Myanmar: Profiling the 969 Movement

10 Jul, 2013    ·   4029

Bibhu Prasad Routray on whether the movement is economic nationalism, cultural awakening or a hate revolution

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Visiting Fellow

Is it an economic nationalist movement, an awakening of sorts, a rabid anti-Muslim movement, or a hate revolution that would eventually consume its own children?

Local Myanmarese accounts on the radical 969 Buddhist movement have diverged so much from one another that it is an arduous task to profile it. A researcher's difficulties notwithstanding, it is undisputable that this movement has been at the forefront of an unending cycle of violence against the Muslim minorities in Myanmar. 969 has provided an economic rationale behind the violence, incited passions and in some instances, may have participated in actual carnage. While anti-Muslim unrest has simmered in the country for decades, anti-Muslim riots began in the country's south-western coast in 2012 and have since spread all over including its central heartland.

Like all right wing movements, 969 thrives on symbolism. Its name innocuously refers to the 24 attributes of Lord Buddha, his teachings, and the monkhood. Its logo, apart from bearing the Myanmarese numerals 969, has a wheel and four Asiatic lions representing the Buddhist emperor Asoka. Stickers with the logo are handed out free to be used on shops, homes, taxis, etc. These represent not just an exclusivist wave seeking to engulf the entire country, but symbols of identification, distinguishing between supporters and the enemies - the Muslims.

Monk Wiseitta Biwuntha alias Wirathu, has been categorised as one of 969's most incendiary leaders. However, the movement derived much of its evangelical vigour from monks in Myanmar's coastal state of Mon, where people claim to be the country's first Buddhists. Late Kyaw Lwin, a former monk and government official, is given credit for nurturing the movement in the late 1980s through his prolific writings and official contacts. Wirathu took over in 2001.

There is no denying the fact that without a well-organised monk brigade and their religious standing and credibility, the movement would not have reached its present state. Buddhist monks have historically played a vanguard role in Myanmarese politics, both against the colonial rule of the British and against the military rule. In recent years, they have found a new antagonist - the darker-skinned Muslims.

Describing itself a grassroots movement, the 969 movement pits itself against its Muslim adversaries, constructing a highly negative narrative of their impact on what it considers an essentially Buddhist homeland. Calls for boycotting Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims are some of the inciting catchphrases of this divisive ideology. Terming Muslims as a wealthy merchant class, a status in actuality reserved only for a microscopic minority among the thousands of impoverished Muslims has been part of 969's strategy to build the image of a formidable enemy. Muslims, for 969, are foreigners who intend dominating Myanmar in all respects. They are accused of terrorism and rape. Mosques have been categorised as 'enemy bases'. Muslims have been likened to 'tigers' that enter poorly-defended households to devour its occupants. The 969 has carefully dealt with the negative publicity it has attracted over recent months. These are described as prejudiced Arab conspiracies.

The real power behind the 969 movement, however, is the military rulers who have implanted a sense of hatred for Muslims in the mind of the general populace, and have enacted ad hoc and de facto discriminatory restrictions. It is one thing to say that the 969 has prospered immensely under the current phase of reforms. The era of suppression by the military has given way to a host of freedoms, allowing the monks the right to propagate Buddhist teachings, including that of the 969. On the other hand, since the 969 movement has diverted the popular attention from the military to the Muslims, the regime deferentially supports it.

President Thein Sein's office has painted a benign image of 969 describing it as "a symbol of peace" and monk Wirathu, "a son of Lord Buddha." The minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in Myanmar's army, has vowed 969's propagation as messages of peace. Incidentally, Monk Wirathu had been sentenced to 25 years in prison by the military regime in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim violence and was freed in 2011 during an amnesty for political prisoners. The fact that the 969 has a sizeable support even within Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) probably explains her silence over the issue. The political force of Buddhist monks is of immense significance in the run up to the 2015 parliamentary elections. Even the judiciary appears to be playing to the gallery. On few occasions, Muslims have been sentenced to prison sentences for removing 969's stickers from shops and other establishments.

The movement has its opponents among the Buddhists. Some monks, among Myanmar's estimated 500,000, indicate that the 969 is only a small and deviant extremist element and doesn't represent the Buddhist religion as a whole. Some prominent monks who led the 'Saffron uprising' against the military in 2007 have openly criticised the movement. Over months, however, such opposition has grown smaller and muter. With the current level of patronage, the 969 has positioned itself to be the guardian of Buddhist exclusivism in Myanmar and a formidable stumbling block for the future accommodation of Muslims within the country.