In Myanmar, Buddhist Extremists Whip Up Anti-Muslim Hate
The 969 Movement considers most of the world its enemy
The 969 Movement, a grassroots, leaderless group of monks promoting Buddhism and militant nationalism throughout Myanmar, may surprise the country’s recent tourists with its anti-Islamic rhetoric.
Many longtime observers, however, consider the movement another example of how religious extremism remains a serious problem in Myanmar.
It’s not uncommon for minority groups in this hugely diverse country to have suffered from discrimination. Christians among the Kachin and Karen ethnic groups certainly have. But 969 has focused on Myanmarese Muslims, and the Rohingya in Rakhine state, in particular.
Today, many Rohingya live in squalid refugee camps, which I saw for myself with the help of a smuggler. Now I wanted to talk to monks affiliated with the 969 Movement directly — and hear from the Muslim activists who fear them.
The movement’s identifier “969,” referring to numbers associated with Buddhist rituals and teachings, is an attempt to challenge “786,” which Muslims use across Southeast Asia to denote the Basmala — “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.”
During the course of my interviews, I learned how opinions could vary within the movement from the moderate to the reactionary. However, it’s hard to see how Myanmar’s Muslims could have inspired a movement often cited for Islamophobia, despite 969’s claims.
“The 969 Movement appeared because every nationality has a religion and we are protecting ours,” said Nandaw Batha, a member of 969 in Sittwe, Rakhine state’s capital city. “Other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are coming to Myanmar and encouraging people to convert through bribery or threats.”
“Compared to the rest of the world, our country is very poor, and the law of the government is very weak. At the same time, many religions are coming to Myanmar. When they offer money, the people will change their religions because they are poor.”
According to Nandaw and other 969 monks, religious pluralism is part of a historical and international conspiracy to destroy Buddhism in Myanmar. Muslims are the principle antagonists and — according to Buddhists in Rakhine state who have become a cause célèbre of the movement — the Rohingya even more so.
Termed “Bengalis” by Myanmarese who claim that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they appear in much of 969’s rhetoric.
“We just targeted Bengalis who are terrorizing ethnic Rakhine,” Wirathu, a Mandalay-based monk accepted by some of the news media as a spokesman for 969, told Agence France-Presse. “We are just preaching to prevent Bengalis entering the country and to stop them insulting our nationalities, language and religion.”
Many Buddhists in Rakhine state and the Myanmarese government fear that Muslims will change Myanmar’s controversial, delicate demographics. Others have emphasized supposed Rohingya revolutionary movements and terrorist organizations, such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization.
“The world must see the situation for what it is,” Nandaw warned me. “If the Bengalis return to Bangladesh and form fighting groups like the RSO and attack us, we are not afraid to defend ourselves. The Myanmarese government is not afraid to defend itself.”
This is a reference a wave of sectarian violence that occurred three years ago. According to many Rohingya and their supporters, Buddhists expelled thousands of Muslims from Sittwe after Buddhist and Muslim rioters burned one another’s houses and shops.
But much of 969 has sought to separate itself from the discriminatory violence for the which the Myanmarese military, the Tatmadaw, has become notorious. While the Tatmadaw continues to oppress and persecute Rohingya in northern Rakhine state, a 969 monk in Mrauk U, a city in the center of the state, disapproved of the Tatmadaw’s methods.
“The 969 Movement has existed as long as Buddhism has, and we are here to create world peace,” Pin Ya Wan Tha said. “We do not want violence. If I killed someone, I would no longer be a monk. We are only here to guide people on the right path.”
Even Wirathu, 969’s spiritual leader who appeared in a Time article as “the face of Buddhist terror,” has pledged to promote peace. Yet 969 members continue to profess belief in a supposed anti-Buddhist Islamic conspiracy.
“There are four religions in Myanmar — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam,” Pin Ya continued. “The Christians and Hindus do not cause us any problems. It is only the Muslims. We see what is happening in the world. Because of their religion, they seek to expand their faith. Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan — these were once Buddhist countries. This cannot happen to Myanmar.”
According to fellow 969 monk San Daung Ba Tha, the Rohingya’s presence is just the latest opportunity for the Muslim world to threaten Buddhism.
