Lee Yu Kyung, Bangkok / 08 April 2013
It was a small town named Pokoku in central Burma. There, I sat down with a few monks in dark room of monastery about a month after the monks-led saffron revolution was brutally cracked down in September 2007. The monks in dark were “revolutionaries” and Pokoku was one of the pioneering towns of “revolution” along with Sittwe, the capital of Rakhaing state in western Burma. Monks of the two towns had braved guns and bullets, which must have inspired other cities and towns including the former capital Rangoon to make it all out “revolution”.
“It was a revenge that we attacked on the army vehicles, because the army shot at monasteries in 2003 when (monks had) clashes with Muslims”
A monk said, as he was describing their attack on the army properties during the protest on Sep 6, 2007. It was vaguely known that violent protest on that day was a reprisal for the brutal crackdown a day before. Yet, the monks implicate another event that had happened in 2003. And they were struggling hard to explain about ‘clash with Muslim’ in 2003.
“Muslims..those Indians..did ‘786’ with Saudi Arabia help. You know, this is all over the country…”
‘786’ is a numeral used by Muslims in Indian subcontinent representing a phrase in the Quran. However, it has been long misinterpreted by Burmese Buddhists into ‘21 (7+8+6=21) plot’, which says Muslims would take over the country (or the world) in 21st century.
‘786’ story was uncomfortable truth then that anti-Muslims sentiments even among democracy loving monks were deeply rooted. In fact Burma has had records of anti-Muslims riots, often led by extremist monks back in 1930, 1938, 1997, 2003, 2006, and last year. However, religiously motivated riots and conflicts have been little known until recent major outbreaks in western and central Burma.
The recent violence, alarmingly, have been generated by evident hatred campaign spearheaded by chauvinist monks, notably “Sayadaw” (“venerable teacher”) Wirathu, without curbed by any institution as the country is now fascinating about “freedom of expression”. The campaign is called ‘969’, which is stemmed from Buddhist tradition (‘9’ stands for Buddha, ‘6’ for Dhamma and ‘9’ for Sangha), countering to ‘786’ plot. The campaign appears to be well orchestrated with suspicious connivance of certain power of the country, if not coordinated. However, actual commanders of organizing violent mobs and measures are not yet explicit.
Hatred Campaign with ‘969′ stickers
‘969’ campaign is led by Wirathu, the former prisoner who was seen with the former chief of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt last October 22. He was arrested during the riot in Kyawkse, central Burma in 2003. According to reports, the small riot in Kyawkse turned to a public protest because of the authorities handling of the riot. Several monks including Wirathu in Mandalay were arrested and sentenced to 25 years for igniting hatred. This provoked more protests by his hundreds of followers and led to small protests in different townships, including Meiktila and Pokoku. He was released in February 2012 on president’s pardon, which enables him to renew the hatred campaign.
Having called Muslims ‘kalar’ (derogatory term for Muslims) and accused Muslims business of too affluent, he said in one sermon for instance that
“Moulmein (city in Mon state) will fall in to the hands of the enemy (Muslims), unless we can mobilize the public forces”.
He urged Buddhists not to shop at Muslims but only at Buddhists’ identified by ‘969’ stickers.
The ‘969’ campaign said to be invented early this year though, racists’ statement have been already gushed out during and after communal clashes between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhaing Buddhists in western Burma June 2012. The clash has resulted in hundreds, mainly Rohingyas, killed. 120,000 Rohingya were displaced to seemingly permanent camp.
Nevertheless, in early September hundreds monks led by Wirathu marched to support President Thien Sein‘s idea to deport Rohingya Muslims to the ‘third country’. Patriotic slogan such as “Save your motherland Myanmar by supporting the president.” was carried out. Some Burmese media portrayedWirathu a ‘former political prisoner’, ignoring the fact that he was in prison for igniting hatred towards Muslims. On October 23, fresh violence broke out in Rakhaing state targeting, this time, ethnic Kaman who is also Muslims, not Rohingya. By now, anti-Rohingya campaign has evolved into anti-Muslims.
