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The 969 Movement and Burmese Anti-Muslim Nationalism in Context

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.  

Here are some voices of Burmese Buddhists from various sides of the situation.

“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.

Comments (14)

  • Justin S Whitaker

    Great article, Nathan. It’s wonderful to see more of the socio-economic background being brought into the discussion instead of stirring up the old question of how people of “peaceful religion X” do such horrible things. Two tiny points of correction. First, I don’t see Burmese monks using the Pali title “Bhikkhu” – instead they use Ashin or U. Second, Burma’s major city and former capital is Yangon (or Rangoon, but not Yangoon).

  • nathan

    Thanks for the comment and corrections Justin. I wondered about Bhikkhu, but left it because a few articles had used it.

  • Kenneth

    Hi Nathan!

    TIME’s cover, I grant you, is deliberately designed to provoke, as many periodicals competing for readers’ attention often do. But I must say the article also raises valid points–the rise of radical Nationalism that hides behind Buddhism’s facade in Burma. True, not all monks share Wirathu’s anti-Muslim views. (Thitagu is a great example of a more moderate voice in the Burmese Sangha.) But that fact that a law that seeks to ban interfaith marriage between Buddhists and Muslims was discussed and proposed in a monastic convention involving 200 monks is a good indicator something has gone terribly wrong with the monastic order in Burma. Very few Burmese would say it public, because the society treats the monks as a sacred symbol beyond reproach. And I think that level of reverence is always a danger because it discourages self-examination and breeds arrogance. I personally am glad TIME brings up the troubling developments in Burma, even if I disagree with the manner in which it’s delivered. The article is bound to be divisive, intentional or otherwise, because it deals with a topic the local population doesn’t want exposed.

    Thanks for writing about this issue! I look forward to read the sequel to this article. (For the record, I was born and raised in Rangoon, Burma. I spent the first 20 years of my life there before immigrating to the U.S. And I’ve been back in the country as recently as last November.)

  • Winston Blake

    Buddhism comes from India and conquered all of Asia without killing anyone. This is why the Marxists and Maoists murdered our monks and desecrated our temples when they invaded Mongolia after WW2, yet we still teach our martial arts all over the world.

    The Dalai Lama pretends to speak for all Buddhists like the Pope pretends to speak for all Christians, neither one of them has a heart like the Great Temujin who came down off the Mongolian steppes.

    I am a Silat… I am from the order of the dragon kings, the cobra that adorns the Lord Shiva and covers the Buddha praying in the rain. Shaolin shall be avenged… you arrogant ignorant people cannot define the Buddhist because it is all about self empowerment and self realization.

    The Chinese emperor of this reigning Maoist dynasty has 200 military aged men he can turn into soldiers. The Chinese people want nothing more than to educate, feed and raise their children in peace and prosperity. Most of them rightfully hate their government and they do know our ways.

    A rising Buddhist army scares the living shit out of the greedy tyrants of the world because we rise from within, our weapons are sharper because they are honed with truth, not the corrupt lies of the rabid desert cult dogs….

    Buddha wasn’t a Christian, but Jesus would have been a good Buddhist and he was a Jew, who was murdered for driving the Jewish bankers out of the temple… Moses said that our rights do not come from an earthly monarch, yet Jews deposed their Yahweh and chose to be ruled by the appetites of men, now their Yahweh’s wrath rains down upon them like the rockets of Hamas.

    Marxism is a religion from a dead Jew just like Christianity is, another rabid desert cult… Cultural Marxism is the weapon of the decadent enemy…

    YOUR SAN FRANCISCO BASED WRITER KENNETH WONG AND THE WRITER FROM THE DAILY BEAST BRENDAN BRADY CITED IN THE ARTICLE – - ARE LIARS FROM THE RABID DESERT CULT…

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Kenneth, ” I personally am glad TIME brings up the troubling developments in Burma, even if I disagree with the manner in which it’s delivered. The article is bound to be divisive, intentional or otherwise, because it deals with a topic the local population doesn’t want exposed.”

    Yes, I definitely agree. And in order to change things, things need to be stirred up.

    What did you see when you back there last November? Did you witness any of the 969 movement’s rallies or activities? And/or have any conversations with monastics?

    Since most of our readers and writers, myself included, don’t have first hand experience with what’s happening in Burma, it would be great to hear more firsthand accounts.

    Thanks for coming over and commenting. And for writing in such detail about these issues.

