A few weeks ago, Time magazine put out an issue with the provocative cover image above of Burmese monk Bhikkhu Wirathu, the leader of the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement. The linking of Wirathu’s image with terrorism has sparked a variety of responses, a few of which I will share with you all today. Before doing so, however, I would like to briefly cover the 969 Movement and general conditions folks are facing in Burma today.
The 969 Movement portrays itself as a peaceful, grassroots movement dedicated to “promoting and protecting religion.” The underlying theme of their rhetoric is the view that Islam is threatening to “overrun” Burma, and that Buddhists must stand up and “save” their way of life. Furthermore, they suggest that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) political party, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is being taken over by Muslims and “can’t be trusted.” Contrast this with the fact that Burma’s population is 90% Buddhist, and its Muslim community has no elected representation, and has spent decades in a highly marginalized position.
While the origins of the 969 Movement aren’t terribly clear, Wirathu’s release from prison in January 2012 and subsequent activism clearly escalated the group’s presence and efforts. Beginning in April 2012, boycotts of Muslim owned businesses have spread across the nation, and sympathetic lawmakers started introducing legislation sponsored by the movement. More recently, Buddhist shop owners have begun displaying 969 logos in their windows, and some also use their businesses as a place to publically air the speeches of Wirathu and others in the movement. And along the way, Buddhists have committed numerous acts of violence and murder against Muslims, actions that Wirathu and other movement leaders deny supporting, but clearly are an outgrowth of the anti-Muslim atmosphere they have inspired.
While it would be easy to just condemn Buddhist-led violence against Muslims in this situation, it’s important to note the challenges facing everyday Buddhists in Burma. After nearly five decades of military rule and international isolation, over 30% of the population lives in poverty, with many more not far behind. The unemployment rate is around 37% nationally, and well over 40% in multiple states, including Rakhine State, the center of the current conflict. In addition, women in Burma are experiencing all sorts of contradictory conditions. The horrors of entrenched sexism, human trafficking and sexual violence continue on the one hand. Alongside all of that is an increasing effort by political leaders to promote equality and power sharing amongst the sexes.
In the wake of recent government reform efforts, there has also been a corresponding expansion of international business interest in Burma. Global capitalist energy giants are aggressively pursuing Burma’s oil and natural gas reserves, fueling talk of economic recovery. In Rakhine State, all of this is further complicated by local divisions amongst the Buddhist population.
“The turmoil in Rakhine State” reports Brendan Brady from the Daily Beast, “is further complicated by hostilities between the local Buddhist population, from the Arakanese ethnic group, and the Burman majority and central government they dominate. The Arakanese were the ancestors of a small kingdom that used to control what is modern-day Rakhine State and, like many ethnic groups in Burma, they desire autonomy. Beyond ethnic pride, the Arakanese resent that Rakhine is Burma’s second-poorest state despite its natural riches – the area’s timber, oil, gas and precious metals have for decades been pillaged by the military and their cronies.”
And finally, it’s also the case that Buddhists have faced retaliation attacks from Muslims in response to some of the initial attacks.
None of this justifies massacres, the promotion of hatred, and exclusionary policies. However, it’s fairly easy to see how ripe conditions are in Burma for exploitation, and how average Buddhists there might believe the propaganda of a movement like the 969, and be spurred on to take action.
“The 969 sign encourages customers … Buddhists should go with Buddhists and Muslims should go with Muslims,” Win Hted, a 16 year old vendor from Yangoon.
“In the past, people of different races and religions peacefully coexisted. I worry that we cannot maintain this tradition and I worry that our country will no longer be peaceful,” Min Ko Naing, respected former political prisoner and democracy advocate.
“We don’t really have Muslim friends. That doesn’t mean they can’t come sit down here,” Khin Su, 60 year old tea shop owner.
“Our people want a real federal state with self determination and our share of profits from natural resources,” Than Thun, Arakanese community leader from Sittwe, Rakhine State.
“If you sell one apartment to a Muslim family, all the prices in the building will go down, “Yangoon apartment landlord Soe Nyi Nyi.
Around the world, Burmese Buddhists have had strong reactions in particular to the Time magazine cover. Following its release, President Thein Sein of Burma officially banned the issue, and went on to soft peddle the 969 movement, calling it a “symbol of peace.” Sri Lanka, which has its own history of Buddhist extremism, also banned the issue. Many Buddhists, both inside and outside of Burma, felt the cover was a direct criticism and indictment of Buddhism itself, an attack on all practitioners, not just Wirathu and his followers. Highly revered monk U Nyanissara represents this view with the following comments:
“They say the Buddhist religion is carrying out genocide, but we did nothing, not even expand our population. Ashin Wirathu is a person who shows tolerance when someone criticizes him. Our Buddhist clergy here is as strong as the Burmese army; we have 500,000 monks.”
Coming from an entirely different place, and focused on the violence being committed by Buddhists, are folks like Tint Swe, a Burmese activist living in exile in India. Critical of the 969 movement, he goes on to say:
“The Burmese are asking themselves whether the monk at the center of the Time story is a hero or a villain. [It is] regrettable that Muslim Burmese, who have lived for centuries in a peaceful manner, are forced into silence.”
San Francisco-based writer Kenneth Wong, self described as being originally from “Southeast Asia,” adds the following point:
“In Burma and its neighboring countries, the monks occupy an honored position. As emblems of the region’s religious tradition, they’re almost beyond reproach. By that, I don’t mean that they are blameless. Quite the opposite. Their special status insulates them from criticism they sometimes rightly deserve.”
My initial response to the cover, before I had done the work for these articles, was that it clearly designed to spark reactions and sell copies. The increasing font of the title, leading to a giant image of the word “Terror” under Wirathu is deliberately provocative, as is the blood red coloring present across the cover. Either they lacked an understanding of how average Buddhists might respond to such an image, or they knew full well that it would outrage some, and didn’t care. Regardless, it’s a great example of how mainstream journalism seems to serve more as source of increasing divisions and suffering amongst us, rather than as a place to learn the truth of our human experience.
In our final post, I will consider some voices for peace and reconciliation, and look at efforts to shift the tide in Burma away from its present, disastrous course. As always, your comments and reflections are welcome.