By Carlos Sardiña Galache Photography by Vincenzo Floramo
Just as Myanmar seems to be casting off its shackles, a spectre is haunting the nation – the spectre of Buddhist extremism. An intolerant branch of nationalism linked to Theravada Buddhism has violently forced its way into full view during the last year, in a period when the government is opening up both politically and economically. The 969 movement, whose stated goal is defending the Buddhist character of the nation against a purported threat of Islamisation, is the vanguard of this trend. The longstanding sectarian divisions in the country have been deepened, and 969 is providing at least a breeding ground to the violent anti-Muslim attacks that have taken place in some cities during the past year.
The worst incidents took place in March in Meiktila, a town with a population of 100,000 in central Myanmar. After two days of violence, unrestrained by security forces, huge swathes of the town were left razed to the ground, at least 43 people had been killed and about 18,000 people were displaced from their homes. As in subsequent riots, it was the Muslims who bore the brunt of the violence.
Meanwhile, in the east of the country, the 969 symbol is ubiquitous in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon state. Stickers bearing the brightly coloured emblem are plastered in shops, on taxis and motorcycles. It is a decoration that is now found in many of Myanmar’s cities.
Everything seems peaceful in Mawlamyine, a strongly Buddhist city with a sizeable Muslim population, although its recent history is not untainted by outbursts of sectarian violence: the city witnessed a wave of anti-Muslims riots in 1983, which rapidly spread to other parts of Myanmar. That was one of several such episodes in the country during five decades under a military regime that, at times, used the sectarian divisions as a survival strategy to deflect the attention of the population from more pressing issues.
The 969 symbol was designed in one of Mawlamyine’s monasteries, where it is claimed that the movement was born last year. The designer of the logo and secretary of the organisation is Ashin Sada Ma, the 37-year-old abbot of the Mya Sadi monastery on the outskirts of the city.
In an office bursting with the stickers, pamphlets and other material that will be distributed in order to advance the 969 movement, Ashin Sada Ma discussed its meaning and purpose. The numbers of the logo refer to the three jewels of Buddhism: the nine attributes of the Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings and the nine attributes of the sangha, the monastic community.
“This number has been used for more than 30 years in our country,” he said. “But we only launched this logo last year. In the modern age, the young people don’t know the jewels of Buddhism; this logo is designed to remind them. At least they can learn about this with the logo.”
The symbol was officially launched on October 30, Full Moon day of thadingyut, one of the main festivities of the Myanmar calendar. Shortly before that, a wave of murderous anti-Muslim violence had engulfed Rakhine state following an initial outbreak in June. The main victims were the ethnic Rohingya, regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the Myanmar government and considered one of the most persecuted groups in the world by the United Nations. Hundreds were killed and thousands are now confined in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, in what Human Rights Watch has termed a state-sanctioned campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
Ashin Sada Ma holds a different opinion. “For the last year, there has been a lot of conflict in western Myanmar between Bengalis [the name given by many Myanmar to the Rohingya] and the ethnic Rakhines [the Buddhist ethnic group that comprises the majority in Rakhine state],” he said. “Lots of Bengalis are migrating to Myanmar. If they come, they can influence easily our country. So this symbol and campaign’s purpose is to defend ourselves. I fear that some Bengali Muslims are terrorists and have a mission to Islamise our country.”
Like other monks, Ashin Sada Ma has toured the country spreading the message of 969. He claims that the organisation does not operate at the national level, but that its various branches work independently in different states and divisions. “In other places, they will spread the symbol on their own. Other townships use the logo for their own purposes,” he explained.
The most visible face of 969 is Ashin Wirathu, a monk who has become famous in Myanmar and abroad for his vitriolic anti-Muslim speeches. His fame was further enhanced when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June, under the headline, “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. This has sparked protests against Time in Myanmar.
