MAWLAMYINE, Mon State — It’s around 8 pm on a recent evening in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, and U Wimala Biwuntha, a Buddhist monk, is about to arrive to deliver a sermon at a temple in the city’s Aut Kyin Quarter. Despite his reputation as a charismatic speaker, however, there are barely a hundred people inside the main religious hall, and perhaps another hundred—mostly children—outside.
“Please go in,” some women tell me and a few others who are standing outside. “There are not so many people here tonight, so the Sayadaw might be upset.”
A few minutes later, U Wimala, who looks much younger than his 40 years, makes his appearance. After chanting a short Buddhist prayer, he begins his sermon with an ominous warning: “We Buddhists are like people in a boat that is sinking. If this does not change, our race and religion will soon vanish.”
“And so,” he adds, “tonight’s sermon will be about 969.”
He pauses briefly, then asks, “What is tonight’s sermon about?”
“969,” his audience replies.
“What is it about?” he repeats through his microphone, raising his voice.
“Louder! You have to shout it louder. Even if you make this Dhamma Yone [religious assembly hall] collapse, we can rebuild it.”
It was a strange scene, more reminiscent of a political rally than a Buddhist sermon. But it didn’t come as a surprise: U Wimala was well known as a firebrand monk and a leading exponent of the 969 movement that has in recent months attracted a great deal of attention in the country and, indeed, around the world. Regarded as a brand of extreme Buddhist nationalism, it has been linked to recent outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar that many worry could turn into a nationwide conflagration.
The women who had guided us into the building also handed us pamphlets spelling out what 969 stands for. “We Buddhists must protect our race and religion by worshiping and applying 969,” the tracts say. Meanwhile, loudspeakers blare out a song with a similar message: “We Buddhists shouldn’t stay calm. If we are calm, our race and religion will vanish.”
U Wimala explains in his sermon that the numbers in 969 refer to the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six special attributes of his Dhamma, or teachings, and the nine special attributes of the Sangha, or community of monks. While most regard 969 as a relatively new movement, for U Wimala it is as old as Buddhism itself.
“You must remember,” he says in a booming voice, “that 969 has existed for 2,600 years. Christianity emerged 620 years after 969, and Islam more than a thousand years after 969.”
At the same time, however, he acknowledges the movement’s newfound notoriety.
“Some people ask, ‘Is it legal?’ I don’t even know how to answer that question. Isn’t the Buddha legal? We monks are legal, aren’t we?”
He also insists that the movement is non-violent, relying only on boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses bearing the number 786, which is used by Muslims in Myanmar to mark halal restaurants and shops, to achieve its goals.
“We have never spoken of beating or killing people of different religions,” he insists. “Our Buddha taught us never to kill any creature, let alone people or members of different religions.”
But if these words were intended to reassure Muslims, who make up roughly half the population of Mawlamyine’s Aut Kyin Quarter, they failed.
“It’s scary, the way he speaks,” U Tin Aung, a 68-year-old Muslim man, told me outside the temple after the sermon. It wasn’t so much the words, he said, but the intensity with which they were delivered.
Distorting the Dhamma
Muslims are not alone in feeling that there’s something distinctly unnerving about the way the 969 movement seeks to instill fear in the hearts of Buddhists about a supposed Muslim conspiracy to drive their faith out of Myanmar, where it has taken firm root over the past two millennia.
“This is the first and last time,” said one of the organizers of the evening’s sermon. “We intended this for young people and kids. We didn’t know he would talk about all this 969 stuff.”
Others I spoke to were also less than impressed by U Wimala’s fiery rhetoric.
“He sounds like Hitler,” U Htun Than, a 57-year-old Buddhist and former political candidate in Myanmar’s 1990 elections, told me bluntly after we sat through the sermon. “It will be a big problem if his group becomes stronger.”
U Kyaw Kyaw, another local politician from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), agreed. “You heard the song: ‘We shouldn’t stay calm. If we stay calm, our race and religion will vanish.’ What is that supposed to mean? They are just agitating people. It has to stop.”
During our conversation, U Kyaw Kyaw reminds me that the 969 movement has its roots in Mawlamyine, a city long known as a bastion of the Buddhist faith.
It was here, nearly two centuries ago, that local protests forced the closure of a missionary school after a Buddhist student converted to Christianity. Since that incident, which occurred just 12 years after the British assumed control of the southern part of Myanmar in 1824, Mawlamyine has had a well-earned reputation for being staunchly Buddhist, even as British rule brought with it an influx of mostly Muslim migrants from India, whose descendants now make up roughly a fifth of the city’s population.
The 969 movement itself goes back to 1997, when a 40-page booklet titled “969” first appeared in Mawlamyine. Published by Hna Phet Hla (literally, “the beauty of both sides”) and penned under the name U Kyaw Lwin, this short manifesto urged Buddhists to openly display the numbers 969 on their homes, businesses and vehicles. It didn’t, however, single out any other religion for criticism. Instead, it merely called on Buddhists to be good people and support each other.
A few years later, however, another booklet started circulating that carried an overtly anti-Islamic message. Called “Worrying about the Vanishing of the Race,” it also emphasized the need to behave properly, but among its 17 prescriptions for protecting the Buddhist religion were some that encouraged active discrimination against Muslims.
The book, which first appeared around 2000 and was never legally published (meaning that anyone found in possession of it faced a seven-year jail sentence under Section 5 (j) of the 1950 Emergency Act), said that Buddhists should employ a “three cuts” strategy against Muslims. This entailed cutting off all business ties; not allowing Buddhists to marry Muslims; and severing all social relations with Muslims, including even casual conversation. It stopped short, however, of advocating violence.
