As Myanmar begins to rejoin the world, with a surge of Western investors and an ever-so-slightly freer press, the country has also been riven by horrific religious violence. Buddhist mobs have destroyed mosques and killed dozens of Muslims in rural parts of the country.
The idea may be incongruous for those whose conception of Buddhism is heavy on peace, love, and compassion.
“People are violent; it just so happens that some of those people are Buddhists,” said Michael Jerryson, a professor of religious studies at Florida’s Eckerd College and co-editor of the book Buddhist Warfare. “Particularly in the West, Buddhists are usually seen as peaceful, and they’re romanticized and idealized that way. But violence is found in all religious traditions, and Buddhism is no exception.”
The violence in Myanmar, which resulted in charred bodies and mosques in the streets of Meikhtila on March 20, has been fanned by a group of militant extremist monks known as the 969 group—the name is a numerological reference to the Buddha, his teachings, and monks. The group’s leader, U Wirathu, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2003 but was released last year by presidential pardon. He is now calling for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, with Buddhist-owned stores strongly encouraged to feature stickers with the group’s logo.
“When the profit goes to the enemy’s hand, our nationality, language and religion are all harmed,” Wirathu said in a speech posted online. “They will take girls with this money. They will force them to convert religion. All children born to them will be a danger to the country. They will destroy the language as well as the religion.”
Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that 969 has been “giving anti-Muslim speeches, holding anti-Muslim rallies, and distributing DVDs full of vitriol for at least a year.” Another monk leading a protest last week, interviewed by Reuters, “said he wanted revenge against Muslims for the destruction by the Taliban of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan in 2001.”
Myanmar, also called Burma, is predominantly Buddhist but about 5% of its population is Muslim. Strategically located between China, India, and Thailand, it is a developing market highly coveted by investors and multinationals.
In some ways the religious violence is an unintended consequence of democratization and loosened international sanctions. As the junta that has ruled the country for decades eases its grip, freeing Nobel Peace Prize winner Aun San Suu Kyi and allowing more interaction with the outside world, it has also unleashed simmering ethnic and religious tensions. Suu Kyi, thought to be a presidential contender in 2015, has not spoken publicly about the clashes.
Echoes of the country’s situation can be found in Sri Lanka, where similar Buddhist-on-Muslim violence is occurring in the wake of the Sinhalese majority’s victory in the country’s brutal civil war. And observers have drawn another parallel that is even more troubling, labeling 969 a neo-Nazi group that is trying to make Myanmar ethnically and religiously pure.
“The Nazis engaged in various methods of dehumanizing the Jews in order for violence to take place. In many ways the 969 movement … the way they’re racializing the Muslims, creating a dehumanization of them, is similar,” Jerryson said. “People who commit violence like this don’t see themselves as the aggressors. They see themselves as defenders from the encroachment of Islam.”