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When Buddhists Go to War

Art by Anisa Holmes

On October 1, Muslims in the coastal village of Thabyuchaing in the northwest of Burma fled into the surrounding forests as their homes were torched and left to burn by a sword-wielding Buddhist mob. Not everyone was lucky enough to escape: five Muslims, including a 94-year-old woman, were killed in the attack. The incident was an all too familiar reminder of the ethno-religious tensions and sectarian violence that continue to plague Burma’s nascent democracy. While Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese MP Aung Sung Suu Kyi has become the face of a liberalized Burma in the West, her domestic dominance is being increasingly challenged by Ashin Wirathu, a monk Time magazine described as the “face of Buddhist terror. ” Wirathu and his followers have been at the forefront of a campaign of ethnic and religious violence that has threatened to derail the country’s already fragile democratic transition.

Burma’s progress is vulnerable due to the lingering legacy of decades of military rule. The country’s first foray into democracy began in 1948, when it gained independence, bringing an end to over a century of British imperial rule. However, in 1962 a military led coup succeeded in overthrowing the civilian government, beginning a period of socialist military rule that ended in 1988. That year there was another coup establishing the State Peace and Development Council (or the military junta, as it is more commonly known) as the ruling body of Burma. The Buddhist establishment remained a bastion of Burmese national identity and security throughout this turbulent half-century. During this time, religious leaders were only occasionally critical of these successive regimes. It wasn’t until the last decade that religious leaders within various communities began to take a significant role in the country’s political development.

The 2007 Saffron Revolution demonstrated the capacity for change that these Burmese Buddhists wield. In what began as a student led protest against rising costs of living, monks across Burma began a campaign of civil resistance that brought the government to a standstill. Throughout the summer and early fall, monks marched through the cities and sat en masse in public squares and historic sites in defiance of the junta. In September, monks across the country suspended spiritual services to the military, a powerful symbolic move for a devoutly Buddhist country. When the government responded with force and brought the short-lived revolution to a bloody end, the crackdown was met with both domestic and international outcry as well as an outpouring of support — particularly for the monks who had dared to stand up to the military regime.

Burma’s history of ethnic and religious struggle extends beyond Buddhist political protest. Even before the 1962 coup, the central government had been in a near perpetual state of conflict with a variety of secessionist groups, perhaps most notably the Kachin people of northern Burma, who have been sporadically fighting a war of independence from the country since 1948. Within the last decade in particular, these conflicts have taken on a decidedly more internal character. The state of Rakhine, an epicenter of ethno-religious violence on the Bangladeshi border, has a history of Mujahedeen-inspired Muslim separatist movements. Recently, however, the violence has been predominantly Buddhist-on-Muslim. Oppression of the Rohingya, an ethnically Bangladeshi Muslim group who primarily reside in the state of Rakhine, has reached largely unprecedented levels, as Buddhist extremists have started burning Muslim holdings to the ground and forcing the Rohingya from their land.

The conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Burma appears to be ethnic cleansing in the making. Muslims make up only 4 percent of Burma’s population of approximately 55 million people. However, they are heavily concentrated in the country’s western half — comprising 40.75 percent of the total population of Rakhine  and 96 percent of the population along the border with Bangladesh. As of June this year, an estimated 200 Muslims have been killed and 150,000 have been displaced. Even more worrisome is the fact that Buddhist extremism in Burma is widespread. Other extremist Buddhist movements, such as the GAM in Aceh and the Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka are relatively minor. In Burma, however, this manifestation of radical prejudice is just the latest chapter in a history of abuses.

Muslims have long been perceived as culturally and socially separate from the rest of Burma. While the country has never been culturally or ethnically homogeneous, the Rohingya have attracted an unusually fierce vitriol due to their practice of Islam, leading to historical and systematic discrimination. The laws in place restrict the number of children they are permitted to two per couple. Even more disheartening, many Burmese see the current anti-Muslim violence as an inevitable and justified backlash against Bengali land-grabbers.  Prominent members of the Buddhist institution, especially Ashin Wirathu, have only encouraged this attitude.

