The Mad Monks of Myanmar

The Mad Monks of Myanmar

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Myanmar is home to a growing wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, as seen in the troubling 969 movement. The numerical significance of the digits is rooted in Buddhism’s Three Jewels (Tiratana), which comprise 24 attributes: nine special attributes of Lord Buddha, six core Buddhist teachings, and nine attributes of monkhood.

Coopted by members of Myanmar’s nationalistic Buddhist majority, the number has become a symbol of religious division that has led to both discrimination and violence. Even the government, under President Thein Sein, has taken controversial actions that seem to align with its anti-Muslim stance, from its ongoing purge of the nation’s Muslim minority Rohingyas to its highly contentious two-child policy, applied solely to the same group.

While the movement has infiltrated the country’s mainstream over a long period of time, a prominent Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, has recently become its unofficial leader. A photograph of Wirathu in crimson robes, with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror”, made the cover of the July issue of TIME Magazine, causing a furor in Myanmar and drawing international attention to the country’s heated religious tensions.

In this photo essay, The Diplomat gives an exclusive look at the 969 movement from the inside, including up-close images of the monk who has made international headlines.

In the first image (above) Wirathu is welcomed by supporters at his monastery in Mandalay. Since publicly promoting the 969 movement on social networks, he is often referred to as the “Burmese Bin Laden”. The number “969”, are seen everywhere in the nation’s streets: on motor taxis, shop windows, betel nut carts. In a country keen on numerology, 969 officially presents itself as a return to Buddhist roots and the teachings of the faith’s founder. However, it is widely accused of being a vehicle of religious hatred and extremist brainwashing.

“If Myanmar wants to live in peace, Buddhists and Muslims have to live separately”, Wirathu told The Diplomat.

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