Burma | Preachers of Hate

Virulent Buddhist extremism threatens the country’s Muslim population

Fire during riots in Meiktila, Burma, in March. Police did nothing to stop the Buddhist mob from massacring Muslims. YANGON / XINHUA PRESS / CORBIS
01 August, 2013

ON THE MORNING OF 21 MARCH, an armed mob led by men dressed in the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks surrounded a building in the township of Mingalar Zayon, in the city of Meiktila in central Burma, also known as Myanmar. Inside were around 80 Muslims who had taken shelter there the previous day, fearing for their lives after the town witnessed an eruption of violence. Thousands of Buddhists gathered on a road overlooking the township, watching the swelling mob.

Trouble had begun in the city on the morning of 20 March, with a heated squabble between a Buddhist woman and a Muslim gold shop owner. In retaliation, later that day four Muslim men killed a Buddhist monk as he rode through a traffic intersection. As word of the killing spread, Buddhist mobs gathered and torched Muslim homes and shops.

On hearing the news of unrest in his town, 72-year-old Win Htein, one of the most prominent members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), had rushed back on 20 March from the country’s capital Naypyidaw, where he sits in the lower house of parliament. On the morning of 21 March, when Win reached the building, at around 7.30 am, he found the crowd already out of control, slaughtering the Muslims who had sought shelter inside. “Each time a Muslim was killed, the crowd cheered and applauded,” he recounted. “The mob dragged people and killed them with swords and bamboo sticks. During the half hour I stayed there, seven people were killed before my eyes. I couldn’t do anything, they wouldn’t listen!” Twenty Muslims were killed by the mob on that morning, Win said, and the police did nothing to stop the slaughter. In all, the clashes in Meiktila over those days claimed more than 40 lives.

When I visited Meiktila at the end of June, three months after the violence, I found that entire quarters of the city had been destroyed. In their place were fields of blackened ruins and wastelands of metal and rubble over which towered burnt trees. The city’s mosques remained closed, and around 12,000 displaced people still lived in five refugee camps under police protection. When I visited one of these camps, police prevented me from entering, and even forbade refugees from talking to me through the fence; the atmosphere was that of a prison.

In the township of Thayagone, in Meiktila, I met Khin Maung Taint, a Muslim trader, in the shady backyard of a wooden house. “At night, we sleep terribly,” said Khin. “We are wondering when they will be coming. It is dark, it is scary. Our ear pays attention to every little noise.” After the attacks, he and his neighbours cut holes in the fences separating their houses so that, in case of fresh violence, people could flee through them, without having to risk their lives on the roads. Each night, some 15 men patrolled the township to protect the residents. Khin was distraught that he and other Muslims have lost their sense of security and belonging. “We are Burmese,” he said. “My grandfather and my grandmother were Burmese, and our religion is Islam.”

Apart from their lives, the livelihoods of Muslims in Meiktila are also under threat. With the city’s Buddhists choosing to boycott Muslim businesses since the clashes, Khin’s neighbour Soe Myint, a truck driver, has been out of work for three months, with no one hiring him to transport goods. “The Buddhists in Meiktila represent the overwhelming majority, what can I do?” he said. “We never had a problem with the Buddhists before,” said Zaw Win Shein, a Muslim businessman, who was also present with Khin and Soe. “We were eating together, living together. We are cousins.”

Earlier this year, however, anti-Muslim propaganda, whose origins are unclear, began to spread through the city. Win Htein recalled coming across a DVD depicting Muslims in the Rakhine state—which was racked by violence last year—carrying swords, and a pamphlet urging Muslims to resign from the NLD. Simultaneously, stickers bearing the number “969” above the lion capital of Emperor Ashoka appeared in the streets: on moto-taxis, shop windows, betel nut carts. The image is a symbol of a growing Buddhist movement—the number 969 refers to the 9 virtues of the Buddha, the 6 virtues of dhamma and the 9 virtues of the sangha. While the movement claims to be a return to Buddhist roots, it is widely accused of being a vehicle of religious hatred and brainwashing.

The Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, whose racist speeches are available on YouTube, supervises an exam at the Masoeyein Monastery in Mandalay. NICOLAS AXELROD / RUOM COLLECTIVE

The most prominent face associated with the 969 movement is that of the 45-year-old monk Ashin Wirathu—bald-headed, docile, and almost childlike in appearance. I met the saffron-robed Wirathu in the second week of June at the student’s hall of the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, the ancient royal capital, where he teaches. The walls, painted turquoise, were covered with portraits of Wirathu himself, posters of Buddha, and an image of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San. Wirathu spoke from a sofa, while we sat on the floor in front of him; he would fiddle with his phone when my translator was giving me his answers. “Muslims are fundamentally bad,” he said in his calm, soft voice. “Mohammed allows them to kill any creature. Islam is a religion of thieves. They do not want peace.” The monk’s racist rants are available on YouTube and social websites, where they have garnered thousands of views.

