In Myanmar, 3 Digits Instill Fear: ‘969’ Movement Led by Buddhist Monks

In Myanmar, 3 Digits Instill Fear

Led by Buddhist Monks, ‘969’ Movement Gains Traction as Freer Speech Helps Whip Up Anti-Muslim Sentiment

By SHIBANI MAHTANI

Myanmar’s Muslims are coming to see the digits 969 as a harbinger of sectarian violence and a chilling reminder of their isolation and vulnerability.[image] Reuters A sticker of the ‘969 movement,’ which encourages Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses is seen at a shop in Minhla, Myanmar, in March.

The number defines a loose group of Buddhists led by influential monks who encourage their co-religionists, the majority in Myanmar, to boycott businesses of Muslims. The 969 group has been blamed, in part, for inflaming spasms of violence that killed more than 200 people and left more than 100,000 homeless in the past year, including a spate of attacks in the central part of the country in recent weeks.

Its pamphlets, stickers, DVDs and a flood of Internet postings spreading hatred toward Muslims have surfaced amid attacks on mosques, shops and homes, quickly unearthing deep religious tensions that the government is finding difficult to check.

“If I see the 969 sticker on a taxi, I don’t dare take that taxi,” said Thiri Min Tun, a Muslim translator in Yangon. “When I see the pamphlets, I think they want to create revolution and discrimination.” Rule of law in the country, she said, is “weak.”

The movement is gaining prominence and popularity, analysts say, bolstered by an increasingly free press and Internet that are letting old antipathies find voice after a half-century of military dictatorship where free speech didn’t exist. It poses a serious risk to the process of reform toward democratization under way since 2010, and the threat of violence could carve out a new, important role for the military as guarantor of national stability.

Singling out the 969 group, a report this week from London-based consultancy Maplecroft warned that “neonationalistic discrimination” is starting to spread beyond anti-Muslim-sentiment and engulf other minorities, especially the ethnic Chinese, the target of persecution in the past, and could “trigger widespread instability.”

The number 969 is meant to signify the three core Buddhist tenets—”9″ for the nine special attributes of Buddha, “6” for the six attributes of his teaching, and “9” again for the nine special attributes of the “Sangha” or Buddhist order. The movement’s leaders say its core goals are to maintain Buddhist supremacy in Myanmar, describing Muslims as parasites threatening Buddhism’s majority status.

The fears appear exaggerated in a country where Buddhists account for 89% of the population of 60 million, and Muslims only 4%. Most of the violence has occurred in areas with larger Muslim concentrations, though even in these the share of Muslims doesn’t exceed about one-quarter.

Buddhists say that prominently displaying 969 stickers ensure that they won’t be boycotted by fellow Buddhists and could spare them from mob violence. In the country’s biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, which have Muslim minorities of 10% to 20%, the stickers are increasingly visible in taxis, shop windows and homes.

“I placed the 969 sticker on my car so everyone knows I’m Buddhist,” said Soe Soe, a taxi driver in Yangon. Similarly, some Christians and Hindus are starting to wear their own religious symbols more prominently in order not to be mistaken for Muslims.

Some of Myanmar’s Muslims and some other religious minorities have origins from India dating from British colonial rule of both countries. Muslims were envied for their relative economic success by the majority Buddhist Burmese, and even after independence in 1948 little was done by successive governments to bridge the differences.

The loosely structured 969 movement is headed by influential monks like Wiseitta Biwuntha—better known as the Venerable Wirathu——who was jailed in 2003 for allegedly instigating anti-Muslim riots and freed in 2012 along with hundreds of others, many of them political prisoners. He has urged Buddhists to exclusively support their institutions and to boycott shops run by “the enemy” and has branded Muslims as being “responsible for all crimes in Myanmar.”

As international condemnation of the violence against Muslims has grown, the monk has been toning down his rhetoric and encouraging tolerance. In Facebook FB +3.69% updates, though, he still blames Muslims for forced conversions of Buddhist women and advocates the boycott of Muslim establishments.

“The 969 is totally an anti-Muslim campaign,” said Ko Ko Latt, a Muslim businessman and spokesman for the All-Myanmar Muslim Organization. “When a speaker from this 969 group speaks about Muslims, what they say about Islam is totally incorrect.”

The Venerable Wirathu said the group stands for “conserving Buddhist affairs” and encouraging Buddhists to support each other’s businesses and marry within the faith. “When Muslims open shops, other Muslim people are their customers,” he said. “For Buddhist people, it has to be this way too. I just work for the people who believe in Buddhist teachings.”

President Thein Sein has vowed to use force, if necessary, to keep mob attacks from spreading. Zaw Htay, director in the president’s office, said that the government was encouraging interfaith dialogue and that violations of the law would be prosecuted. Civil-society groups that advocate religious tolerance have started holding their own demonstrations and spreading pamphlets.But despite such efforts and milder rhetoric from 969 leaders, it may be “too optimistic” to think that the public mood will change, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Washington-based fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Myanmar “has a long history of xenophobia and a lot of repressed anger in many directions, so more anger and violence is probably likely,” Mr. Kurlantzick said. The ideas behind the 969 movement is “representative of a broad swath” of Buddhist opinion.

Some Muslims now fear leaving their homes, keeping a constant ear out for rumors of sporadic violence.

“We are the minority group in this country, that is why I am scared, especially after hearing about all this conflict,” said Khin Myint, 53 years old, a Muslim in Yangon. “I don’t dare go outside at night now and I worry for my son who has to travel around the city for his work.”

—Myo Myo in Yangon and Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.

Corrections & Amplifications
Myanmar gained independence in 1948. A previous version of this article incorrectly gave the gave the date of 1947.

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