Myanmar’s Neo-Nazi Buddhists Get Free Rein
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 18 Nov 2013
Burma/Myanmar’s radical “969 movement” has been central in the recent brutal pogroms against minority Muslims that have left at least 40 dead and 12,000 displaced. The Buddhist monk-led group, however, cannot be understood outside of the interface between President Thein Sein’s government and the country’s racist society at large.
Nor can it be explained without examining the respective roles of a) the State, which in effect offers the country’s neo-Nazi Buddhists impunity, b) Thein Sein’s inaction, even amid indications of ethnic cleansing against minority Muslims, and c) the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition’s moral bankruptcy throughout the crisis. The orgy of violence has raised several important questions about the country’s direction and hopes for reform.
How popular and widespread is the 969 movement and how likely is it to spread throughout the country?
As a new nationalist movement with a clear message of ”racial and religious purity”, a false sense of Buddhist victimhood, and cultural and economic nationalism – not dissimilar to Germany’s Nazism in the 1930s – 969 is gaining popularity for three main reasons.
First, some of the militant Buddhist preachers from nationally well-connected Buddhist teaching colleges (such as 969 leader Wirathu) effectively scapegoat the country’s Muslims for the general economic hardships and cultural decay in society, portraying the ethnic Burmese as victims at the hands of organized Muslim commercial leeches and parasites. Second, 969 preys on the historical and popular anti-Muslim racism among the majority Buddhists. Last but not least, virtually all state institutions at all levels – including the police, intelligence agencies, the army, local civil administration and even fire departments – under Thein Sein’s management have offered this Buddhist neo-Nazi movement both impunity and passive cooperation.
What is the Naypyidaw government doing to crack down on the radical movement?
Thein Sein’s official report to parliament on the anti-Muslim violence against ethnic Rohingyas last year in western Burma/Myanmar’s Rakhine State blamed political parties and Buddhist monks for spreading ”ethnic hatred”. Yet his administration has not taken a single action against anyone who openly incited anti-Muslim hatred or ethnic hatred towards the Rohingyas. Nor has his government detained or even deterred a single Buddhist preacher of hate for acts of spreading anti-Muslim hatred in society and inciting blatant calls for phase-by-phase elimination of Muslims and their influence in society.
“Political parties, some monks and some individuals are increasing the ethnic hatred. They even approach and lobby both the domestic and overseas [Arakan] community,” Thein Sein’s report, submitted to parliament last August, said. There is thus an unbridgeable gap between Thein Sein’s messages of coexistence and tolerance, to which the Western mainstream media has given wide coverage, and his government’s inaction, which the same media has failed to report beyond the observation that local police have stood by idly when organized mob violence unfolded before them.
All over Burma/Myanmar one can easily find numerous publications, DVDs, CDs and other anti-Muslim propaganda materials. It is not illegal to spread anti-Muslim misinformation and hateful views in the country’s more open environment. Instead, the government sued the Voice Weekly newspaper for printing a single article about corruption at the ministry of mines.
But it has left untouched various publications that have printed rumors, slander and misinformation about the country’s Muslims. Thein Sein’s government is thus evidently more concerned about being correctly described as highly corrupt than stopping the sustained and open calls in various media to turn the country into a ”graveyard of Muslim leeches”.
Unless Thein Sein’s government systematically cracks down on those who promote and organize Islamophobic violence and hate speech and effectively ends its long-standing policy of impunity for those who commit crimes against Muslims (and other ethnic minorities), it will run the risk of 969 morphing into a full-blown genocidal movement. Despite its pretensions towards democracy, Thein Sein’s military-propped regime has over 50 years of proven experience in suppressing organized opposition movements. For decades, the military was effectively able to censor and stop any news or messages it didn’t want disseminated in society.
In his article “Challenging the Authoritarian State: Buddhist Monks and Peaceful Protests in Burma, Issues and Policy”, published in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs in 2008, Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a Burmese academic from the City University of Hong Kong and now a top Thein Sein adviser who directs the government’s Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), observed the military’s central role in inciting anti-Muslim riots in the past:
In 1997, the junta became aware of the monks’ plan to protest against the regional (military) commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddhist statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protests, a rumor emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot. Some observers noted that that intelligence agents often instigate anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry Buddhist monks from engaging in anti-government activities. (pp. 137-138).
As recently as March 30, Professor Donald Seekin, the author of The Disorder in Order: the Army-State in Burma since 1962, wrote, in a response to a New York Times op-ed on March 29 entitled “Kristallnacht in Myanmar”:
Hatred of Muslims is deeply rooted in Burmese society, and was actively encouraged by both the Ne Win and SLORC/SPDC regimes during the 1962-2010 period. One of their favorite tactics was to spread rumors that Muslims had raped Burmese Buddhist women, and plotted to convert the entire Buddhist population to Islam. The “divide and rule” tactic used by the authorities in the recent past possibly grew out of the British colonial regime’s policy of fostering a “plural society” with minimal national unity.
In light of the fact that Burma/Myanmar’s military rulers have a well-documented history of exploiting religious and ethnic prejudices in the multi-ethnic society for their own political and strategic ends, it is not necessarily conspiratorial to suggest that Thein Sein’s government may want such anti-Muslim sentiment spread in society for its own political ends, including the notion that the public is unsafe without the steady dictatorial hand of top generals and their military in politics.
In spite of Thein Sein’s softly-softly official messages of religious harmony and coexistence in society, he has so far done virtually noting to nip the neo-Nazi Buddhist movement of 969. Nor has the military suddenly embraced unconditional free speech after overseeing decades of harsh media censorship. Rather, the impunity and inaction are more likely anchored in Naypyidaw’s strategic calculation to create a general climate of fear and uncertainty, consistent with the divide-and-rule tactics it has always used to exert unrivaled control and influence over the state and economy.
