969: The Strange Numerological Basis for Burma's Religious Violence

Buddhist nationalists have been terrorizing the country's Muslims in recent weeks, and the attacks may get even worse.
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An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe on June 10, 2012. (Reuters)

With the gradual arrival of the hot season to Lower Burma, Rangoon has become a ghost town during the day. The city comes alive in the evening, when residents re-occupy public spaces, drinking tea at roadside stalls, and shopping at informal markets. In the city's Muslim quarters, however, people have been staying out much later than usual lately - all night, in fact - to stave off potential attacks from Buddhist extremists bent on upsetting Burma's fragile religious balance.

Rangoon's Muslims have good reason to feel jittery. A wave of anti-Muslim violence has engulfed a number of towns in Central Burma over the past two weeks, and people fear the violence may soon move further south. In the early morning hours of April 2, a fire broke out at a Muslim boarding school in the heart of the city, killing 13 students. The local authorities quickly pinned the blame for the fire on a faulty transformer and arrested the school's caretaker for his supposed negligence. While the local media has dutifully parroted the official line, local Muslims aren't buying it. Having no faith in the police, Muslims in some townships have taken security into their own hands and have set up a volunteer neighborhood watch to patrol the streets.

"The Muslims are very smart. They use their smarts to [threaten] our Buddhist society...they want to conquer us and destroy Buddhism."

The night after the school fire, four men attempted to throw a petrol bomb into the Masjid Jamek Bengali, a stately colonial-era mosque in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Rangoon's only Muslim-majority township. One person was caught by the volunteers and handed over to the police, but locals claim that he was released shortly afterward. By the time I met Jamil, a local resident whose name I've changed, half an hour after the arson attempt, the significant police presence immediately after the incident had dwindled considerably. "We can't believe the police. They arrest people and let them go, so we worry all night," he said. "They might return and be angry, so that's why we are so worried. Police is just performance. They don't take any action."

Hashim, who also goes by a different name, has been patrolling the streets every night for the past fifteen days, and his demeanor and appearance betray his exhaustion. "My father and my grandfather were born here, but they say that we are guests," he explains. "But we are not guests. We are born here, and Inshallah we will die here also. We will never run. Because if we run, we are not brave. We need to provide security for ourselves."

* * *

While Burma's Muslims have long been persecuted, the scale of attacks on Muslim targets since the outbreak of anti-Rohingya rioting in Arakan State last year is unprecedented in recent memory. The Rohingya, stripped of their citizenship in 1982, have long been seen as outsiders by vast swathes of Burmese society. But because clashes in Arakan were between two marginalised ethnic groups - the majority Buddhist Arakanese have also been subject to government repression, albeit not as severe - many analysts downplayed the risk of anti-Muslim violence spreading to other parts of the country.

But the violence is spreading, and non-Rohingya Muslims elsewhere in Burma are being targeted. In the central town of Meiktila, home to the country's largest air force base, attacks on Muslims starting on March 19 claimed some 40 lives. Human Rights Watch reports that 828 buildings were destroyed and 8,000 people were displaced over three days of clashes; according to the New York Times, local police claimed they were given orders "to do nothing but extinguish fires." While a state of emergency declared on March 22 brought an end to clashes in Meiktila, violence soon spread to a number of towns in Bago division, edging ever closer to Rangoon.

One number has become indelibly associated with these attacks - 969, a "grassroots" Buddhist nationalist movement that many claim is supported by elements within the military. While 969's unofficial leaders claim that the movement is a non-violent response to a Buddhist society under strain from "foreign" influence, its rhetoric brings to mind the kind of language associated with the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.

969 has its ideological roots in a book written in the late 1990s by U Kyaw Lwin, a functionary in the ministry of religious affairs, and its precepts are rooted in a traditional belief in numerology. Across South Asia, Muslims represent the phrase bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim, or "In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful," with the number 786, and businesses display the number to indicate that they are Muslim-owned. 969's proponents see this as evidence of a Muslim plot to conquer Burma in the 21st century, based on the implausible premise that 7 plus 8 plus 6 is equal to 21. The number 969 is intended be 786's cosmological opposite, and represents the "three jewels:" the nine attributes of the Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, or monastic order.