Always traveling in a motorcade with 60 of his closest followers, Wirathu — the self described “Burmese bin Laden”  — is at the heart of the growing tide of anti-Islamic rhetoric. While his self-assigned title may seem something of a paradox given his mission to drive Muslims out of Burma, the charismatic 45-year-old has proven himself as masterful and adept as his namesake at inciting religious hatred. A fierce polemicist who described coexistence with Muslims as “sleep[ing] next to a mad dog,” he describes the threat posed by Muslim communities in apocalyptic terms. “They will overwhelm [Burma] and take over our country,” said Wirathu, adding that they will “make it into an evil Islamic nation.” And like bin Laden, he has a keen eye for his media presence. DVDs of his speeches are sold on street corners. An enthusiastic user of YouTube, his followers post his fiery, anti-“Islamification” sermons, which Atlantic columnist Alex Bookbinder has noted “would not be out of place at Nuremberg.”

Born in the small town of Kyaukse in central Burma, Wirathu is no stranger to controversy. In 2001, he became involved with the 969 movement, a Buddhist nationalist organization. Two years later, he was found guilty by the military junta government for giving critical speeches that allegedly incited religious conflict. In 2010, he was released from prison as part of a conciliatory gesture by the military junta, and ever since, Wirathu has come to be seen as the 969 movement’s spiritual protector and leader.

The 969 movement purports to be a non-violent organization that stands for the protection of Buddhist values and national identity in Burma. But their actions reveal that their mission is in fact a narrowly defined racial and religious jingoism. The movement has its origins in a book written in the late 1990s by U Kyaw Lwin, a religious official in the military junta. Throughout Southeast Asia, the number 786 has special significance for many Muslims as a numerical representation of the phrase “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful.” In his numerological treatise, Lwin makes the argument that Muslims are in fact conspiring to take over Burma in the 21st century — premised on the absurdly conspiratorial fact that 7 plus 8 plus 6 equals 21. The number 969 has a similar significance. It was chosen as a cosmological defense because of its allusions to the “three jewels” of Buddhism: Buddha’s nine attributes, the six principles of his teachings, and the nine attributes of monastic order. Emblems of the 969 Movement are increasingly popular throughout Burma, with supporters proudly displaying the iconography in their homes, businesses and on their vehicles. Some stores juxtapose their emblems with signs proudly claiming that they do not stock Muslim goods.

As is often the case in states with uncertain futures, minority groups are scapegoats for the nation’s economic woes. Comparisons of modern day Burma to Nazi Germany are not entirely unwarranted. Wirathu has pointed to the affluence of a few Muslims as proof that the Burmese economy is at the whim of Islam, conveniently overlooking the legacy of crony capitalism that has enriched the military administration, none of whom are Muslim.The Burmese population at large, however, has seized upon these claims, and there is swelling support for Wirathu’s call to boycott Muslim businesses. His goal is to cut off the ability of Muslims to engage in commerce. By depriving them of their means of subsistence, Wirathu and other members of the 969 movement ultimately seek to drive Muslims from the country.

As is common among ethno-nationalist movements, Wirathu’s proclaimed goal is simply to protect the purity and integrity of the Burmese state. In a February speech he warned that if Muslims are allowed to become too wealthy their “money will eventually be used against you to destroy your race and religion.”  At the same rally, Wirathu also invoked the need to protect the innocence of Burmese women who would be “coerced or even forced to convert to Islam.”  It hardly needs restating that  the protection of women is compelling rhetoric that has been used by movements from the KKK to the National Socialist party. Its efficacy in Burma, unfortunately, has been readily apparent.

This insular notion of purity is common among many Asian states due to their shared religion. Buddhism has played an influential role in many countries throughout the region, and it has particularly helped unify Burma, a country cut off from much of the world by geography and political circumstance. Despite the fairly diverse ethnic makeup of Burma, Buddhism has proven to be the country’s most significant integrating factor. Its near-complete dominance and perceived cultural integrity explain in large part the hostility displayed toward Muslims who are branded perennial outsiders. The significance of monasticism to Burmese society cannot be overstated. There are over 500,000 monks in Burma  and an additional 75,000 nuns, meaning that roughly one percent of the population is part of the Buddhist institution. Furthermore, since monastic education in Burma is free, many of the poorest families will opt to send their children to study in monasteries. Buddhist religious education is commonplace amongst all strata of society, as almost all Burmese children receive a supplementary Buddhist education akin to Sunday school. This overwhelming preponderance of not merely Buddhist observance, but also Buddhist veneration, helps to explain the religion’s central role in Burmese identity and the enormous impact that it has on average citizens.

