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."
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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.