Wirathu, who has been a monk since he was a teenager, first attracted attention for his speeches in 1997, when he began advocating a ban on interfaith marriage. In 2003, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in jail by the military junta for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. In 2010, as part of the sweeping reforms that the country underwent, a number of political prisoners were released, Wirathu among them. He is now free to travel, speak and hold rallies. “Muslims write the 786 sign in front of their shops so that customers can avoid buying from Buddhist businesses. That is why I call for Buddhists to boycott them, and I’m hated for that,” he said. (‘786’ is a numerological reference to the first verse of the Quran, and is often used to help Muslims find halal food.) When I asked him if he was afraid of going back to prison for his speeches, Wirathu said: “The one thing that scares me more than prison is the sharia.”

A week later, I met Wimalar Biwuntha, a 41-year-old abbot in his wooden office in the Maha Myaing Periyatti monastic school in Mawlamyine, the capital of the southern Mon state, and the birthplace of the 969 movement. The previous week, Wimalar had helped draft a proposed law that would ban interfaith marriage. “Muslim men try to win the love of poor Buddhist women for their reproductive tactics,” he said. “They produce a lot of children, they are snowballing. We have a duty to defend ourselves if we don’t want to be overwhelmed.” Like Wirathu, Wimalar is convinced that Burma is falling prey to an international Islamist “secret plan”. In their view, the Muslim minority triggers sectarian riots to get sympathy funding from countries like Saudi Arabia. “What you see is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The Muslims here are backed from the outside, by more than 58 Arab countries. More and more countries are giving them money.” But Muslims offer a starkly different picture. “This is just rumour,” said Zaw Nying, the Muslim owner of a teashop in the nearby quarter of Khwin. “Recently, we had to repair parts of our mosque. We had to raise money from our community and nothing came from the outside. We weren’t even able to raise enough, so we just went ahead with what we had.”

Proponents of the 969 movement, like Wimalar, now conduct Sunday schools at prayer halls across the country to educate Buddhist children. “These are hard times,” said Wimalar. “Most of the kids and teenagers are becoming drug addicts. They don’t know how to cherish our race and religion anymore.” Despite his paranoid rhetoric, Wimalar insisted that 969 is pursuing peaceful goals. “We are not extremists,” he said. “We have never killed anyone. We don’t have suicide-bombers or training camps.” It is true that the 969 leaders have not gone on record calling for the killing of Muslims. (Wirathu was in Meiktila during the riots, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.) However, with their inflammatory rants, the monks provide an ideological framework within which acts of violence can be justified.

Those who look to Burma’s new leaders, chief among them Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to condemn the messages of the monks find that they are not emphatic enough in their opposition. “We are still waiting for [Aung Sang Suu Kyi] to say that this hate-mongering is not sustainable in the new Myanmar,” said Myo Win, the spokesperson for the Myanmar Muslim Network. “She used to be a moral leader, now she is a politician.” Elected to the lower house of parliament in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi has high ambitions for the 2015 elections, and observers believe she is taking care not to alienate the Buddhist vote bank ahead of them.

In March, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said he had received reports of “State involvement” in the violence between Buddhists and Muslims. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the State or implicit collusion and support for such actions,” he added.

The 969 monks have always denied any link with the military or the government, but my experience in the country suggested otherwise. In Mawlamyine, on the day following my meeting with Wimalar, intelligence agents showed up at my guesthouse while I was out conducting interviews. They carried with them a picture of my translator, who was from northern Burma and had never been to Mawlamyine before. The picture, I realised, had probably been given to them by an assistant of Wimalar’s, who had taken photographs during the interview, and had had many questions for the translator, such as who he was, how he was associated with me and what he did for a living.

“In Mawlamyine, the leaders of the 969 campaign are all members of the USDP,” a long-term resident of the city told me the following day, asking not to be identified. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been Burma’s ruling party since 2011, founded by the military after the formal dissolution of the junta. The overwhelming majority of the goverment, starting with president Thein Sein, comes from its ranks. Our source named several local USDP executives in the first circle of the monk Wimalar, civilians who controlled access to the founder of 969. I remembered that one person he named had sat next to me during the interview with Wimalar, introducing himself only as a textile merchant, but often interrupting the monk and speaking on his behalf.

The end of May saw violence erupt again in Burma, after a Muslim man allegedly set fire to a Buddhist woman in the town of Lashio, in the northern Shan state. The woman has since been taken under the charge of Wirathu’s assistants in Mandalay. As riots spread through the town, signs of hope remained—the town’s Manshu monastery opened its gates to more than 1,400 Muslims, sheltering them for several days from the wrath of the mobs outside, until the violence subsided and they could return to their homes, or what remained of them.