  • Kenneth

    Hi Nathan! When I was back home in November 2012, the 969 movement hasn’t quite gained momentum, and the sectarian violence was still confined to the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict in the west. Months later, it would spread geographically to the midland regions, and the targeted population would also grow to include many Muslim communities, not just the migrant Rohingyas.

    I grew up on a street with a Hindu temple on one end, a mosque on another (sadly, the mosque has since been burned down). In my childhood, there was a lot more commingling between kids of different faiths. In my recent visit, I noticed that was no longer the case.

    I had a lot of conversations with devout Buddhist friends and some clerics (one monk regularly came to collect alms at my cousin’s house, where I spent a lot of times during my stay). I brought up the issue of segregation of women: the fact that, in famous pagodas like Shwe Dagon in Rangoon and Maha Muni in Mandalay, certain areas are considered off-limit to women. And I brought up the subordinate status of Buddhist nuns: for reasons that have never been made clear to me, Burmese Buddhist hierarchy places a young male novice (no matter his years of ordination) above a veteran Buddhist nun (who has been ordained for many years). Invariably, such conversations made my friends and some monks defensive. They asked me to accept these protocols as “traditions.” It gives me insight into the troublesome aspects of Buddhism in my homeland.

    Burmese monks like to discuss religion. They delight in it, in fact. But I’m not sure they like being challenged or questioned. The Burmese custom of deferring to the elders also makes it difficult to hold substantive debates with monks.

    Sometimes I wonder: How would Prince Siddhartha react to the preachings of Wirathu? Would he have been in favor of banning someone like Aung San Suu Kyi from the inner sanctum of some temples because she happens to be a woman?

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Thank you for giving us some more insight Kenneth. It’s sad to know that folks aren’t interacting across religious traditions as they used to. Troubling.

    “How would Prince Siddhartha react to the preachings of Wirathu? Would he have been in favor of banning someone like Aung San Suu Kyi from the inner sanctum of some temples because she happens to be a woman?”

    Siddhartha had some issues with sexism back in the day. Needing to be pressured to allow women into the original sangha, for example. But the kind of rigidity you speak of happening in Burma – I have a hard time imagining the Buddha going along with that.

  • Anshul

    What to do? why islam is so bad? what the other communities can do?
    Just one question to every one… what will you do if your sister will be kidnapped and raped by three muslim men and killed brutally. It seems very easy when we look at instances from far away but always take decision by coming into the shoes of the person who bears the burns……………

  • John

    Buddhism has been the only belief that didn’t (or had very little) extremists, until Wirathu came along and started preaching hate. Buddhism is very peaceful and it would be a shame if it started having lots of extremist groups. The irony of what Wirathu is that he’s trying to stop a Buddhist nation being run by religious extremists, but the method he’s using is what’s creating the extremists on both sides. He should be disrobed, he doesn’t follow the Buddhist way. It’s against the Buddhist way to kill.

  • D.Pereira

    What few people discuss is the tactics used by Muslims when they are the minority in any country. They scream and cry for “rights” beyond what the populace have -then when their numbers become imposing they threaten the culture and wellbeing of entire nations. Just look to the problems in Britian or nordic nations that have been over run. They do not want to assimilate into the culture…they want to subvert and destroy and will lie to face about how peaceful and innocent Muslims are -The Monks are not fools…they are peaceful but they will defend their nation and people from this creeping threat to civilized existance.

  • Khamh Bawi Lian

    Keneth
    Reexamine your words, “Marxism is a religion from a dead Jew just like Christianity is, another rabid desert cult… Cultural Marxism is the weapon of the decadent enemy…” You words necessarily means Christianity is death. As an experienced person, I wished you write politely.

  • Max Langley

    The preceding comments all express valid points. Howrver, for basic understanding nearly all are derivative. For instance, Lord Buddha was a Nepali kshatriya, born in Lumbini. This is important to note becausr, although He was not a Brahmana, He introduced vegetarianism into India. Brahmanas during the then Vedic period offered live animals in sacrifice. Lord Buddha on confronting non-Buddhist pandits. Lord Buddha’s successors, and their followers, do not hold thereby the unvarying requirement for non-violence, as an individual possesses the right of self- defense against an aggresspr–become an obligation if one factors in the defense for one’s patents’ sacrifices for oneself as a familial investment. I asked on the 969 website that the Bhikku declare himself Bodhisat because he clearly in violation of ordinances of the Pratimokha, and nerds very much to clarify his position, with respect to the Pratimokha and his ordination.

  • mastertt

    He is a psycho monk…

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