When the July issue of TIME Magazine hit newsstands it got the attention of the highest levels of government in Burma. On its cover is a serene image of Burmese Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, with a loaded phrase superimposed on his crimson robes: “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. The article explores the rising wave of anti-Muslim violence in the country and traces much of it back to Wirathu.
Reacting to the provocative story,
President Thein Sein’s office released a statement that said the story “creates
a misunderstanding of Buddhism.” It added, “The government is currently
striving with religious leaders, political parties, media and the people to rid
Myanmar [Burma] of unwanted conflicts.” Sein
went on to call Wirathu a “noble person” who is a “son of Buddha”.
While it may be true that conjoining
the words “Buddhist” and “terror” may cast the vast majority of the world’s
Buddhists in an unfair light, suggesting that real efforts are underway to
cease sectarian violence and forge ethnic unity in Burma glosses over a number
of troubling facts. Most significant among them: Wirathu actively encourages an
extremist attitude towards Burma’s Muslims.
Before a large gathering who came to
hear his thoughts on Burma’s Muslims – whom he called “the enemy” – Wirathu
recently said: “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep
next to a mad dog.”
“Muslims are like the African carp,” he
told Global Post. “They breed quickly and they are very violent and they
eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering
under the burden they bring us.”
This sentiment is not fringe either.
As seen by the crowd, which numbered in the thousands, Wirathu has a massive
following. Using an intoxicating mix of paranoia, racial stereotyping and
unfounded claims, Wirathu has whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese
Buddhists. He can be seen here
speaking at some length in these terms.
An organic movement has formed as a
result, which has come to be known as the 969
campaign. While most distance themselves from comparing the two, some have
even likened the movement to
a Burmese form of neo-Nazism.
significance of the digits comes from the Buddhist idea that the Three
Jewels (Tiratana) comprise 24 attributes: nine special attributes of
the Lord Buddha, six core Buddhist teachings and the nine attributes of
monkhood. Hence: 969.
Burmese Muslims have their own
numerological talisman as well: 786, referring to the Quranic phrase, “In the
name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful”, which has a numeric value
of 786. The number is often seen plastered on the fronts of halal restaurants
The 969 Buddhists have struck back,
putting stickers and signs that bear the number on shops, from food stalls and
teashops to street vendors, to distinguish themselves as being Buddhist. There
have been instances of
Buddhists being beaten by 969 adherents for patronizing Muslim businesses.
The numbers are a giveaway. While hundreds of Muslims have
been jailed for involvement in the violence, very few Buddhists have wound
up behind bars.
Yet this does not end in the
marketplace or with beatings. Beginning in the northern state of Arakan and
fanning out to other parts of the country, over the past year hundreds, mostly
Muslims, have been killed, while more than 125,000 have been displaced. Human
Rights Watch (HRW) has called the Burmese government’s treatment of the
nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority “ethnic
“The Burmese government engaged in a
campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through
the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” said
HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “The government needs to put an
immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will
be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in
Indeed, Burmese dissident Dr. Maung
listed a number of overt anti-Muslim acts committed by the government, from
backing violence against Rohingyas and “cleansing” Muslims from the Burmese
military to approving anti-Muslim publications and bolstering the rise of
Even Burmese Nobel Peace laureate
Aung San Suu Kyi was accused of remaining silent on the issue of the Rohingyas’
plight for too long until
speaking out earlier this month against the controversial two-child
policy applied solely to them. While Suu Kyi may have broken her silence
when it came to this hotly contested official attempt at controlling Muslim
has not commented either way on Wirathu.
While they may not be outspoken on
the issue of violence against Burma’s Muslim minority, more
than 59,000 have signed an online petition (as of Tuesday afternoon) to
protest TIME’s cover story on the grounds that it misrepresents
Buddhism – but not necessarily in defense of Wirathu’s views.
Others with the urge to vent have taken to Facebook, such as
D Day Ang who
wrote: “We are not terrorist, we are peaceful people and hate
terrorism…please write articles only after gathering sufficient information.”
While it remains to be seen what will
become of the contentious issue of the magazine in Burma, presidential
spokesperson Ye Htut said that, unsurprisingly, the Burmese government might
just pull it from circulation
and remove it from the public’s view.
Jonathan DeHart is assistant
editor of The Diplomat.