Fascism is Back in Fashion in Burma

Young people wave homemade Nazi flags and wear swastika-emblazoned t-shirts during the Thingyan water festival in Moulmein, Mon State. (Photo: Kyaw Zwa Moe / The Irrawaddy)

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.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is editor (English Edition) of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

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.


29 Responses to Fascism is Back in Fashion in Burma

  1. Kyaw Zwa Moe,
    What is the population of Burma today? 45 millions? 50 million? How many people in those horrible racist shirts or holding the stupid nazi flags? 1 million? One hundred thousands? ten thousand? Do your maths. Then think twice before you give the heading such as “fascism is back in fashion in Burma”. Don’t chase the popularity at any cost.

    • Well! People who torched houses and slaughtered many lives in Meikhtila were tiny group compare to the whole Burmese population but they were able to cause huge damage. Tiny rubbish fire can burn down the whole complex later. Small or big, intolerable behavior must not be ignored by society. Rudeness must not be part of Holy Religious Festival.

  2. I dont think these Nazi signs or flags anything to do with recent clash between Muslim and Buddhists in the country.

    Since I was a kid, most burmese youths and kids like to wear all foreign things such as Union Jet flag including Nazi sign without knowing or intentionally, as part of their fashion esp on Thingyan festival.

  3. It is not funny. If they misused their freedom and hurt someone, they are liable for their action. Nazi and fascism had been symbol of death to many Jews and other Europeans including the Germans themselves. Stupidity is the lowest kind of human quality to express.

  4. I too vehemently support your concluding remarks that the only way to achieve your dreams is by respecting others. Burmese youths must know that there is no glory in vandalizing Muslim properties, No bravado in killing innocent minorities. Rather Burmese youths should be the one protesting against the discriminatory citizenship laws of Burmese government. Burmese young-men must know that there are many ethnic minorities in Muslim countries who are Buddhist. What would you feel if you see videos where the majority is burning down the properties of minority Buddhists. If you continuously slash and burn Muslim properties and kill them continuously, then following the Newtonian 3rd law, the reaction would be equal and opposite, and anywhere in the world your Buddhist brothers will suffer. Our first identity is “we are human being” not that we are Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu/Christian. And every human being deserves equal right. You must ensure this in Burma, especially for the Muslim minorities. If Lord Buddha had been alive today, I am sure he would have left you seeing what you are doing by using his holy preaches.

  5. Very good article, Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe!
    Some people in Burma do not understand the destructive volatility of mixing politics with a heavy dose of nationalism, fascism and religious fervour, or perhaps there is a deeper sinister “master plan” behind all of these excesses. I hope not, but you never know!

  6. Re Fascism in Burma article and the use of the swastika symbol see also

    http://history1900s.about.com/cs/swastika/a/swastikahistory.htm

    I think from the fact that the swastika in the photo is aimed counterclockwise, it is not the Nazi symbol but the older benign symbol.

    Since the author of the article was on the scene and knew about the two meanings of the swastika symbol, I am surprised he (she) did not ask the people with the flags and T-shirts what the symbol meant to them.

    Paul Copeland
    Lawyer
    Canada

  7. Fascism is the opposite of democracy and therefore should be discouraged at all time. 969 movement is a setback for the country and should be stopped once and for all.

  8. Come on…..fascists have controlled Burma for the last 50 years!

  9. When they are at it, might as well replace the statues of three bandits in naypyidaw with those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.

  10. Of all the people Burmese with their Mongoloid looks would know for certain how they would be regarded by the real Arian/Nazi/ Fascists if they ever come to power.They would be regarded even lower than Negroes/ Jews/Arabs and others and would face total annihilation.So if the young Burmese think it is Hip to be identified like the Inbred Braindead bunch of Assholes who run around civilised societies threatening common folks,they better think twice.or else.

  11. Paul Copeland is correct. There is a difference between the swastika used by the Nazis and the one used by Hindus and Buddhists. The ones in the photograph are angled in the direction of the swastikas used in Hinduism and Buddhism, the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika. The flag, however, is very similar to the Nazi Party flag. It is difficult to know what the intent was without talking to the people in the photo. The writer of the article appears to be speculating. It would be more than a bit ridiculous for Burmese Buddhists to be subscribing to “Nazi” ideology, seeing as in Nazi ideology, Burmese are an inferior race of brown people. We see swastikas and outright Nazi symbols on sale in Thailand rather frequently, sad to say. Most often, people buying the stuff are not really aware of its meaning or understand what Hitler did.

  12. On a recent visit, i was surprised to see a large%,maybe 20-30% of motor cyclists wearing helmets which were replicas of the WW2 German army Wehrmacht “staalhelm”.
    Just a fashion K Thant?

