There was a time when an aversion to fascism was one of the few things that united most Burmese, at least those of the political class. In the years between the end of World War II and 1962, when the military seized power, the country’s main political force was the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, which grew out of the resistance to Japan’s wartime occupation.
After 50 years of military rule that was fascist in all but name, however, Burma is seeing a resurgence of an ideology that much of the rest of the world believes was soundly defeated in the middle of the last century. Even as the country moves toward democracy after shedding direct military rule two years ago, there are disturbing signs that the young are in danger of succumbing to the influence of a brand of extreme nationalism that has dominated political thinking in the country for two generations.
These thoughts are prompted not only by the recent outbreak of anti-Muslim riots in central Burma and the rise of the so-called 969 movement, which is led by Buddhist monks who appear to regard Muslims much as the Nazis viewed Jews. They also come to mind because of a recent visit I made to Mon State, where I witnessed the bizarre spectacle of young Burmese waving Nazi flags and sporting t-shirts with swastikas.
Mon State is, as most Burmese know, one of the most devoutly Buddhist parts of the country. More recently, however, it has also become known as a hotbed of 969 activity, even if it was untouched by the wave of violence that swept though parts of central Burma last month. Some even believe that the movement was founded by a group of radical young monks in Moulmein, the state capital.
None of this prepared me, however, for the blatant displays of Nazi symbolism that I saw as I traveled through the state during last week’s Thingyan water festival, which marks the start of the traditional Burmese new year.
From Kyaik Hto, where the famous Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is located, to the remote town of Than Phyu Zayat, I was startled by the sight of teenagers and young adults dressed in gothic fashion, with their hair spiked and eyes darkened, wearing t-shirts bearing red swastikas inside blue circles.
But it wasn’t just the strange taste in fashion that struck me. In Moulmein, dozens of young people roared around on motorcycles, some waving hand-drawn Nazi flags, while others carried iron rods or bamboo sticks. It was all—as it was no doubt intended to be—very menacing.
All of this stood in stark contrast to the traditional image of Mon State as a place proud of its peaceable Buddhist ways. But at the same time, it also felt oddly in keeping with the mood in the country these days. It is as if the ugliness unleashed in Arakan State last year and in Meikhtila in March is beginning to take a more definite form—one that is at once superficial, but at the same time deadly serious.
Perhaps there is a danger of reading too much into what may be no more than a display of youthful rebelliousness. It’s even possible that many of these young people are not even aware of the historical significance of the Nazi swastika, which they could easily have mistaken for the far older symbol of auspiciousness used by Hindus and Buddhists long before Hitler twisted it into a emblem of racial hatred.
Such thoughts would be of some comfort, if not for the fact that Burma’s homegrown brand of fascism also seems to be thriving. Everywhere I went in Mon State, I saw 969 stickers plastered on cars, shop windows and buildings. There is no mistaking the sentiment behind this show of support for a shadowy movement that openly targets a religious minority, and it is much scarier than even the toughest-looking young delinquent.
This is not to say that everyone backs this effort to hijack Buddhism in the name of extreme nationalism. One junior college student I spoke to told me that he was staying at a monastery where there were also a couple of young monks who he described as key members of the 969 movement. He said, however, that abbot of the monastery disapproved of their activities. (Sadly, I also noted that this young student’s own motorcycle had a 969 sticker on it.)
Others told me that members of the local community, including Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders, had worked together to prevent riots from breaking out in Moulmein. It was good to know that so far they have succeeded in keeping the peace, at least in Mon State.
Although the 969 movement is a relatively recent phenomenon, the deep-seated xenophobia that feeds it is nothing new. A Catholic priest at one of the oldest churches in Moulmein told me that he believed the rise of such religious extremism has its roots in Burma’s half-century of military rule, which often appealed to ethnic chauvinism to legitimize the generals’ hold on power. The elderly priest, who still remembers the days of parliamentary democracy under former Prime Minister U Nu, said that there was far more religious freedom in Burma in its first decade and a half of independence than there has been since.
It is deeply disheartening, then, that even as Burma finally seems on the verge of shedding authoritarian rule, many of its young people seem so susceptible to the nihilistic fantasies of fascism. We can only hope that they will quickly outgrow this phase, and learn that the only way to achieve their own dreams is by respecting those of others.