New Internationalist

Burma’s bloodthirsty monks

October 2013

Religious persecution of Muslims in Burma has resulted in bloodshed and displaced entire communities. But grassroots initiatives have also emerged to counter the hatred. Report and photographs by Brennan O’Connor.

Brennan O'Connor
Sectarian divide: Buddhist monks walk through a devastated Muslim area in Meiktila. Brennan O'Connor

Ashin Issariya appears unassuming, but the quiet demeanour quickly changes when he has something to say. In the pre-dawn light of Burma’s nascent reform process the Buddhist monk and former Saffron Revolution leader isn’t afraid to say what others won’t, even if it seems to put him at odds with his own.

Based in the country’s commercial capital, Rangoon, Issariya helped lead thousands of monks to challenge the former military regime in 2007, a choice that cost him nearly five years as a political prisoner. Now he heads up a grassroots organization made up of different religious leaders opposed to the new 969 movement.

‘The real message of the 969 is not to attack other religions, but some monks are using it like a shield,’ he said. Many would like to denounce it but hesitate because it is ‘the real teaching of the Buddha’.

The numbers represent the ‘three crown jewels’: the nine attributes of Buddha; the six attributes of his teachings; and the nine attributes of the monastic order known as the sangha.

A Buddhist monk allegedly told a Muslim, ‘If you don’t want to die, you must sit and worship us’

Stickers produced and distributed by 969 advocates have appeared in shop windows across the country. The symbol distinguishes Buddhist-owned businesses from Muslim.

Issariya wants ‘to bring peace to Burma’. He says ‘pro-government’ commentators regularly accuse him on his Facebook group of ‘taking money from Muslims’ and ‘helping Christians, Muslims and Hindus’. It’s true; Issariya takes money from Muslims to help Muslims, but also Buddhists. The monk created a group that hosts lectures by different religious leaders to ‘teach the people how to live in peace’. Together they have also raised money to help both Muslim and Buddhist victims of the sectarian violence which flared up dramatically last year.

‘Real Muslims are not angry with Buddhists, real Buddhists are not angry with Muslims.’

They’re more concerned with ‘trying to get their rice’ than the ‘religious problem’, Issariya explains.

Rampaging mobs

Yet the ‘religious problem’ keeps recurring across the country. Earlier this year, the numbers 969 were found spray-painted on the walls of a torched building in Mandalay Division.

Brennan O'Connor
Stoking the fire: Ashin Wirathu has spent time in jail for inciting violence against Muslims. Brennan O'Connor

Ashin Wirathu, the 969 campaign’s most vocal advocate, stands accused of stoking the fire – his anti-Islam themed religious lectures came in several cases weeks or even days ahead of the violence. Wirathu was jailed for inciting violence against Muslims in 2002. In 2012 he received amnesty along with other political prisoners.

The government has been criticized for doing nothing to stop the violence. In March, police waited for orders that didn’t come while mobs went on a rampage that lasted for days in Meiktila. Afterwards, flash mobs roamed the countryside for over a week, attacking Muslim quarters in various townships without being checked by the police.

The Physicians for Human Rights report ‘Massacre in Central Burma: Muslim Students Terrorized and Killed in Meiktila’ records how over 20 children were murdered by angry mobs. Some of their bodies were set on fire. The killings happened in plain view of police who were escorting 150 Muslims away from a mosque towards the ‘would be’ attackers, said the report.

Other statements in the report from eye witnesses were equally disturbing.

When not at play, novice monks at the Thita Sa Waita Gu monastery are taught about the supposed growing threat of Muslims.

A Buddhist monk allegedly told a Muslim, ‘If you don’t want to die, you must sit and worship us.’ Other testimonies recounted how several Muslims were taunted with or forced to eat pork.

President Thein Sein publically vowed to protect the rights of Muslims. But, to date, hundreds of thousands of Muslims displaced by the violence that erupted last year in Arakan State remain in squalid camps. Few of the attackers from the Buddhist population in either Arakan State or the rest of the country have been convicted for their crimes, while Muslims have received disproportionately lengthy sentences for their alleged transgressions.

Dispelling rumours

U Khin Maung, secretary for Mon State Muslim National Affairs, says the conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims happened ‘because of provocateurs. This is what most people believe.’

Brennan O'Connor
A Muslim man rests in Kyawe Pone Lay, a village attacked by a mob in April. Brennan O'Connor

The first design of the 969 symbol – now there are three – was created by monks from the Mon State capital of Mawlamyaing at the end of last year. Somehow Mawlamyaing, where many shops are adorned with 969 stickers and Muslims make up about eight per cent of the total population, nearly twice the national average, has escaped the death and destruction that have visited other places.

Perhaps it’s because religious leaders from both sides were willing to meet face to face to dispel the same kind of rumour-mongering by troublemakers that provoked violence in other parts.

While Muslim neighbourhoods in Meiktila started burning in late March, rumours circulated on Facebook alleging that two local Buddhist business owners had purchased 3,000 swords for Buddhists to attack Muslims.

When one of the business owners found out, ‘he panicked’ and contacted The Than Lwin Times for advice, explained Min Latt, one of its editors.

The editors at the independent Mon journal maintain good relations with both communities, allowing them to act as mediators. They assembled an emergency meeting the same evening at the Mawlamyaing Strand Hotel. ‘I told him to write a press release, and rent a room to invite Muslim and Buddhist leaders for discussions,’ said Min Latt.

At the meeting, Buddhist and Muslim leaders ‘agreed that they were only rumours. Both sides decided not to take action, and to meet again if something else came up,’ said Min Latt.

They also exchanged telephone numbers. This came in handy after a new rumour spread on Facebook a week later. This time a ship with automatic weapons sent from Malaysia for Muslims to attack Buddhists had arrived in the harbour. A quick tour of the mosque allegedly storing the smuggled contraband proved this to be false.

‘We could quash this rumour without [all] meeting with each other,’ explained U Khin Maung. ‘Some people are causing trouble to separate the communities that have been living [together] peacefully for years.’

Brennan O’Connor is a Canadian photojournalist who has been documenting the lives of Burma’s ethnic nationalities since 2008.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 466 This feature was published in the October 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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