Controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu. Pic: AP.

By Mark Inkey

The past year has seen a rise in religious intolerance against Muslim people in Burma fanned by radical Buddhists whose most vocal spokesperson has been the monk Wirathu.

The problems first surfaced in 2012 in Arakan State when tensions between Buddhists and the minority Muslim Rohingya erupted into violence. In the months of June and October 2012, 192 people were killed in mob violence.

In 2013 the attacks increased and spread to other areas with Muslims of any background, rather than just Rohingya Muslims, becoming targets.

Bill Davis, one of the authors of a Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) report on violence against Muslims published in August 2013 said: “The deadly wave of violence in Burma has spread beyond the Rohingya devastating Muslim communities throughout the country.”

The most serious of these incidents occurred in Meiktila, a town in central Burma with a sizeable Muslim population, on March 26-29 2013. It was sparked by an argument in a Muslim-owned gold shop between female staff and a female Buddhist customer. An angry crowd gathered and police arrested the staff members.

The situation seemed to have calmed, but then a false rumour that the female customer died spread. The crowd, including some monks, ransacked the shop. The police were outnumbered and they allegedly told the crowd they could destroy the shop, but that they then had to disperse. The crowd destroyed the shop and looted and destroyed several nearby Muslim shops.

Later, possibly in retaliation, a group of Muslim men attacked a monk on a motorcycle who later died from his injuries.

When news of this spread a mob of over 1,000 people gathered and ran riot. The violence continued for two days and spread to other regions in Mandalay Division.

The final death toll was 40 people, including at least 20 students and four teachers killed at a madrassa. Additionally, 1,500 Muslim homes and 12 of Meiktila’s 13 mosques were destroyed. The PHR report’s researchers were told that in the days prior to the trouble Muslim homes were sprayed with the number 786 to indicate which homes should be attacked.

Followig the violence 16 Muslims were imprisoned for between two years and life while 28 Buddhists were imprisoned for between three and 15 years.

Outside of Rakhine State this was the largest incidence of violence against Muslims, though 2013 saw other incidences of violence against Muslims in different parts of the country.

In February 2013 a Muslim school and business in Thaketa Township, Rangoon was destroyed by a mob who mistakenly thought the school was going to be turned into a mosque after it sought permission to renovate the roof.

On April 30 in Oakkan in Rangoon Division a Muslim woman bumped into a novice monk causing him to drop and damage his Alms bowl. After she was detained rumours spread that Muslims were organizing revenge attacks. Mobs of 200-300 armed Buddhists decided to pre-empt any attacks by attacking Muslim villages in surrounding areas and destroying homes and mosques. At least one person was killed.

On May 4 in Hpakant in Kachin State a group of 30 Buddhists attacked Muslim owned houses and shops in three different areas for no apparent reason.

On May 28-29 May in Lashio, Shan State, violence erupted and a mosque was burned down after a Muslim man was accused of quarreling with a female gas attendant, covering her in petrol and setting her on fire. Journalists and humanitarian aid workers also reported being threatened by the mob. The man was later sentenced to 26 years in prison.

On May 29 at Mone, a small town in Bago divison, two brothers in law, one a Buddhist, the other a Muslim, got into a fight. The Buddhist was injured and both were taken to the police station. A mob gathered and demanded that the Muslim be charged with a serious crime before destroying a mosque and a madrassa.

On June 30 one or two men, allegedly Muslim, raped a woman in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State. A mob of 50 people gathered outside the police station and went on to destroy several Muslim homes and injure three Muslims. The next day the mob burned down another Muslim home. Violence also broke out in Thandwe between September 29 and October 2 when mobs killed Muslims in a series of attacks.

On August 20 and 23 there were reports of Muslims being attacked by monks from Thayathaw Monastery in Pha’an City in Karen State.