What is Aung San Suu Kyi, the global icon of non-violence, doing to stem the tide of violent racism among her main Buddhist supporters?
Incomprehensibly, Suu Kyi herself is complicit in the spread of Islamophobic hatred and fear, both by her silence over the violence perpetuated against Muslims and by spreading moral responsibility for the death and destruction across both Muslim and Buddhist communities. For whatever reason, she has ignored blatant facts, including: 1) the violence and hate campaigns are one-directional in that they target only Muslims and are organized by Buddhist mobs which are made up of both out-of-towners and local community members; 2) the Muslims (and other minorities such as the Kachins) bear the brunt of the violence, death and devastation; and 3) the military and security forces have 50 years of experience in crowd control.
To be sure, Suu Kyi has not been entirely quiet on the anti-Muslim violence. After the three days of attacks against Muslims in the central town of Meikhtila, she spoke out in defense of the way the local security forces handled the situation, despite widespread evidence security forces sat on their hands while organized mobs went on sprees of slaughter and arson. For three days, security forces let roaming gangs of armed Buddhists burn down nearly 1,000 buildings, including mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and houses. In her Burmese language press interviews, Suu Kyi defended the deliberate inaction of the local security forces, offering the excuse that they weren’t experienced in riot control in the country’s new democratic context.
Despite serving as chairwoman of an inquiry of commission into protests and violence at a Chinese and Myanmar military-invested copper mine in central Burma/Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s comment overlooked security forces’ recent use of firebombs laden white phosphorous to crack down on protesters who lost their land and Buddhist monks who lent their demonstration moral support. Rather than visiting Muslim victims of the recent violence in Meikhtila, Suu Kyi instead attended the annual military parade on March 27, where she shared intimate moments with highly decorated generals.
Will recent rumors and violence persuade more people to participate in anti-Muslim actions? And from where do these rumors claiming expansionary designs of Islam in Burma/Myanmar originate?
Rumors have been the lifeblood of cultural and political life in Burma/Myanmar for the past half-century, ever since the generals came to power in the absence of elections and without a free and professional press. The Burmese/Myanmar public soaks up rumors, slander and racist narratives perpetuated by the military like a sponge. Even in the new ”reformist” age, the free media is often jingoistic and has played a key role in fomenting anti-Muslim hatred and nationalist fears.
Frighteningly for the country’s Muslims – who make up about 4% of the total 60 million population – one of President Thein Sein’s own spokespersons, ex-Major Zaw Htay, or Hmu Zaw, has served as a major source of anti-Muslim rumors and slanders since the first wave of violence against the Rohingya last June. On his Facebook page, the spokesman for the President’s Office has posted several one-liners designed to stoke popular anti-Muslim hatred and fear. One example: “We have just received information about a group of armed Muslim terrorists who are crossing the Burmese-Bangladesh borders. Stay tune.”
The state media, meanwhile, has published several articles with anti-Muslim slants and used the word ”kalar”, the Burmese language equivalent of “nigger”, in referring to Muslims and people of Indian subcontinental origin. With state security and propaganda agencies, as well as culturally and ideologically influential figures, working in unison to stoke anti-Muslim hatred and fear, public opinion naturally follows.
Culturally, Buddhist monks are very influential in Burmese society – more so than dissidents and generals. Ideologically, the racist public tends to swallow the government’s anti-Muslim rumors and narratives, in spite of the fact that in most other cases they distrust government-issued news and narratives.
It is extremely difficult to draw a line between the government’s anti-Muslim activities and propaganda and those carried out by influential skinhead monks. Anti-Muslim postings on Facebook, including those with images of the recent deaths and destruction in Meikhtila, have been “liked” by thousands and solicit approving howls from Burmese netizens who show no restraint in expressing their neo-Nazi views in public on-line domains.
In recent interviews, Buddhist monk and 969 movement leader Wirathu has seemed to condemn the violence and even claimed in cases he had stopped rampaging, anti-Muslim rioters. Does this indicate he is toning down his movement’s rhetoric, or is the 969 movement still calling for the elimination of Muslim influence in Burma/Myanmar?
In his Burmese language Facebook pages, Wirathu has posted several irreconcilable messages. On certain mornings he has posted messages of religious tolerance and compassion, while in the afternoon of the same day he has written provocatively anti-Muslim statements, including warnings against the “forced conversion of Burmese women who marry into Muslim families” and are coerced into changing their names from Burmese to Muslim and Indian ones.
It seems unlikely that a preacher like Wirathu, who was jailed for his public incitement which resulted in the death of an entire Muslim family in an arson attack in the small town called Kyauk Hse in 2003, would suddenly feel repentance for his inflammatory rhetoric. To date he has shown no sign of remorse or regret about his role in recent anti-Muslim violence.
Ten years ago, Wirathu was a fringe figure, perceived as having fringe anti-Muslim views. Now, with the rise of state-tolerated neo-Nazism, he has emerged as a cultist hate-monger, and a must-meet for visiting international media. The popularity of this neo-Nazi Buddhist preacher does not augur well for the country’s “democratic” future, and most certainly not for its minority Muslims and Rohingyas.
Critical-minded locals have long been suspicious of Wirathu’s reputed close association with some of the previous regime’s dodgiest officials and ex-officials, including ex-chief of military intelligence Khin Nyunt and the current leader of the ruling, military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party, ex-Brigadier General Aung Thaung. Those personal ties would go a long way in explaining why Thein Sein’s government has failed to act while Buddhists lay waste to the country’s minority Muslims.
Maung Zarni, Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya. Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website www.maungzarni.com.
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