“Before, military intelligence was very powerful here, so some wealthy Bengalis paid the military to stay here,” he said, becoming angrier as he spoke. “The Bengalis want to occupy more land and rape the beautiful Rakhine ladies they see. The situation is like a man having his ox stolen, then being accused of stealing it himself. The Bengalis came to our land, yet they accuse us of stealing it from them.”
For 969, most of the world is an enemy — the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations and even the Tatmadaw. I would have asked him whom 969 members could trust except the question likely would have only angered him further.
Hoping to collect opinions from a place less affected by religious rivalry and strife, I traveled from Sittwe to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. My interpreter, Sai Thant Zin Phyo, took me to 969’s regional headquarters at Inn Sein Ywarma.
That’s where I met Kyaw Sein Win, project manager for the movement’s Group on Protection of Race and Religion.
“Before the British came to Myanmar, there were some animists and Muslims, but more appeared later,” he started, offering us tea. ‘There have been some religious conflicts in Myanmar recently. We seek to resolve these conflicts peacefully and within the law.”
Though Kyaw Sein alluded to Islamic expansionism as other 969 members had, he admitted that Muslims had lived in Myanmar before its predecessor, Burma, had joined the British Raj.
I hoped for a more moderate perspective compared to what 969 members back in Rakhine state had said. But he soon complained how, despite “wonderful hospitality from the government and people of Myanmar,” Muslims were conspiring to seize the country by the year 2100 because seven plus eight plus six — as in 786 — equals 21.
I refrained from asking Kyaw Sein whether the Buddhists would retake Myanmar by 2400 because nine plus six plus nine equals 24.
After meeting 969 in Yangon, Sai told me that 969 was aware of the controversy around it. “The group’s purpose is to protect the Bamar race and the Buddhist religion,” he said. “It is up to different individuals to decide if 969 is extreme or moderate or nonsensical, depending on what the group or prominent members of the group say and how they act.”
“There are already many opinions mentioned in the media, mostly portraying 969 as an extreme group. I think 969 is aware of what is being said about its members and trying to calm down and maintain a nonviolent way if they are to call themselves a Buddhist group.”
I agreed with my interpreter, but wondered how much 969’s supposed nonviolence mattered if — as its critics claimed — it represented an Islamophobic hate group. Buddhists can provide balanced opinions without fearing the persecution that Muslims in Rakhine state and the rest of Myanmar experience.
In Yangon, I met with a Rohingya activist whom 969 often threatens. The activist asked to remain anonymous, voicing fears that the movement represented only part of a greater Buddhist reaction to the Muslim world.
“In truth, 969 is a creation of the government to create unrest and violence whenever it is necessary to gain the support of the untra-nationalst Buddhists and laymen of Buddhist society,” he said.
“The movement’s weekly journal is openly campaigning not to grant citizenship to Rohingya, labeling them ‘African crabs’ — Bengali illegal immigrants inferior to the Bamar race. Their writings are chilling, full of hatred and racism. Now they are openly campaigning and pressuring all political parties of Burma not to field Muslim candidates in the coming election.”
To back up his point, he noted 969 has declared that it will solicit voters for candidates who come out openly against Muslims. The group has also influenced legislation restricting the rights of the Muslim population.
The movement’s critics rarely back their arguments that the Myanmarese government supports 969 with more than circumstantial evidence, but that government has failed to defend Myanmar’s Muslims from 969 all the same.
Kyawmyo Topwin, a Buddhist student from Sittwe University, challenged 969’s claim to represent his ideals, his religion and his country.
“I don’t think any kind of hate speech is in line with Buddhist teachings,” he messaged me. “The 969 activists might be sincere patriots trying defend the country against Islamization. But the way they go about it makes the tensions worse.”
Two non-969 monks from Sittwe gave me different opinions of the movement. “It is an organization that monks in Myanmar made together to propagate the teachings of the Buddha in Myanmar and prevented Buddhism from being destroyed as in Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan,” monk Bhikkhu Neeya said 0f 969.
But he failed to explain how Muslim immigrants could have destroyed Buddhism in India, a Hindu-majority country. The other non-969 monk, Thi Rein Da, countered. “I disapprove of 969,” he said. “It’s not helping the situation. It’s making the situation worse.”
As Myanmarese Buddhists debate whether what some call “a hate group” and others “a resistance movement” represents them, Myanmarese Muslims wait for outsiders to intervene against 969.
“The Buddhists have 969,” the Rohingya activist told me. “We have no one.”