  13. Kwaw Zwa Moe,
    It’s not truth .

  14. India has a foreign born Italian leader and some cabinet ministers have foreigner spouses. Singapore too has many cabinet ministers born in other countries but later become naturalised citizens to serve the adopted country. It is not a strange thing in Singapore to have a foreign wife. America has a president whose father is a foreigner. What the hell with the foreigners ? We see everyday different faces , different talents, different cultures, living harmony in this country for so long. Why must we resort to the violance and hatred. Do you know that , Thin loke thaw pee tin than, thint htan pyan lar mye. What you do ( action), you will get it back (reaction). It is dangerous to touch the racial things as we have seen it bad things in all over the world, souther thailand, Indonesia, Iraq, Syria, afganistan, Pakistan, India, US, UK and many more. Moderation is the back medicine to all the problem. Peace is the way to go for a lasting peace, not the violance. Khine

    • Khine Khine,

      Burma’s constitution was not drafted for the good of the nation, neither for democracy. But To let the power-crazy generals to keep hanging on to power and to bar our Lady from holding the highest position. Dirty constitution indeed.

  15. The writer is very canny. He tries to associate 969 with swastika to make 969 a Nazi implication even if he can say that swastika is a Buddhist and Hindu sign. I believe most of the people wearing those T-shirts even don’t know the Nazi symbol. This is the problem with Irrawaddy Magazine. They try to label the religious extremists in Burma instead of explaining the meaning of 969. In his article, he doesn’t mention what the 969 is representing.
    As for the westerners, the article is a very reasonable one because the binary oppositions used in the text such as majority/minority, Nazi/Jews are the devices used in Western texts since two thousand years ago.

  16. Fascism is absurdism
    Fascism is barbarism
    Fascism is cannibalism
    Fascism is dogmatism
    Fascism is egocentrism
    Fascism is fanaticism
    Fascism is giantism
    Fascism is hooliganism
    Fascism is illusionism
    Fascism is jujuism….

    all bad “ism’s”
    become the meaning of “fascism”.

  17. a disgraceful poorly researched article from a sensationalist angle. Not a swastika in sight!!!!

  18. @paul: it is the “bad” swastika, and many youngsters (not all) DO know what it actually stands for (just check social media in burmese language). i’ve met numerous radical kids who told me they like to exterminate muslims ‘like hitler did’ (with the jews). quite a few were “students” at sittwe university; in other words: the next “educated” (as far as one can speak about education in myanmar) generation. sure, it’s partly macho testosteron behaviour by frustrated young males but after the events in rakhine state and meikthila recently, I’m sure about 1 thing: we ain’t seen nothing yet. myanmar’s last 60 years were pitch black, its future remains black no matter what EU and Obama try making us believe (for their own sakes).

    totalitarian systems mess up people’s minds (exactly what the junta wanted to achieve), combined with lack of education + religious fanaticism = MISERY guaranteed.

    also, exactly as the junta planned it: give a little freedom (+ cheap chinese mobile phones and synthetic clothes) to the people and then show the world it’s the people who can’t deal with their newly acquired “rights” (ie. killing and attacking those elements in burmese society the junta actually wants to get rid off). a well-planned course.

    burma is a failed state, still (anno 2013) ruled by fascists. even the buddha knows that by now.

  19. How about Buddhism? Is it good? Ha…..ha…..ha.

  20. Good work Irrawaddy, keep it up. you might even find a Auschwitz where 6 millions Muslims are being killed on Thai-Burma border in Mon state.

    ( this comment is base on the future report by Human Right Watch)

  21. The tragedy of all the violence happening in Burma today has its roots in history. The Buddhist monks claim, people with Muslim faith as being Non-Burmese and as such must be exterminated,I wonder if it were Sinhalese from Sri Lanka who were living in Meiktila and Rakhine what their fate might have been.Since Sinhalese are predominantly Therawada Buddhists like the Burmese themselves. I guess the perpetrators would use the ‘Race Card’ simply because Sinhalese look like the Indians and would be regarded as Kalaas and as such must be exterminated.The Bamas who were never a homogene race should do some research as to their real identity.The land previously known as Burma is at the crossroad between ancient India and Indo-China and as such people from both these regions(and others) have been mingling,intermarrying and which gene is dominant nobody can decide beforehand.The other issue is the majority of the people in Burma seem to forget what they perpetrated against another peaceful Buddhist country.Just take a trip to Ayuthiya in neighbouring Thailand.I myself was born in Burma and my great great grandfather came to Burma as a Physician to the Last Mogul Emperor Shah Zafar where he was kept in captivity by the British.My grandfather married my grandmother who was of Mon descent.During our days in Burma we were quite frequently refered to as Kalaas.I’ve been living in Germany for the past 40 years,all my children have got blue eyes and my granchildren are all blond and blueeyed too.I wonder in which category I will be stated in present Burma,Kalaphyu maybe.I can go on and on but to cut it short I will say Burma is going down a very dangerous path and if the people responsible are not brought to justice soon the International Community will take teps.It does not suffice to say ‘everyone must follow the rule of law’ and do nothing about ending the violence against innocent minorities.