According to Burma Campaign UK, “leaflets inciting anti-Muslim hatred are being distributed across the country, including by Monastries”, since communal violence in June last year in Rakhaing state.
One example distributed in Karen State in October 2012 reads “Buddhist women are not to marry Muslim men”. This is one of four ‘rules’ that ‘Alliance to Protect Buddhism Group‘ has decided at Mae Baung Monastry, the leaflet says.
Another letter distributed in and around Meiktila central Burma shortly before the town engulfed with killing spree in the latest violence starting from March 20.
“We are very terrified whenever we see a big group of Kalar (Muslims) who go to mosque every day. Therefore we would like to ask support from who wouldn’t take bribery”.
In his sermon conducted before Meiktila violence, Wirathu also mentioned of Meiktila blaming Muslims’ involvement in National League for Democracy (or NLD), the opposition party.
Little wonder when simple quarrel between Muslim shop owner and Buddhist customer in Meiktila quickly shifted to a full scale riots just in hours. The satellite image released by Human Rights Watch on April 1 has shown almost total destruction of Meiktila.
“This is not a communal conflict but attack against Muslim people. (It’s) Myanmar’s pogroms” said Myo Win from Burma Muslims Association (or BMA) in an email interview. “As a proof of the organized attack” he continued, “the attackers were brought in from outside and functioned as well organized mobs. Even some areas the attackers drove bulldozers during the assaults”. This is echoed by Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser saying “there is no doubt much of this violence was planned…it was systematic”.
BMA estimated 70-100 were killed in this attack, while the government figure goes about 43. This latest violence has been spread over to Pegu Division, near the capital Nai Pyi Daw and elsewhere. Yet, it is absurd that Burma’s all powerful security forces were inactive. And police forces stood helplessly by as people were dragged out into the streets and burnt alive.
Although the President Thein Sein on March 28 warned ’’perpetrators’’ of anti-Muslims riots that he ’’will not hesitate’’ to use force, the extremist monks are at large unlike in 2003. Wirathu was reportedly shown up with truth-finding team of activists including Min Ko Naing after Meiktila massacre. He also nominated as member of Peace Cultivating Committee by the authority, causing serious questions into genuine intention of the so-called reformative government. ;
While many observers warn of considerable risk of massacre if not holding accountable those responsible, Aung San Suu Kyi whose voice is considered the most powerful in and out of the country has been silent. In a phone interview days after the Meiktila massacre, NLD spokesperson Nyan Win strongly denied the fact that monks with knives and sticks appeared on the pictures. “Mandalay monks remain peace and patient”. He responded. When asked about why the party did not try to stop some monks spreading hate speech, he said “we have no power”.
Yet, few decent voices have been heard in Burma including U Gambira (now known as Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin), the core leader of saffron revolution. U Gambira, who was sentenced to 68 years, allegedly ceased to be a monk because no monasteries accommodated him after released from jail.
Last year, he has criticized monks marching for support the president’s idea of deportation Rohingya to third countries.
“Recent protests by the monks should have been for the immediate release of over the 300 remaining political prisoners, for the immediate cessation of the war in Kachin state, or for the return of the land grabbed from the farmers”
He further questioned then “Why encouraging racism? Why creating a crisis?”, pointing out nationalism was used to keep the military system alive.
Eventually, as a latest development, youth group denouncing ‘969’ movement namely Pray for Myanmar Youth Network has been emerged, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reported on April 5. The group has launched a campaign with a message “Burmese citizens don’t discriminate by race and religion” while handing out leaflets and T-shirts to encourage communal harmony. One activist in the report was quoted as saying “our movement is made up of multi-faith youths – we have Muslims, Hindus and Buddhist”. He has revealed that he’s got a threatening call which was saying “What are you doing siding with the Kalars?”.
Published @ myGREENnews here