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Myanmar govt targets 'neo-Nazi' Buddhist group
Publication Date : 08-04-2013
A movement that uses 969 as a symbol of Buddhism and is described as Myanmar's "neo-Nazi group" has come under the microscope in the country for its role in spreading anti-Muslim sentiment.
The government - under pressure to prove it is taking an even-handed approach to prevent more violence - has begun moving against the group.
A member of the Rakhine Youth Association, Ye Min Oo, was one of dozens detained in the wake of the anti-Muslim violence that left more than 40 dead in three days last month in the town of Meikhtila. Arrested on March 25, he was charged at a Yangon court last Thursday with inciting violence.
On March 27 in Bago - another area hit by anti-Muslim violence - Aung Myat Thu, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was also arrested, Radio Free Asia (RFA) has reported.
RFA quoted another Rakhine Youth Association member, Pho Tharr, as saying that the authorities had questioned him about possible links between Ye Min Oo and Mandalay- based Buddhist monk U Wirathu, a leader of 969 well known for anti-Muslim views.
The 969 movement started quite recently in Rakhine state, where last year the Muslim Rohingya minority was targeted in a wave of sectarian violence. Scores died and some 100,000 Rohingya were displaced, and now live in camps.
Stickers bearing the number 969 are on sale in shops, and stuck on Buddhist-owned taxis, establishments and homes. The colourful sticker also features the four-headed lion pillar of the Indian emperor Ashoka, who around 260 years before the birth of Christ spread Gautama Buddha's teachings throughout India and Southeast Asia.
A taxi driver in Yangon, who had a sticker inside his car, told The Straits Times: "This is the religious group for us to follow the Buddha's words."
But witnesses say it has become a symbol of a Buddhist supremacist movement aimed at Muslims that may be supported by powerful figures who see the unrest as a convenient way of driving home the point that only the army can keep order.
Several people with first- hand experience of the violence named 969 as a key factor in interviews with The Straits Times.
An NLD member who owns a tea shop in Bago, north of Yangon, and asked not to be named, witnessed events there.
On March 23 - the third day of the violence in Meikhtila - he said rumours of impending violence in Bago began to circulate, "fuelled by the mass distribution of 969 material - pamphlets calling on Buddhists to defend their religion, and 969 stickers, and a DVD of sermons by Ashin Wirathu".
The next day, local NLD, Muslim and Buddhist leaders met to plan how to avert violence and protect the Muslim community. But the next night, there was no stopping some 40 monks - or at least people in monks' robes - who arrived in town from outside and began to "systematically destroy Muslim houses and Muslim shops using sledgehammers and sticks".
A number of villagers, also mostly from out of town, joined them, he said. A tractor was used to batter the front of a mosque. The driver wore a cloth mask.
The NLD member said: "I asked them, why are you doing this? They said, 'These Muslims are not from Myanmar.'"
Britain-based academic and activist Maung Zarni was the first to warn about the 969 campaign. As Meikhtila burned, he wrote on March 24: "969 is Myanmar's home- grown neo-Nazi group founded and led by extremist Buddhist monks with the avowed aim of defending Buddhist faith, Myanmar race and the Buddhist nation from Burmese Muslims."
The "9" stands for the nine special attributes of Buddha, the "6" for the six special attributes of his teachings, and the last "9" for the nine special attributes of the Buddhist Sangha, or order.
"It is led, most prominently by a saffron-robed pseudo-monk Mr Wirathu... who was jailed in 2003 for his direct involvement in the massacre of Muslim families and destruction of a mosque," Dr Maung Zarni wrote.
Last week, U Wirathu signed a pledge to promote peace and reconciliation after a peace dialogue with multiple groups at the Myanmar Peace Centre. Just days later, he repeated his anti-Muslim messages in a BBC interview.
A Yangon-based analyst, who asked not to be named, told The Straits Times: "We have a saying that the dog's crooked tail can never be straightened. Wirathu is a big troublemaker and the government will not tolerate him. The government is serious about him and others who may be instigating violence. They are being watched."
Last Friday, groups of Buddhists and Muslims in downtown Yangon were distributing fliers urging people not to allow fights to erupt between Buddhists and Muslims. The tea shop owner from Bago who spoke to The Straits Times said 969 followers once came to his shop and asked to affix stickers outside it. He ordered his staff to refuse, and told them to point out to strangers the simple Buddhist altar on the wall.
"That is our Buddhism," he said. "That is enough."