    • So Buddha is not considered a Kalar in Myanmar? He’s not a Tayoke either, is he?
      I am proud of my Onge ancestors from Andaman Islands! Burmese call them “kappli” I think.

  22. Dear Ko Kyaw Swa Moe,

    I read your article in the Irrawaddy recently. It filled me with anxiety and in particular if what you reported that the youth of our country, especially, as you’d described, the youth in the Mon State have fallen for the fascist ideas, it horrified me. I would like to think it their naivety rather than serious conviction. In any case the very fact that the youth had openly displayed their fascist leaning together with carrying around improvised weapons to at least threaten others is indeed a seriously worrying development. However I would take this as a timely warning, flagging up a serious problem developing within our society. It demonstrated the serious lack of sophisticated education to understand about mutual respect, non discrimination and about mutual coexistent between different groups of people. They lacked education about what it is that they really need to understand when they call for Democracy, Freedom and Liberty. It also showed how naive and ignorant our youth has become; and that, also entangled here is the notion of superiority of one’s own nationalism and religion. The wrong kind of nationalism, patriotism and religious fervour – the inward looking, self centered, narrow minded, self-grandiosity kind. The kind which dragged the country, once top of the SEA countries, to an impoverished, insignificant and underdeveloped country at the mercy of the wolves like China. We have to be thankful, in a way though, for such early and timely demonstration of misguided attitudes. Now we can and we have to think of tackling them at this early stage. Certainly not by suppression as it will fester on covertly, but rather, by education; for if we don’t we will certainly return to the pariah state we were, on the world stage.

    Our country is made up of many different and diverse groups of people with different ethnicity, race, beliefs, religions and culture; and within each group would also be similar differences. We have over 100 ethnic groups and within each will be different beliefs, religions and culture. If we start to discriminate one another based on religion or religious grounds, then follows discriminations based on ethnicity, race culture and so on. Where will these discriminations end? No one likes to be discriminated, both those who discriminate as well as those who are discriminated; and those who discriminate will soon find themselves discriminated. We don’t want to build a country of intolerance, bigotry, discrimination and division. We want to build a society in which there is mutual respect and dignity of each and every person, regardless of ethnicity, religion, creed and belief. We want a society which is free, fair and just; a society in which everyone is equal before the law and with the Rule of Law paramount.

    We have laws in our country (be it that it had been the rule of the authority rather than the Rule of Law over the past 5 decades); and as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had repeatedly pointed out, we have some good laws as well as some bad laws. We need to work towards upholding good laws, and repeal the bad laws. However, laws need to work and need to be seen to work so that the people have trust and confidence in them rather than taking law into their own hands in times of discord like we have seen recently. Taking law into their own hands and vigilante tactics are both non democratic and anti social activities. We cannot have a situation in which mob rule and the tyranny of the majority prevail over common sense. If we continue this way there will be total breakdown of law, order and harmony in the country with consequent mistrust amongst various groups of people, making it harder for any hope of reconciliation. There is also, of course the ever present real danger of the country falling back into the hands of military dictatorship.

    We have a big task ahead to educate our people, especially the youth. While the onus is now upon every elected Members of the Parliament to both voice against discriminations on any grounds and against the vigilante activities, and lead to educate the people; I see a conscientious journalist’s role extremely important, for he or she has generally immediate access to the public and therefore greater power to influence and therefore the opportunity to educate as well as counsel against any activity which would prove detrimental to the harmony of our country.

    Peter Soe-Wynn

  23. Dear Mr. Kyaw Zwa Moe,
    I can’t help but you simply exaggerate. This as a result of “unfiltered” western influence ?
    If you are travelling through certain Islamic countries you will come upon that “Nazi Hakenkreuz/Svastika” rather often, the same like in Myanmar. Especially young people seem to favour it. Try to give an answer WHY. By Nazi definition the Hakenkreuz (Svastika) is an ARYAN (the word IRAN is derived from it) SYMBOL for ”pureness of the blood” which plays an important role in the raciology of the Nazis (abbreviation for National Socialists). Their ‘race ideology’ is related to the Indo-European Migration some thousand years ago. The specific Nazi-Svastika also functioned as an anti-Jewish symbol (and therefore is forbidden in Germany).

  24. Kyaw Zwa Moe, I don’t understand why you didn’t ask the guys about the meaning of swastika for them.
    I met a boy with a t-shirt showing a swastika and I asked him the reason why he was wearing that symbol, but we couldn’t communicate. Unfortunately I’m still very poor in burmese.
    You can talk with people, why you just didn’t ask them?

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