On August 24 in Htan Koe village in Sagaing division rumours spread that a Buddhist woman had been raped by three Muslim men. Mobs gathered near the police station, in the evening they were joined by others from nearby villages and they started attacking Muslims. 46 Muslim homes, 12 shops and a rice mill were torched. It was reported that security forces stood by and watched.

According to PHR: “Serious human rights violations, including anti-Muslim violence, have resulted in the displacement of nearly 250,000 people since June 2011, as well as the destruction of more than 10,000 homes, scores of mosques, and a dozen monasteries.

The police response has also been criticized. In Meiktila the police were rapidly outnumbered and completely failed to control the situation.

According to the International Crisis Group report that could have been because the police may have been unwilling to appear too heavy handed following strong criticism of their actions at the protest against Letpadaung copper mine in November 2012 when they seriously burnt protesters, including a group of monks.

The report says that since the incidences in Meiktila and particularly since Lashio the police have responded more quickly and more assertively meaning that the mob violence has lasted hours rather than days and the casualties have been less.

The police have arrested and prosecuted a significant number of people for violence and arson. Initially there were concerns that only Muslims were being arrested, but in reality many more Buddhists than Muslims have been arrested and prosecuted. In July 25 Buddhists, including two monks were found guilty of murder, assault and violence during the troubles in Meiktila.

The rise in popularity of the Buddhist 969 Campaign led by the Mandalay based monk Wirathu has also been blamed for encouraging anti-Muslim violence.

From 2003 till 2012 Wirathu was jailed for inciting anti-Muslim hatred.

The number 969 was chosen to represent the nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha, the six core Buddhist teachings and the nine attributes of monkhood. The campaign was allegedly intended to promote peace.

In reality the 969 movement has conducted a campaign of extreme rhetoric and made wild claims of a Muslim plot to take over the country.

These include claims that Muslims, who make up 5 per cent of the population, threaten to become the majority and overtake Buddhists, who make up 90 per cent of the population. They have also made claims that there are jihadi infiltrators and that there is a scheme to pay Muslim men to marry Buddhist women and convert them. In June 2013 Wirathu called for a law to ban interfaith marriages.

The 969 movement has called for a boycott of Muslim businesses and encourages Buddhist businesses to paint the number 969 on their premises to show their support and show that they are Buddhist. Many Buddhist business owners, whatever their views, have displayed the numbers, partly out of fear of retaliation from 969 supporters and partly because they fear they will lose business if they do not display them.

There have even been reports of Buddhists being beaten up by 969 followers for using Muslim businesses.

The 969 movement has spread its message by widely distributing leaflets and DVDs. Monks who support the movement have also toured the country making speeches and sermons.

In one recent example Irrawaddy reported that in December seven leading monks of the 969 movement from the Mon state capital Moulmein went to Arakan state, where violence against the Rohingya first broke out, to spread the message of the 969 movement.

Wirathu has denied that the 969 movement has contributed to anti-Muslim violence but he concedes that it may be causing Burmans to have a greater hatred of Muslims because they are spreading “the truth about Muslims.”

Very few people have spoken out against the 969 movement despite the fact that it seems to go against many of the tenets of Buddhism. This is because its followers are promoting it as Buddhist solidarity movement aimed at strengthening the religion rather than an attack on islam. They paint themselves as devout Buddhists. This makes people who oppose the movement very wary of speaking out because they fear they will be seen as critical of Buddhism itself.

In June the Burmese dissident Dr Maung Zarni claimed that the state was behind the rise of Wirathu and the anti-Muslim campaign across the whole of Burma.

While this cannot be directly proved it is certain that the state has made no efforts to reign in the rhetoric of Wirathu and the 969 movement.

Even the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out against the movement. Many believe this is a politically led decision, which she has taken because she does not want to risk alienating her supporters who follow the 969 movement or are anti-Muslim.

In June the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed concern over human rights violations and violence against Burma’s Muslims and the lack of accountability for such acts.

As we enter 2014 it seems that little has changed and that the persecution of Burmese Muslims will continue.