ISSN 2330-717X

Wirathu: The Face Of Buddhist Terror – OpEd

In its July 1 issue, the Time magazine has covered the recent genocidal activities against the Muslims of Myanmar. In this, reporter Hannah Beech has done an excellent job analyzing the role played by Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, who has become the face of Buddhist terrorism. Her report has stirred up a hornet’s nest among the Buddhists. They are very upset.

Unlike OBL, whose views had forced him to settle for a life of refuge outside the country, Wirathu who likes to call him ‘the Burmese bin Laden’ is quite popular inside Myanmar. He is an abbot who has a significant following not just within the Sangha but also within the government, military, and civilian population of his Buddhist-majority country. Soon after the publication of the Times issue, President Thein Sein came to his defense and said, “Buddhist monks, also known as Sanghas, are noble people who keep the 277 precepts or moral rules, and strive peacefully for the prosperity of Buddhism.” From such testimonials, it is not difficult to understand the level of support that Wirathu’s 969 Movement – or more correctly creed – enjoys inside Myanmar. And this is troubling. It paints a very damning picture not only about Myanmar – long known for its gruesome records of human rights violations but also about its Buddhist faith sanctioning such horrendous crimes.

After all, there is nothing honorable about the 969 Movement, which Wirathu launched in 2001. It draws its inspiration from fascism and Nazism and is racist, bigotry-ridden and apartheid to the core calling for boycott of anything Muslim the same way Jews of Germany were depicted and treated in the 1930s and 1940s until the fall of Hitler. “We have a slogan: When you eat, eat 969; when you go, go 969; when you buy, buy 969,” Wirathu declared at his monastery in Mandalay. (Translation: If you’re eating, traveling or buying anything, do it with a Buddhist.) This apartheid 969 creed led to sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, especially after the Bamiyan statues were destroyed by Taliban in March of 2001.

As a result, several mosques were destroyed by Buddhist monks. The sporadic violence which included killing of several Muslims and destruction of Muslim properties and mosques would continue until 2003 when he was arrested. The military regime sentenced him to 25 years in prison for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets that incited communal riots in his birthplace of Kyaukse, a town near Meikhtila. At least 10 Muslims were killed in Kyaukse by a Buddhist mob, according to a U.S. State Department report.

Wirathu was freed last year from jail during an amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, among the most celebrated reforms of Myanmar’s post-military rule. He is now an abbot in Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, an expansive complex where he leads about 60 monks and has influence over more than 2,500 residing there. From that power base, he is again preaching hatred and intolerance. Many monks are highly influenced by his hateful messages, and are directly involved in genocidal campaigns against the minority Muslim population in Myanmar. They are also supported by government agencies at all levels – from local to central.

It is widely believed by Dr. Maung Zarni and many other independent researchers that the government of Thein Sein is using Wirathu and his terrorist monks, with wide support within the Buddhist society, to do what it could not do officially. Thus, the crimes of Wirathu cannot be separated from those of Thein Sein. They are in collusion.

Nyi Nyi Lwin, a former monk better known as U Gambira who led the “Saffron Revolution” democracy uprising in 2007 that was crushed by the military told Reuters that if government was serious to stop anti-Muslim pogroms, it could do it. “In the past, they prevented monks from giving speeches about democracy and politics. This time they don’t stop these incendiary speeches. They are supporting them,” he said. “Because Wirathu is an abbot at a big monastery of about 2,500 monks, no one dares to speak back to him. The government needs to take action against him.”

Last year in May-October when Rohingya Muslims were killed in the Arakan state, the Buddhist monks played major roles not only in inciting violence against them, they allowed their monasteries to be used as arms depot and also participated themselves in the slaughter. Government security forces and ultra-racist Rakhine politicians also participated in such raids. The anti-Muslim pogroms last year led to the death of hundreds of Muslims and homelessness of nearly 140,000 Muslims in the Rakhine state. Seventy Muslims were slaughtered in a daylong massacre in one hamlet alone, according to Human Rights Watch. Children were hacked apart and women torched. In several instances, monks were seen goading on frenzied Buddhists. Muslim townships and villages were totally wiped out from the map. As usual, in this Buddhist country not a single Buddhist was found guilty for committing such horrendous crimes against the minority Muslims.

