‘The Face Of Buddhist Terror?’
For a majority Buddhist country, the politics of Myanmar is complex. And if one wants to, it’s not difficult to draw comparisons between Myanmar and Sri Lanka, given the religious history shared between the two states. Sadly, the comparisons drawn today are not along these lines. Neither are they ones that are comparable to the teachings of the Buddha. They are based on the violence that the notorious 969 Movement in Myanmar, under the infamous priest, Ven. Wirathu engages in, and those of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
The similarities are quite uncanny if you want to check for comparisons. The rhetoric is even more frighteningly so. The run up to the violence is also very similar – the same vein in which the Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka warns the country against a Muslim invasion, the infamous 969 Movement of Myanmar has been rousing the Buddhists with. Their charge is the same – that Saudi Arabian funds are behind the conspiracy to take over the Buddhist country, and of secret meetings inside mosques. They too insist that Buddhists should not conduct any business with Muslims. They warn against intermarriages between the two communities. It’s almost as if it is a shared script – the theatrics being almost identical.
When 45 year old Aye Aye Naing, a Buddhist woman from Pyon Kout in Myanmar went to a Muslim shop to pawn a gold hair clip on March 20, 2013, it was unlikely that she thought the transaction would be the precursor to a massacre that the country witnessed barely 24 hours later. According to reports, the bargaining for the clip took an ugly turn when the shop owner had tried to offer half of its value, claiming it was damaged. The resultant slap on her face by the owner had led to her husband getting involved – and he was assaulted by three assistants working in the shop.
Fuelled by communal slurs
When the police arrived, the onlookers who were Buddhists were clearly ready to take matters into their own hands. Fuelled by communal slurs, witnesses claim that a few minutes later, the enraged mobs were already after Muslim establishments. The building where the shop was housed was destroyed.
By 5.00 pm that evening, the people, reportedly fuelled by leaflets distributed a couple of weeks earlier of a Muslim conspiracy, were now geared towards a violent resolution of the issue. Witnesses claim that a Muslim gang had attacked a cyclist whose pillion rider was a monk. They had thereafter set fire to the rider, and had attacked the monk who had succumbed to his injuries in hospital several hours later. As a Buddhist man had gone crying to the market that a ‘Buddhist monk has been killed,’ it became the justification the mobs had needed to act. By evening, several homes, a mosque and a children’s home had been set on fire, and the Muslim people were on the run.
Very similar to the allegations levelled against the police in Sri Lanka on how they handled or mishandled the violence in Aluthgama, the Burmese police too were charged with watching in their hundreds as the violence had escalated. As many as two hundred policemen had watched people being butchered, and homes and religious places being burned. By midnight that same day, the police were recalled. There were reportedly 10 policemen left in the village by 4.00 am the following morning, as the Muslims had armed themselves in retaliation.
They kill an old Buddhist man. By the end of the day, 26 people were reported as being killed, and within the next three days, a further 20 were said to be killed. Witnesses claim that Buddhist mobs carrying machetes had chased the people. The bodies were later set on fire by the mobs. Approximately 12,000 people were driven out of their homes, and rendered displaced by day four. This was the same movement that was behind the violence the previous year which had left a further 200 dead and approximately 140,000 people displaced.
Violence due to a petty scuffle
One cannot but draw comparisons between this incident and the one that shed blood in Aluthgama, killing four people and destroying homes and businesses of the Muslim community in June this year. A further 165 were left injured and 150 buildings were destroyed. In a similar fashion, the violence had begun due to a petty scuffle. A three-wheeler carrying a Buddhist priest had been attempting to overtake a motorcycle carrying two Muslim youths, who had prevented the three-wheeler from passing. The ensuing verbal exchange had turned violent as the Muslim youths had attacked the Buddhist priest who was later admitted to hospital. It was the rumour of the priest dying in hospital that had set the grounds for the BBS to put its politics into place the following day.
The Bodu Bala Sena stand accused with evidence of inciting hatred and pushing the people towards violence following a meeting in Aluthgama town hours after the incident. Calling for revenge from the Muslims, the meeting was followed by what was clearly a well-planned mob attack on Muslim houses and businesses in the area. Witnesses from the area insist the mobs were not from the area. For days afterwards, the town and the vicinity required Army and STF protection.
Today, many Buddhists in Myanmar shun Muslim businesses, and vice versa. Sectarian politics had successfully created anger, fear and hatred between the communities. Even the liberal Buddhists don’t interfere in fear of retaliation from the 969.
The history behind the number 969 is also interesting. They use the number they claim that symbolizes Buddhism as a challenge against the 786 used by the Muslims in their businesses to signify the Prophet Muhammed. Ven. Wirathu’s movement believes the number is significant of world domination that the Muslims seek in the 21st century.
When this monk is invited to the country to address a convention of the group that shares the ideology, it helps to be mindful. Mindful of the danger, the vulnerabilities of the ignorant, and the instability such politics can create. It is also to the duty of the State to ensure that the growing fears in the Muslims who had witnessed their plight at the hands of the mobs in Aluthgama, are addressed. These are not fears that an administration seeking international support on the basis of equal treatment to its minorities can afford.
Calling himself the “Burmese bin Laden” Ven. Wirathu who was released from prison in 2012, was allegedly behind the extremist anti-Muslim actions that fuel Myanmar today. It is equally difficult to believe that behind the serene face of Ven. Wirathu, there is such a multitude of complex emotions. The violence he has espoused against the minority Muslim community is even more difficult to condone. His movement, 969, is accused of continuing to practice sectarian politics.
Ideologies of 969
Like the BBS did last week at its Sangha Council, the 969 also demands that Myanmar recognize Buddhism as the State religion. A manifesto that is drawn on very similar lines to the ideologies of the 969, the BBS also demands the government of greater recognition and protection for the Sinhala Buddhists. Its architect, Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara insists that if the administration fails in this, he will find the solutions himself. In an interview with The Sunday Leader (appearing elsewhere in the paper) the thera speaks of ‘democratic’ means to this end – possibly alluding to the Presidential poll.
It’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dilantha Withanage, also insists that ‘there should be only one nationality in the country – that is Sinhalese.’
“Tamils who live in this country should be Sinhala Tamils. Muslims who live here should be Sinhala Muslims and Hindus who live here should be Sinhala Hindus,” he claims in a dangerously irrational turn of events. The growth and promotion of the group are not elements that a country moving out of a three decades-long war should be entertaining. The violence openly espoused by the BBS deserves condemnation at the highest level. Communal politics cannot be afforded growth in a war-weary Sri Lanka at this stage.
It would be to President Rajapaksa’s credit if he were to take a cue from his own neighbouring giant, India. Barely months after assuming duties as the Prime Minister of the global economic giant, Narendra Modi had expressed the desire to move to the Maharashtra State polls minus the controversial Shiv Sena party within his coalition. The political maturity with which Modi drops the extremists’ party in his capacity as Premier of a country that needs to co-exist between a myriad of communities, is to be hailed. Similarly, the need for President Rajapaksa to rid the baggage of such extremists elements within the UPFA itself, that has and can continue to play mischief, cannot be ignored.