Wirathu was detained in 2003, accused of instigating a wave of anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar and was released under an amnesty in 2012. Now he seems to enjoy the protection of the government. The Time issue with his portrait has been banned in Myanmar, while President Thein Sein’s office stepped in to defend him and condemned the magazine in a statement published on its website.
Since his release, Wirathu has been freely touring the whole country delivering his firebrand speeches. The violence in Meiktila took place four months after he travelled there and shortly after a video containing one of his speeches, in which he warned that Muslims were taking over the town, was widely distributed.
In early April, shortly after the Meiktila clashes, Wirathu was sat on a chair in Maesoyin monastery, Mandalay, as he expounded his theories about a “Muslim conspiracy” devised to conquer Myanmar. With several huge portraits of himself looking down on him, the 45-year-old monk explained how he discovered this conspiracy in 1996, when a monk who had recently converted from Islam gave him a document that had supposedly been circulated within the Muslim community. Wirathu claims that it laid out plans to Islamise Myanmar, which includes the economic conquest of the country, as well as marrying Buddhist women in order to force them to convert to Islam and give birth to as many Muslim children as possible.
“If Buddhists don’t do anything to stop it, the whole country will be like the Mayu region in Rakhine state [an area mostly populated by Muslim Rohingya] by 2100,” Wirathu warned.
He also has a clear idea of steps that can be taken to solve the “Muslim problem”. “Buddhists can talk with Muslims, but not marry them; there can be friendship between them, but not trade,” he said.
In order to prevent such instances, Wirathu recently proposed a law restricting marriages between Buddhist women and men of other religions. The idea has created much controversy in Myanmar and has been endorsed by a great number of monks.
Wirathu went on to deny that his speeches incited any riots and even argued that, if Buddhists listened to him, they would not commit any acts of violence. Ashin Sada Ma also denied any responsibility should be taken by the 969 movement, and pointed out that no incidents have taken place in Mon state so far, despite it being the birthplace of the movement.
It is believed that 969 is a response to the number 786, used by many Muslims in Myanmar to represent the sentence, “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate.” The number is displayed in many shops, and some Buddhists note that the three figures add up to 21, claiming it is a code that points to Muslims’ supposed intention to conquer Myanmar and the whole world during the current century.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an imam at one of Yangon’s largest mosques vehemently denied these allegations and explained that Muslims merely use the number 786 to “ask God for help and good luck”. He added that he and other imams “are calling in their sermons to the Muslim youth to keep calm and not respond to the provocations of the Buddhist terrorists”.
The imam accused elements of the government of being behind the 969 movement and the recent wave of violence – a claim forcefully denied by both Ashin Sada Ma and Wirathu. It is a suspicion shared by many, given the potential benefits to the government of continued instability: it allows the army to present itself as a defender of Buddhism, ensures a military presence remains a necessity in strategically important regions, and provides an opportunity to side with the Rakhine and other Buddhist minorities, like the Shan or the Mon, ahead of the 2015 election.
Of course, not all of Myanmar’s monks support 969 and its anti-Muslim rhetoric. Some are encouraging a peaceful coexistence between both communities.
One such monk is Ashin Pum Na Wontha, a 56-year-old with a long history of political activism. He is a member of the Peace Cultivation Network, an organisation that promotes dialogue and understanding among different faiths, and one of the few people to be found in Myanmar who openly defends the right of Rohingyas to be treated as legitimate citizens of the country.
“Both Wirathu and the 969 movement receive financial support from the [government’s] cronies,” he said. “Some Muslim businessmen have huge assets in different industries, especially in the central regions of the country, and the cronies covet them. The military is also involved in stoking the violence, in order to create instability.”
With the 969 movement spreading rapidly throughout the country – without any opposition from the government – it is impossible to gauge exactly how many monks support 969 and how many oppose it. It is clear, however, that pro-969 monks are receiving more media attention, both within Myanmar and abroad. At any moment, the anti-Muslim violence threatens to spiral out of control: an outcome that remains the direct consequence of 969 propaganda.