by Ray Downs
The logo of the 969 group.
When most Westerners think of Buddhism, they think of smiling men with potbellies and inspirational quotes from Phil Jackson. “Buddhist neo-Nazi” sounds like a contradiction in terms.
But in Burma, vicious anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise, and Buddhist extremists are responsible for attacking Muslims and burning down their houses and mosques, a state of affairs that was largely ignored until Anonymous launched a Twitter campaign to teach the world about the genocide against the Rohingya people, the officially stateless Muslims who many believe will be massacred if the world does not respond.
According to Dr. Muang Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics, much of the blame for the current situation in Burma can be laid at the feet of the 969 group, which he describes as an neo-Nazi organization of hatemongers who are using Hitlerian tactics to “purify” the country by getting rid of the Muslims—it’s also, he says, one of the fastest-growing movements in the country.
I spoke to Dr. Zarni to find out more about what’s going on in Burma and how a Buddhist can be a “Nazi.”
VICE: Who are the 969, and what does the number mean?
Dr. Muang Zarni: The 969 leaders are Burmese men in monks’ robes. It’s a bit difficult to describe them as genuine monks because they are preaching a message of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is completely incompatible with the Buddhist message of universal kindness. The969 number stands for three things: the 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha, the founder of the religion; the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of dharma; and finally, the last 9 stands for special characteristics or attributes of the clergy.
You’ve described the 969 group as “Burma’s fastest-growing neo-Nazi ‘Buddhist’ nationalist movement.” What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
I use the word neo-Nazi because their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma—all of them, including the ethnically Burmese—are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root.
There is a parallel between what we saw in Nazi Germany and what we are seeing today in Burma. The 969 movement and its leading spokespersons call for attacking the Muslims of Burma—not just the Rohingyas in western Burma who were incorrectly framed as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but all Muslims from Burma. Buddhist people who try to help Muslims or buy groceries from Muslim businesses are either beaten up or intimidated or ostracized by other Buddhists.
Also, the military is involved with this movement. At best, the military authorities are tolerating the message of hatred coming from the Buddhist preachers. At worst, and I believe this to be true, elements within the military leadership are passively backing this movement. Over the past 50 years since the military came to power, there has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organizations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.
What does the Burmese government have to gain from this violence?
There are three goals, as far as I can tell. One is, the military leadership has swapped their generals’ uniforms for civilian clothing, but at heart, they still remain irredeemably authoritarian and dictatorial. They are security obsessed and some of them feel the reforms that are unfolding in the country are going too far. So they want to slow it down and roll back the reform process. In order to do that, they must create social instability and use volatile situations as an excuse to say, “The people can’t handle freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of organization. Therefore, we need to have a strong handle on the situation to make sure people stay in line and don’t kill each other.”
Secondly, when all these waves of violence against Rohingya Muslims started last year, the military and the proxy political party of the military was in a worrisome situation because it lost by a landslide in the elections. So within two months of their defeat, they decided to create this very powerful anti-Muslim communal sentiment around the country. And now, [activist and political leader An San] Suu Kyi is in a difficult situation because she can only speak the liberal language of human rights and democracy, which is not as powerful as the ideology that the military and these neo-Nazi monks have whipped up. When it comes to fighting this kind of abnormal religious movement, the language of human rights is never enough.
Thirdly, I think the military is not leaving anything to chance. They have another round of elections in 2015, and they want to make sure that they have a new proxy political movement that they can use to square off Suu Kyi’s party. As a result, the 969 neo-Nazi movement is the most popular movement in the country.
In a YouTube video of a sermon given by Wirathu, one of 969’s leaders, he says that Muslims are taking over the country and destroying the Buddhist way of life. Is this way of thinking only popular in extremist circles, or are everyday Burmese buying it?
The reaction is mixed. We Burmese tend to be prejudiced against people with darker skin color. And that’s typical among Far East or Southeast Asian countries where lighter, paler skin is considered more prestigious and desirable. This 969 movement is preying on the historical and cultural prejudices we have as a society towards darker skin color.
Also, when you have a country that is the poorest in Southeast Asia, the language of economic nationalism is appealing, and that’s what the neo-Nazi movement is using. They tell people they are poor because their wealth is taken away by the “Islamic leeches.”
What role, if any, do Western governments have in this?
Burma is a crucial element in Obama’s new foreign policy of rebalancing American interests and power. It sits in between two major powers: India and China. And we’re also next to Thailand, which is the United States’s strategic hub for diplomatic, economic, and intelligence operations in Southeast Asia.
American and EU businesses are looking for new markets to get out of their economic decline and Burma has massive resources of oil, gas, uranium, timber, you name it. So they’re not going to frame their new business partner in an emerging market as genocidal.
If the West portrays what is happening in Burma accurately as genocidal, the international community will demand action and demand the perpetrators be brought to justice. That’s why I think the international community is going very easy on the Burmese military.
More on the sectarian violence in Burma:
Maung Zarni, Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya. Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment,founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website www.maungzarni.com.