U Kyaw Lwin's ideas came to prominence in November of last year, when a religious order in Mon State - the Gana Wasaka Sangha - began to invoke them in local anti-Muslim campaigns. Since January, taxis, buses, and businesses across Rangoon have begun to proudly display its brightly colored emblem.

Despite a lack of 969 regalia on U Tun Khin's car (not his real name), a few minutes of conversation showed his stripes as a believer to the core. "The Muslims are very smart. They use their smarts to [threaten] our Buddhist society. Some Muslims are good, but there are too many who are Ali Babas (thieves)," he said. "They get money from Muslim countries, and they want to conquer us and destroy Buddhism. They are foreigners, they should feel lucky we treat them well as guests."

The figure often identified as the de-facto leader of 969 is a monk named Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious conflict and released as part of a general amnesty in January 2012. The content of his sermons, distributed via DVDs he produces at his monastery in Mandalay, would not be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies.

"Our leaders have told us not to fight back... because if you fight back, you are also on the wrong side. So it is better to pray to Allah for justice."

As is often the case when minorities are scapegoated, Wirathu claims that Muslims control Burma's economy. While it is true that some Muslims have achieved substantial wealth in certain sectors - such as construction - the notion that they are economically dominant is laughable. None of the cronies closest to the military - the oligarchs who truly dominate Burma's economy - are Muslim.

Wirathu has called for a boycott of all Muslim-owned businesses. "If you buy a good from a Muslim shop, your money just doesn't stop there," he said in a sermon in late February. He claims that "money will eventually be used against you to destroy your race and religion. That money will be used to get a Buddhist-Burmese woman and she will very soon be coerced or even forced to convert to Islam." According to Wirathu, "once [Muslims] become overly populous, they will overwhelm us and take over our country and make it an evil Islamic nation."

* * *

An hour after the incident at the Masjid Jamek Bengali, the only visible security on the streets and alleys of the neighborhood surrounding it was teams of Muslim volunteers; a skeleton crew of police officers had retreated to a solitary post at a major intersection just outside the neighbourhood. Many believe the police have orders to crack down on Muslims if they retaliate. "Even though the police told us there is no reason to be afraid," Jamil explained, "the public doesn't believe them."

The fact that Meiktila is home to significant military installations raises questions as to why the army waited a full three days before stepping in. The security services' apparent apathy towards responding to incidents around the country has led many to believe that a higher power is at work coordinating the attacks. "After Wirathu was released from jail, this problem started," Hashim said. "But he is not the master. Behind him, someone is pulling the strings."

At a press conference at UN headquarters in Bangkok after the clashes in Meiktila, UN Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar said that "most of the people I spoke to [in Meiktila] tended to suggest the attacks were perpetrated by people they did not really recognize, and they may have been outsiders," and added that the attacks "seemed to have been done, in a sense, in almost a kind of brutal efficiency."

969's aims and tactics are far from universally loved among Burmese Buddhists. Aung San Suu Kyi has remained conspicuously silent as tensions have risen, much to the dismay of her followers. But other political figures have unequivocally condemned the violence and hatred, including 88 Generation Students leader Min Ko Naing, as well as many of the monks behind the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" uprising against military rule.

The Muslims of Mingalar Taung Nyunt and elsewhere in Burma are left with few viable options, aside from remaining vigilant and taking responsibility for their own security. Retaliation is the last thing on their minds, as a retributive assault would only cause things to go from bad to worse. "Our leaders have told us not to fight back... because if you fight back, you are also on the wrong side," Jamil explained. "So it is better to pray to Allah for justice. Islam is not about revenge."

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Alex Bookbinder is a writer based in Rangoon, Burma.

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