YANGON (TIP): The Buddhist extremist movement in Myanmar, known as 969, portrays itself as a grassroots creed. Its chief proponent, a monk named Wirathu, was once jailed by the former military junta for anti-Muslim violence and once called himself the ” Burmese bin Laden.” But a Reuters examination traces 969’s origins to an official in the dictatorship that once ran Myanmar, and which is the direct predecessor of today’s reformist government.
The 969 movement now enjoys support from senior government officials, establishment monks and even some members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Wirathu urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun interfaith marriages. He calls mosques “enemy bases.” Among his admirers: Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs. “Wirathu’s sermons are about promoting love and understanding between religions,” Sann Sint, minister of religious affairs, told Reuters in his first interview with the international media.
“It is impossible he is inciting religious violence.” Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in Myanmar’s army, also sees nothing wrong with the boycott of Muslim businesses being led by the 969 monks. “We are now practicing market economics,” he said. “Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.” President Thein Sein is signaling a benign view of 969, too. His office declined to comment for this story.
But in response to growing controversy over the movement, it issued a statement Sunday, saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.” Wirathu and other monks have been closely linked to the sectarian violence spreading across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the country for nearly half a century. But the worst fighting has occurred since the quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011.
Two outbursts in Rakhine State last year killed at least 192 people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims. A Reuters investigation found that organized attacks on Muslims last October were led by Rakhine nationalists incited by Buddhist monks and sometimes abetted by local security forces. In March this year, at least 44 people died and 13,000 were displaced — again, mostly Muslims — during riots in Meikhtila, a city in central Myanmar.
Reuters documented in April that the killings happened after monks led Buddhist mobs on a rampage. In May, Buddhists mobs burned and terrorized Muslim neighborhoods in the northern city of Lashio. Reports of unrest have since spread nationwide. The numbers 969, innocuous in themselves, refer to attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. But 969 monks have been providing the moral justification for a wave of anti- Muslim bloodshed that could scuttle Myanmar’s nascent reform program.
Another prominent 969 monk, Wimala Biwuntha, likens Muslims to a tiger who enters an ill-defended house to snatch away its occupants. “Without discipline, we’ll lose our religion and our race,” he said in a recent sermon. “We might even lose our country.” Officially, Myanmar has no state religion, but its rulers have long put Buddhism first. Muslims make up an estimated 4 percent of the populace. Buddhism is followed by 90 percent of the country’s 60 million people and is promoted by a special department within the ministry of religion created during the junta.
Monks play a complex part in Burmese politics. They took a central role in prodemocracy “Saffron Revolution” uprisings against military rule in 2007. The generals — who included current President Thein Sein and most senior members of his government — suppressed them. Now, Thein Sein’s ambitious program of reforms has ushered in new freedoms of speech and assembly, liberating the country’s roughly 500,000 monks. They can travel at will to spread Buddhist teachings, including 969 doctrine.
In Burma’s nascent democracy, the monks have emerged as a political force in the runup to a general election scheduled for 2015. Their new potency has given rise to a conspiracy theory here: The 969 movement is controlled by disgruntled hardliners from the previous junta, who are fomenting unrest to derail the reforms and foil an election landslide by Suu Kyi’s NLD. No evidence has emerged to support this belief.
But some in the government say there is possibly truth to it. “Some people are very eager to reform, some people don’t want to reform,” Soe Thein, one of President Thein Sein’s two closest advisors, told Reuters. “So, regarding the sectarian violence, some people may be that side — the anti-reform side.” Even if 969 isn’t controlled by powerful hardliners, it has broad support, both in high places and at the grass roots, where it is a genuine and growing movement.
Officials offer tacit backing, said Wimala, the 969 monk. “By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they are supporting us,” he said. The Yangon representative of the Burmese Muslim Association agreed. “The anti-Muslim movement is growing and the government isn’t stopping it,” said Myo Win, a Muslim teacher. Myo Win likened 969 to the Ku Klux Klan. The religion minister, Sann Sint, said the movement doesn’t have official state backing.
But he defended Wirathu and other monks espousing the creed. “I don’t think they are preaching to make problems,” he said. Local authorities, too, have lent the movement some backing. Its logo — now one of Myanmar’s most recognizable — bears the Burmese numerals 969, a chakra wheel and four Asiatic lions representing the ancient Buddhist emperor Ashoka. Stickers with the logo are handed out free at speeches.
They adorn shops, homes, taxis and souvenir stalls at the nation’s most revered Buddhist pagoda, the Shwedagon. They are a common sight in areas plagued by unrest. Some authorities treat the symbol with reverence. A court in Bago, a region near Yangon hit by anti-Muslim violence this year, jailed a Muslim man for two years in April after he removed a 969 sticker from a betel-nut shop. He was sentenced under a section of Burma’s colonial-era Penal Code, which outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”.
The 969 movement’s ties to the state date back to the creed’s origins. Wimala, Wirathu and other 969 preachers credit its creation to the late Kyaw Lwin, an ex-monk, government official and prolific writer, now largely forgotten outside religious circles. Myanmar’s former dictators handpicked Kyaw Lwin to promote Buddhism after the brutal suppression of the 1988 democracy uprising.
Thousands were killed or injured after soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters, including monks. Later, to signal their disgust, monks refused to accept alms from military families for three months, a potent gesture in devoutly Buddhist Myanmar. Afterwards, the military set about coopting Buddhism in an effort to tame rebellious monks and repair its image. Monks were registered and their movements restricted. State-run media ran almost daily reports of generals overseeing temple renovations or donating alms to abbots.
In 1991, the junta created a Department for the Promotion and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS), a unit within the Religion Ministry, and appointed Kyaw Lwin as its head. Sasana means “religion” in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism; in Burma, the word is synonymous with Buddhism itself. The following year, the DPPS published “How To Live As A Good Buddhist,” a distillation of Kyaw Lwin’s writings. It was republished in 2000 as “The Best Buddhist,” its cover bearing an early version of the 969 logo. Kyaw Lwin stepped down in 1992.
The current head is Khine Aung, a former military officer. Kyaw Lwin’s widow and son still live in his modest home in central Yangon. Its living room walls are lined with shelves of Kyaw Lwin’s books and framed photos of him as a monk and meditation master. Another photo shows Kyaw Lwin sharing a joke with Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, then chief of military intelligence and one of Myanmar’s most feared men.
Kyaw Lwin enjoyed close relations with other junta leaders, said his son, Aung Lwin Tun, 38, a car importer. He was personally instructed to write “The Best Buddhist” by the late Saw Maung, then Myanmar’s senior-most general. He met “often” to discuss religion with ex-dictator Than Shwe, who retired in March 2011 and has been out of the public eye since then. “The Best Buddhist” is out of print, but Aung Lwin Tun plans to republish it. “Many people are asking for it now,” he said. He supports today’s 969 movement, including its anti-Muslim boycott. “It’s like building a fence to protect our religion,” he said.
Also supporting 969 is Kyaw Lwin’s widow, 65, whose name was withheld at the family’s request. She claimed that Buddhists who marry Muslims are forced at their weddings to tread on an image of Buddha, and that the ritual slaughter of animals by Shi’ite Muslims makes it easier for them to kill humans. Among the monks Kyaw Lwin met during his time as DPPS chief was Wiseitta Biwuntha, who hailed from the town of Kyaukse, near the northern cultural capital of Mandalay. Better known as Wirathu, he is today one of the 969’s most incendiary leaders.