The communal violence, which the government has done little to check, has since migrated to other parts of the country. In March, dozens were killed and tens of thousands left homeless as homes and mosques were razed in Meikhtila. As widely documented, Buddhist monks led the massacre of Muslims and destruction of Muslim properties there. Rioters spray-painted “969” on destroyed businesses. A knife-wielding Buddhist monk was video-taped holding a Muslim girl. “If you follow us, I’ll kill her,” the monk taunted police, as a Buddhist mob armed with machetes and swords chased nearly 100 Muslims in this city in central Myanmar. It was Thursday, March 21. Within hours, the Buddhist monks led the mob to kill dozens of Muslims.

The killings took place in plain view of police, with no intervention by the local or central government. The police were told not to intervene. The region’s military commander, Aung Kyaw Moe, could have stopped the riots with a few stern orders – especially given that thousands of soldiers are permanently stationed in Meikhtila and nearby. [That pattern echoed what Reuters reporters found last year in an examination of October’s anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. There, a wave of deadly attacks was organized, according to central-government military sources. They were led by Rakhine Buddhist nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks, and assisted by local security forces.]

Graffiti scrawled on one wall in Meikhtila called for a “Muslim extermination.” The Buddhist mob dragged their bloodied bodies up a hill in a neighborhood called Mingalarzay Yone and set the corpses on fire. Some were found butchered in a reedy swamp. A Reuters cameraman saw the charred remains of two children, aged 10 or younger. As noted by Min Ko Naing, a revered former political prisoner, bulldozers were used to destroy Muslim properties. Some 1600 Muslim owned homes and businesses were destroyed in Meikhtila. A historic mosque and an orphanage were also burned. By March 29, at least 15 towns and villages in central Myanmar had suffered anti-Muslims pogroms. In many of these incidents, Buddhist monks not only stopped firemen from dousing fire but also participated in killings of Muslims.

In his report, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said he had received reports of “state involvement” in the violence. Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs,” said the rapporteur.

Wirathu had a quick answer to the question of who caused Meikhtila’s unrest: the Buddhist woman who tried to sell the hair clip. “She shouldn’t have done business with Muslims.”

As I have repeatedly said in my speeches and writings, genocide of Muslims has become a national project in Myanmar in which most Buddhists at all levels – from sly President Thein Sein to ignoble Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi to racist politicians to terrorist monk Wirathu to ordinary monks to criminal members of the security forces to general public – are involved one way or another. That is why Suu Kyi is silent on this greatest crime of the 21st century. Her criminal silence to condemn the anti-Muslim pogroms in her country has disgraced the Nobel Peace Prize!

Naturally, Wirathu’s fascist movement is working: 969 stickers and signs are proliferating everywhere like mushroom — often accompanied by violence. Anti-Muslim mobs in Bago Region, close to Yangon, erupted after traveling monks preached about the 969 movement. Stickers bearing pastel hues overlaid with the numerals 969 are appearing on street stalls, motorbikes, posters and cars across the central heartlands. In his speech in a community center in Minhla, a town of about 100,000 people, which is a few hours’ drive from Yangon, on February 26 and 27, in front of thousands of Buddhist monks, Wimalar Biwuntha, an abbot from Mon State, explained how monks in his state began using 969 to boycott a popular Muslim-owned bus company.

After the speeches, the mood in Minhla turned ugly. Muslims were jeered. A month later, about 800 Buddhists armed with metal pipes and hammers destroyed three mosques and 17 Muslim homes and businesses, according to police. No one was killed, but two-thirds of Minhla’s Muslims fled and haven’t returned, police said. One attacker was armed with a chainsaw, he said.

As reported by Reuters a local police official made a deal with the mob: Rioters were allowed 30 minutes to ransack a mosque before police would disperse the crowd, according to two witnesses. They tore it apart for the next half hour, the witnesses said. A hollowed-out structure remains.

Two days earlier in Gyobingauk, a town of 110,000 people just north of Minhla, a mob destroyed a mosque and 23 houses after three days of speeches by a monk preaching 969. Witnesses said they appeared well organized, razing some buildings with a bulldozer.

On April 2, 13 Muslim boys died in a fire at a Yangon religious school. The floors were surprisingly slick with oil during the blaze, clearly pointing out that the blaze was deliberately set by others. However, the local police blamed the fire on electric problem.

