaganda? As noted in a piece by Der Spiegel, what constitutes propaganda under the law is ambiguous. This is especially dangerous because it leaves individuals vulnerable to unpredictable and broad enforcement. Same sex public displays of affection such as handholding or kissing, gay pride parades and pride symbols could all be classified as forms of “propaganda”. In essence, the law signals the government’s desire to eliminate homosexuality from public space in Russia.

A perhaps equally dangerous consequence is the inflammatory message the law sends to Russian society that homophobia is now officially condoned by the state. According to a recent article in the Guardian, Russian gay and lesbian rights groups have already reported an increase in “homophobic vigilantism” and the number of attacks against members of the LGBT community throughout the country. A particularly sinister dimension of the problem is that homophobic Russian (and also allegedly neo-Nazi) groups are using social media to seek out potential victims. Groups such as Occupy Gerontophilia are reportedly contacting individuals online via same-sex personal ads to set up a “date”, and then brutally attacking and humiliating their victims by posting the encounter online.

While many homophobic vigilante groups predate the propaganda law, in an interview with the Guardian Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LBGT network, said these groups are now using the “anti-gay” law to justify their actions. This signals a grim new security reality for the Russian LGBT community as groups or individuals acting alone now have good reason to believe they can carry out homophobic attacks with near impunity.

 In Russia, it seems then that social media is being used as a means to transcend online and physical boundaries, and create acts of physical violence with an online public record that could leave individuals vulnerable to further attacks. This manipulation of social media to carry out physical hate crimes -in addition to online hate – is a worrisome development that requires careful observation.

Unfortunately the use of social media to create acts of online-physical homophobia also contains an emerging transnational element. According to a recent post on the New York Times blog the Lede, earlier this month posters belonging to the Italian fringe far right group the National Front, were spotted around Rome with the message “Io sto con Putin” (“I stand with Putin”). The National Front’s Facebook page displays a follow up explication of support for the new legislation, stating they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin, “has taken a courageous position against the strong gay lobby, which, by widespread action, aims to almost guilt those who are not gay”.

However social media is also a powerful tool for monitoring, reporting, and challenging such instances of “hate 2.0”. In fact, according to the aforementioned Lede article, Reuters reporter Naomi O’Leary used Twitter to break the “Io sto con Putin” story. It also notes that Italian lesbian activist and politician Imma Battaglia challenged the poster campaign message via her Twitter account by urging Italians to take the posters down.

That Russia’s “anti-gay” law has become a rallying point for likeminded individuals is a problematic development further complicated by the location of the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  In February 2014, Russia will host the winter games for the first time, and this will ensure an international spotlight will remain fixed on Russian politics in the coming months. While the international community is (rightly) concerned about the implications of the “anti-gay” law for its own citizens attending or competing in the Olympics, care is needed to ensure that enforcement of the law during the Olympics does not become a red herring. The law’s implications for the Russian LGBT community will continue long after the 2014 games, and continued vigilant observation of the situation will be critical. At the best of times, the Olympics can encourage excessive nationalism, and unwittingly or not, the Russian government has likely laid the groundwork for an extremely hostile environment for its LGBT citizens in the years to come.