Even now, the 969 movement disavows violence, even as it is increasingly seen as playing a key role in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment. Ostensibly, at least, its activities are peaceful. U Wimala, for instance, has instituted Sunday schools to teach Buddhist children the basics of the Buddha’s teachings and social ethics. Some parents have been wary of sending their children to these schools, however, fearing they will be exposed to hate speech. But some of these schools attract as many as a hundred students, attesting to their popularity in some communities.
Proponents of the 969 movement insist that their goal is merely to protect their own religion, not attack the beliefs of others. But when asked why they urge Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, U Yaywata, the vice abbot of Mawlamyine’s Mya Zaydi Nan Oo Monastery, tells me that it is no more than a reaction to a Muslims’ discrimination against Buddhists.
“I want to ask, who started this practice? For years, Muslims have refused to buy anything from Buddhist shops, even from betel nut sellers. They use 786 to support each other, so we have to do the same thing.”
Sitting next to a bag full of 969 stickers—the most visible symbol of the movement, and an increasingly common sight in many parts of Myanmar—the 38-year-old monk continues: “Why doesn’t Islam allow Buddhists to keep their religion if they marry Muslims? Their kids also have to become Muslims. Their religion doesn’t allow freedom of belief and worship. They are violating basic human rights.”
By adopting methods that they accuse Muslims of using against Buddhists, the followers of 969 are indeed having an impact. U Tin Aung, the Muslim man who spoke to me after U Wimala’s sermon, said that his son’s motorcycle spare parts shop has lost almost half its business in recent months. However, because his son’s shop has a reputation for offering fair prices and good service, many customers are returning, he added.
Meanwhile, some Buddhists who pasted 969 stickers on their vehicles and houses have started taking them off. A motorcycle taxi driver said that after he put a 969 sticker on his bike, he started losing Muslim customers. So he removed it—not just because it was costing him money, he said, but also because he realized that the 969 movement was fundamentally racist.
U Tin Aung said he believed the worst of the 969 movement’s misguided campaign to vilify Muslims had passed. “You know, people are interested in new things. It’s just human nature, but it doesn’t last,” he said.
“The essence of any religion is peace, sympathy and beauty,” he added.
The Politics of Religion
The 969 movement may be a relatively recent phenomenon in Myanmar, but intolerance is, unfortunately, nothing new to the country. While religion is occasionally seen as contributing to this problem, many observers would point a finger elsewhere, at state policies that have long exploited religious and ethnic differences to cement the military’s hold on power.
“Ne Win is the real culprit, not 969,” said U Htun Than, the politician who ran for election in 1990. Recalling that Muslims enjoyed equal status in Myanmar until Gen Ne Win seized power in a bloody coup in 1962, paving the way for half a century of military rule, U Htun Aung blamed the policies of the former ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party for deepening mistrust among Myanmar’s different religious groups.
“The BSPP made religious discrimination official policy, forcing Muslims to increasingly rely on each other for support,” he said. This, he added, resulted in growing resentment among Buddhists, who came to see Muslims as a people apart.
Despite decades of being treated with disdain, however, Muslims say they don’t mind social attitudes toward them so much as the failure of the country’s leaders to treat them as full Myanmar citizens.
“We don’t care about being called dogs or kalar [a derogatory term for people of South Asian descent], we just want our basic human rights,” said U Myint Lwin, a teacher at the Moree Mosque in Mawlamyine’s Swan Gyi Quarter.
Although Myanmar has recently undertaken reforms and President U Thein Sein has promised to protect the rights of Muslims in the wake of the latest outbreak of anti-Muslim violence that began in Meikhtila in late March, U Myint Lwin said that it is still far from clear where the government stands on this issue.
“Look at how quick the authorities were to crack down on protests against the Letpadaung copper mine,” he said, referring to a controversial Chinese-backed project in Sagaing Region. “Why were they so slow to take action in Meikhtila and other cities? If they had done their job there, the casualties and the loss of property would not have been so bad.”
Asked if he felt disappointed that NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not been more vocal about attacks on Muslims, he said it was probably for the best that she hasn’t spoken out on their behalf.
“We want her to be quiet on this issue. But we know that she feels sad for us,” he said, adding that he believed the situation would improve if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became president.
A Community on High Alert
In the meantime, Myanmar’s Muslims are bracing for more attacks. Since the anti-Muslim riots in Meikhtila claimed 43 lives, there have been other attacks elsewhere in the country, most recently in Okkan Township, Bago Region, in early May.
“Since the Meikhtila riots, we haven’t been able to sleep well,” said U Zaw Naing, another Muslim man at the Moree Mosque.
In Swan Gyi Quarter, where the mosque is located, roughly 80 percent of the 1,400 or so households are Muslim, making it a likely target if the recent wave of violence spreads to the birthplace of the 969 movement.
There have been few incidents so far, but tensions are rising. A number of mosques, including Mawlamyine’s largest, have had stones thrown at them, and when strangers show up in Swan Gyi, local residents become nervous.
“I don’t want to blame anybody, because we don’t know who threw the stones, but these things only started after the 969 DVDs started circulating,” said U Myint Lwin.
“Actually, it doesn’t matter who threw the stones. What we care about is the instigators, the ones spreading hate speech,” he said. “And we know who they are: the 969 group.”
In the end, he added, if this conflict gets out of hand, it will hurt everybody. “Both the winners and the losers will suffer great losses,” he said.
This story appeared in the June 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.