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.
We met Wirathu, the saffron robed monk, while he was supervising an exam where he teaches at Masoeyein Monastery in the nation’s ancient capital of Mandalay.
The walls of his office are plastered with giant portraits of himself. Outside, plastic banners display the charred bodies of Buddhist casualties in southern Thailand (a region struggling with an Islamist insurgency) and in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state (where the Muslim Rohingya minority is enduring a de facto ethnic cleansing).
The infamous monk looks much younger than his 46 years. In his soft and calm voice, he said: “Muslims are fundamentally bad. Mohammed allows them to kill any creature. Islam is a religion of thieves, they do not want peace.”
His racist rants are widely spread on YouTube and social media websites where they are watched by thousands. In 2003, Wirathu was sentenced to 25 years in jail for inciting anti‐Muslim hatred. He was released in 2010 following a general amnesty of political prisoners. With the landmark political reforms implemented by the semi-civilian government that has been in power since March 2011, he is now free to move, speak, and even hold rallies.
Young students in a Madrasa, near Joon Mosque in central Mandalay.
Officially, Islam accounts for 4 percent of Myanmar’s population of 55 million – a figure many 969 followers say is underestimated, claiming the percentage is closer to 24 percent. Members of the movement are convinced that Myanmar is falling prey to an international Islamist conspiracy. In their view, the Muslim minority triggers sectarian riots as a ploy to receive sympathy funding from countries like Saudi Arabia.
“What you see is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Wimalar Biwuntha, a prominent member of the 969 movement. “The Muslims here are backed from the outside, by more than 58 Arab countries. More and more countries are giving them money.”
According to Myo Win, spokesman for the Myanmar Muslim Network, Muslim organizations estimate that between 8 and 10 percent of Myanmar’s total population are Muslims.
Mr Tin Maung Myin is seen here cleaning what remains of his demolished home in Meiktila (200km south of Mandalay).
This was the first time he was allowed to return to his house three months after the clashes that claimed at least 44 lives (mostly Muslims). During the violence, entire quarters of Meiktila were wiped off the map, leaving behind fields of blackened ruins.
In three days, more than 820 buildings were destroyed, according to Human Rights Watch. Where houses once stood, burned trees now tower over a sea of bricks and metal. The mosques have not reopened since. Some 12,000 refugees remain dispersed between five refugee camps under tight police protection. At the end of May, seven Muslims were sentenced to heavy jail terms for their responsibility in the events. No Buddhists were convicted.
A woman, who returned to her destroyed home in Meiktila, recovers pieces of a burnt book in Urdu explaining the teachings of Islam.
That day, the Muslim community started a seven-day clean up program escorted by armed police. The families from the area were allowed to return to their plots for the first time to clear the rubble and recover anything that was not destroyed in the riots.
Wirathu (center) and Wimalar (left) stand among more than 200 Buddhist monks who gathered to discuss how to resolve the growing conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. The conference, held in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, was viewed by local and international media less as an effort to promote conflict resolution than an opportunity to discuss an interfaith marriage law that the 969 movement hopes to present to the government in the coming weeks.
The law, inspired by similar legislation in Singapore, hopes to limit the number of Buddhist women who marry Muslim men. The drafted law stipulates that Muslims would have to seek permission from local authorities in their regions to validate such unions.
“Muslim men try to win the love of poor Buddhist women for their reproductive tactics. They produce a lot of children, they are snowballing. We have a duty to defend ourselves if we don’t want to be overwhelmed,” said Wimalar, 41, who helped draft the proposed law.
Wirathu and his entourage leave after a sermon attended by hundreds in Mandalay.
Wirathu’s followers gathered in a lavish setting strewn with lights and decorations to listen to his speech, which was streamed live on a screen. He preached for nearly two hours on the Buddhist teachings and shared his take on Muslims and the recent conflicts that have arisen in the country. A local attendee told The Diplomat that around 70 percent of his speech was anti-Muslim.
While Wirathu delivered his sermon, just blocks away in the Dhamma Tharlar Hall, several local organizations and civil society activists organized a peace event. Around 2,000 people of different faiths gathered to listen to a peaceful sermon meant to promote peaceful interfaith exchange.
The initiative, spearheaded by the Committee for the Prevention of the Creation of Riots, came about after worried parents pulled their children from schools amid rumors of religious violence a few weeks earlier.