In June 2012, Burma experienced a paroxysm of ethnic riots in Rakhine, and it’s not hard to link the corrosive influence of Buddhist institutions to the widespread violence.  While the proximate cause of the 2012 June riots was the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by a group of Rohingya Muslim men, the ensuing attacks and counterattacks by Rakhine and Rohingya communities were the inevitable product of pent-up frustration in an unequal system. Buddhist mobs in Rakhine, whipped into a frenzy by extremists like Wirathu, began indiscriminately attacking Rohingya men in a search for the perpetrators. The Rohingya responded with violence fueled by years of discrimination and neglect of their own.

In October of the same year, riots broke out again, but the cause was unclear. By the end of 2012, an estimated 168 people had been killed in the riots with a further 150,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced. While camps have been set up to aid in the resettlement process, they present only a stopgap solution, a temporary bandage for the scars of ethnic conflict. To many observers, the question is, “Why now?”

Burma stands at a precarious moment in its history. For the first time in over 50 years, democracy seems like a real possibility. However, internal and external forces have proven a stumbling block for suffrage. The discovery of vast natural resources in Burma, ranging from precious stones to fossil fuels, has elevated the democratic movement to one of global concern. Foreign actors have not undervalued Burma’s resource wealth. While the United States has approached Burma with a soft touch, China has taken a far more aggressive track, particularly in regards to securing resource extraction contracts.

Burma’s newfound riches will only stoke the flames. Militant ethno-nationalism often has arisen as a symptom of sudden resource wealth in emerging states around the world. Developing states with plentiful natural resources are often heavily exploited by foreign powers. Coupled with the possibility of enormous wealth, foreign exploitation might only produce an even more aggressive nationalism that endangers Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Mongolia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, in large part due to its massive copper and coal reserves; it’s also home to a fledgling neo-Nazi movement. As paradoxical as a Mongolian neo-Nazi movement may sound, it is no more contradictory than militant Buddhists. The Tsagaan Khass, or White Swastika, as the group is known, has tried in recent years to rebrand itself as an environmental movement looking to protect Mongolia’s resource sovereignty, and ensure that the nation’s blood is “pure.” The group’s leaders are concerned that if Mongolian society starts “mixing with the Chinese, they will swallow us up.”  The situation in Mongolia bears more than a passing resemblance to that in Burma. While the White Swastika does not have the same widespread appeal as the 969 movement, they are both indicative of how these ethno-nationalist movements develop in response to perceived threats by historical rivals, particularly during periods of uncertain economic growth. While both Mongolia and Burma have vast resource wealth, they lack domestic extractive capabilities, forcing them to rely on foreign investment. This loss of resource sovereignty produces anger and resentment, particularly in economically marginalized groups who are susceptible to the scapegoats proffered by the likes of Ashin Wirathu and the White Swastika.

While transitional instability and resource nationalism may have played a role in Wirathu’s growing support, his success is still contingent on deeply held racial and religious prejudice. The Christian minority in Burma has not been the target of hate crimes, despite being the religion of the Kachin, who have waged a decades-long war of independence. The persecution of Muslims, then, can be seen as the cumulative product of systemic and ingrained bigotry, which has been violently catalyzed by economic and political instability. In other words, there’s a reason that Buddhist attacks have focused on one ethnic minority, rather than all vulnerable groups.

Last July, a bomb exploded a few yards away from Ashin Wirathu as he delivered another sermon on the Muslim threat. Unharmed and undaunted, Wirathu has continued to deliver sermons around the country. In the last year, the 969 movement has gone from fringe extremists to a national movement with growing support. There are even fears that the current administration has intentionally allowed Wirathu’s campaign of violence to proceed unabated in order to justify continued draconian national security measures. As he capitalizes on the underlying racial and religious prejudices that have swirled to the surface of Burmese society, over 150,000 Muslims find themselves without a home. While moderate monks and more liberal citizens have begun to push back against this metastasizing violence, recent events have shown that political circumstances can lead even Buddhists astray from the path to enlightenment, and into the foreboding brambles of racial violence.

Art by Anisa Holmes

About the Author

Edward Clifford '16 is Associate World Section Manager and an associate editor of the Brown Political Review.