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Everything seems peaceful in Moulmein, the Mon state capital on the southern coast of Burma, in spite of the profusion of “969” logos plastered around the city. In a gold shop in the central market, the sticker – a religious symbol that represents the three jewels of Buddhism — figures prominently above a small shrine devoted to Buddha.
“It is to remind people that this is a Buddhist shop, so Buddhists can buy here, but Muslim customers are also welcome,” explains the shopkeeper.
The now infamous symbol is also being used to promote an extreme form of religious nationalism in Burma and has been linked to a recent surge in anti-Muslim violence, which claimed over 40 lives and devastated thousands of homes across the country in March. Its most vocal advocate and the self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” – monk Ashin Wirathu – has made international headlines for his role in fuelling Islamophobic propaganda under the guise of the “969” campaign.
But the logo itself was designed in Moulmein – a city with a sizeable Muslim population – by the movement’s secretary, Ashin Sada Ma, and launched seven months ago. Sitting in an office stacked with stickers and pamphlets of the multi-coloured image, the 37-year-old abbot from Mya Sadi monastery, talks passionately about his design.
“The lions symbolise bravery, the elephant strength, the horse speed and the ox forbearance,” explains Ashin Sada Ma, referring to the Pillar of Ashoka – an ancient Buddhist effigy of the four animals – which is featured at the centre of the logo. King Ashoka, a third century Indian king who spread Buddhism to Burma, receives luminous praise.
“If someone wants to do something good for the Buddhist religion, the country or the people, he or she must have the spirit of the king Ashoka, with the qualities of those four animals in his heart,” says Sada Ma.“I fear that some Bengali Muslims are terrorists”
He claims the campaign is intended to educate the young about the value of their Buddhist heritage. “In the modern age, the young people don’t know the jewels of Buddhism; this logo is designed to remind them,” he says.
“When placing the symbol, the person should pray and recite,” reads a set of instructions that go with the logos. “It must be used throughout the country to show unity. If the symbol is used by people of other religions in disguise, they should be sued.”
The logo was formally launched on 30 October 2012, on full moon day of Thadingyut, one of the main festivities of the Burmese calendar. But Sada Ma denies that the Arakan violence, which pitted Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims in June and October last year, influenced the campaign. In fact, he claims it was planned months in advance.
But later he adds that the “Bengalis” – which is how the stateless Rohingya are viewed by the government and many citizens – are fuelling conflict by “migrating” to Burma, even though most have lived in the country for generations.
“If they come, they can easily influence our country,” he laments. “They are trying to improve their lives in our country and our lands. So this symbol and campaign is intended to defend ourselves. I fear that some Bengali Muslims are terrorists and have a mission to Islamise our country.”
Although Sada Ma is adamant that the campaign is not aimed against Muslims, he worries that Islam will spread across Asia. “Only small parts of Asia are Buddhist now; in the past Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and many other places, including Turkey and Iraq, were Buddhist countries, but now they are lost.”
Sada Ma, who was appointed as the “969” movement’s secretary in Mon State shortly after its launch, hastens to add that the campaign – which has spread to every state in Burma – is not a national organisation, but operates autonomously in different regions. “In other places, they will spread the symbol on their own. Other townships use the logo for their own purposes.”
He insists that Wirathu — who has been widely criticised for practicing hate speech against Muslims by urging Buddhists not to marry or trade with them – also acts “independently” from the original “969” movement.
He explains that Wirathu wants Buddhists to be as “united” as Muslims are, although forbidding inter-faith marriages is not the traditional “Buddhist way”. But he stops short of disavowing Wirathu’s ideas altogether. “They are acceptable if they help Buddhism,” he says.
In an interview with DVB in April, the notorious monk sat elevated on a chair with several huge portraits of himself hanging in the background, as he claimed to have discovered a “Muslim conspiracy” to conquer Burma through economic exploitation and inter-faith marriage.
“If Buddhists don’t do anything to stop it, the whole country will be like the Mayu region in Arakan state by 2100,” he said, referring to an area mostly populated by Muslim Rohingya. “Buddhists can talk with Muslims, but not marry them; there can be friendship between them, but not trade.”
Although the latest wave of unrest erupted in Meikhtila in March some months after Wirathu delivered a series of inflammatory sermons in the area, he denies inciting violence. Sada Ma also denies responsibility, pointing to the absence of anti-Muslim violence in Mon state — the birthplace of the campaign.
Many say that “969” is a direct response to the prolific use of the number “786” by Muslims in Burma, claiming that because it adds up to 21 it indicates their intention to “Islamise” the country in the 21st century. But an imam at one of the biggest mosques in Rangoon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted that Muslims only use “786” to “ask God for help and to have good luck.”
“There is no history of Islamic terrorism or attacks against Buddhists in Burma,” he said, adding that the imams in the city “are using their sermons to appeal for Muslim youths to keep calm and not respond to the provocations of Buddhist terrorists”.
He accused elements of the government of actively backing the “969” movement, Wirathu and anti-Muslim violence in Burma. This is a suspicion shared by many, including Buddhists, who say it gives the army a chance to present itself as the only institution capable of imposing order.
One of them is Ashin Pum Na Wontha, a 56-year-old Buddhist monk with a long history of political activism. He is part of the Peace Cultivation Network, an organisation which promotes inter-faith dialogue, and is one of the few people in Burma who defends Rohingyas as legitimate citizens.
“Both Wirathu and the 969 movement receive financial support from the cronies,” he claimed. According to the monk, “some Muslim businessmen have huge assets in different industries, especially in the central regions of the country, and the cronies covet them.”
He also accused the military of stoking violence in order to “establish a working relationship with the civilian government”; similar to that of 1958, when Burma’s first civilian government — led by U Nu — transferred power to the army in a bid to control the country’s escalating ethnic conflicts.
Whatever the truth of these allegations, the “969” campaign and anti-Muslim sentiments are spreading rapidly through Burma without much government intervention. Most recently it spread to Oakkan, only 60 miles north of Rangoon, renewing concerns that religious riots could sweep the entire country.