For too long we in the West had entertained a very romantic view of Buddhism. Forgotten or ignored there was the ground reality of Buddhist crimes done under the name of religion, let alone its people. As I have noted in my book ‘Rohingya: the forgotten people of our time’, for hundreds of years the Arakanese Buddhist Maghs terrorized Bengal and neighboring territories of Muslim-ruled India. That history is a blood-soaked history of unfathomable cruelty and savagery that devastated Bengal (today’s Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal of India). According to the words of historian Shihabuddin Talish, an eye witness: “They [Buddhist Maghs] carried off the Hindus and Muslims, male and female, great and small, few and many that they could seize, pierced the palms of their hands, passed thin canes through the holes and threw them one above another under the deck of their ships.” He continued, “The Magh did not leave a bird in the air, or a beast on the land from Chatgaon [Chittagong] to Jagdia, the frontier of Bengal, increased the desolation, thickened the jungles, destroyed the land, closed the road so well that even the snake and the wild could not pass through.”

As also noted by British historian G.E. Harvey, “The Arakan pirates, both Magh and feringhi, used to come by the water-route and plunder Bengal. Mohammedans underwent such oppression, as they had not to suffer in Europe. As they continually practiced raids for a long time, Bengal daily became more and more desolate and less and less able to resist them. Not a house was left inhabited on their side of the rivers lying on their track from Chittagong to Dacca. The district of Bakla [Backergunge and part of Dacca], which formerly abounded in houses and cultivated fields and yield a large revenue as duty on betel-nuts, was swept so clean with their broom of plunder and abduction that none was left to tenant any house or kindle a light in that region.”

While the children of abducted slaves of Africa are recognized as citizens in the USA, the children of those abducted Bengali Muslims, settled in Arakan state and elsewhere inside Myanmar, are now denied their due citizenship rights.

I wish I could have said that the savagery of the Buddhist Maghs and Bamars of Myanmar had stopped. Alas, the recent history of Myanmar has once again proven that they are beyond reform. They never understood civility and like to remain buried in their savage past. Thus, rather than condemning the religio-racist violence led by a criminal Buddhist monk, Wirathu is celebrated as a national hero and his horrendous crimes are condoned by the highest authority of the land. Only in Mogher Mulluk can one witness such an amazing thing!

One should thank the Time magazine and its courageous reporter Hannah Beech for a much needed factual account of a war criminal like Wirathu who is a disgrace to any religion. With the religious edicts he and other terrorist monks make they soil the good name of their faith, and portray the ugly side of what Theravada Buddhism has become in Myanmar that scripts and directs genocide against an unarmed minority. It is disgraceful!

Thein Sein cannot hoodwink the rest of the world with his appeasing comments that these terrorist monks are model Buddhists who only strive for Buddhist prosperity. At whose expense is such prosperity earned? Is genocide or pogrom of another people acceptable in that goal of selective prosperity? If not, his government better stop Wirathu and his terrorist supporters now. If the answer is yes, then he better accept the grim reality that Buddhism in Myanmar means genocide of other non-Buddhists, esp. its Muslim population. Period and simple! Thein Sein and other Buddhists of Myanmar cannot have it both ways.

When asked about the Time cover story, Wirathu said, “This is being done because the Islamic extremists want my downfall. … If I fall down, it will be very easy for the extremist who wants to overwhelm Burma with their extreme beliefs. They want me to be arrested, or killed. That’s why, they put me on the [Time] cover, I think. … Extremists are trying to turn Burma into an Islamic country. There is financial, technological, human resources support for this, even media support. I’ve observed these things and because I’m speaking out to show these things to the world, I have become their number 1 enemy, so they are targeting me.”

He repeats the same mantra uttered by every damn Nazi and fascist before him. Pure nonsense to justify their savagery unto the minority people! It is inexcusable.

Is there any hope in Myanmar? I am glad that a monk like U Pantavunsa is speaking out against such monstrosity done in the name of Buddhism. How far such dissent voices would succeed, I don’t know. Nonetheless, it is high time for conscientious human beings inside and outside Burma to condemn the 969 movement and its executioners for the crimes against humanity. They must also demand restoration of citizenship and human rights for all the residents of Myanmar.


About the Author

Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Dr. Habib Siddiqui
Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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