Burma’s angry monks

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Burma’s angry monks

Muslims have been killed and communities forced to move after religious attacks in Burma. But people are taking action to stop the hate. Report and photographs by Brennan O’Connor.

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Conflict between religious groups: Buddhist monks walk through a ruined Muslim area in Meiktila. Brennan O'Connor

Ashin Issariya seems a quiet, simple man but this quickly changes when he has something to say. The Buddhist monk and former Saffron Revolution leader isn’t afraid to say what others won’t say.

From the country’s capital, Rangoon, Issariya helped to lead thousands of people against the military regime in 2007. As a result he was a political prisoner for nearly five years.

Now he leads a popular group of different religious leaders who are against the new 969 movement.

‘The real message of the 969 is not to attack other religions, but some monks are using it like this’ he said. Many would like to speak against it but do not because they think it is ‘the real teaching of the Buddha’.

The numbers 969 are: the nine good qualities of Buddha, his six important teachings, and the nine ideas a monk should follow.

There are 969 stickers in shop windows across the country. The stickers are made by 969 supporters. The 969 symbol shows shops which are owned by Buddhists and not by Muslims. Issariya wants ‘to bring peace to Burma’.

He says ‘pro-government’ commentators regularly say on his Facebook group that he takes money from Muslims and helps Christians, Muslims and Hindus. It is true. Issariya takes money from Muslims to help Muslims, but also Buddhists. The monk started a group that invites different religious leaders to give talks to ‘teach the people how to live in peace’. Together they have also raised money to help both Muslim and Buddhist victims of the violence which started suddenly last year.

Issariya says. ‘Real Muslims are not angry with Buddhists, real Buddhists are not angry with Muslims.’ They are more worried about ‘trying to get their rice’ than about the ‘religious problem’.

Angry crowds

But the ‘religious problem’ continues across the country. Earlier this year, the numbers 969 were found painted on the walls of a building set on fire in Mandalay Division.

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Making people angry: Ashin Wirathu has spent time in jail for encouraging violence against Muslims. Brennan O'Connor

Ashin Wirathu is the 969 campaign’s leader. He is accused of creating violence. He gave anti-Islam talks often weeks or days before the violence. Wirathu was put in prison for leading violence against Muslims in 2002. In 2012 he was released from prison with other political prisoners.

People say the government is doing nothing to stop the violence. In March angry crowds were violent for days in Meiktila. But the police waited for orders that didn’t come. Then crowds attacked Muslims in towns in the countryside for over a week and the police did nothing.

There is a report by Physicians for Human Rights called ‘Massacre in Central Burma: Muslim Students Terrorized and Killed in Meiktila’ . The report says over 20 children were murdered by angry crowds. Some of their bodies were set on fire. The report said that the killings happened in view of the police who were helping 150 Muslims away from a mosque but towards the attackers.

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New monks at the Thita Sa Waita Gu monastery are taught about the “growing danger” from Muslims.

People say a Buddhist monk told a Muslim, ‘If you don’t want to die, you must sit and worship us.’ Other reports say that many Muslims were forced to eat pork.

President Thein Sein said he would protect the rights of Muslims. But hundreds of thousands of Muslims are living in terrible camps. They were forced to move by the violence last year in Arakan State. Not many of the Buddhist attackers in Arakan State or the rest of the country have been convicted for their crimes. But Muslims have been put in prison for long periods for their “crimes”.

Stopping untrue stories

U Khin Maung, secretary for Mon State Muslim National Affairs, says the violence between Buddhists and Muslims was ‘because of provocateurs. This is what most people believe.’

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A Muslim man rests in Kyawe Pone Lay, a village attacked by an angry crowd in April. Brennan O'Connor

There are three 969 symbols now. The first design of the 969 symbol was made by monks from the Mon State capital of Mawlamyaing at the end of last year. Mawlamyaing has many shops with 969 stickers and eight per cent of the people are Muslim. But Mawlamyaing has has not had the deaths and violence seen in other places.

Perhaps it’s because religious leaders from both sides were ready to meet to stop the untrue stories told by troublemakers that started the violence in other places.

Muslim neighbourhoods in Meiktila started burning in late March and there were stories on Facebook saying that two Buddhist business owners had bought 3,000 swords for Buddhists to attack Muslims. When one of the business owners heard the story, he was afraid and contacted The Than Lwin Times newspaper for advice, said Min Latt, one of the reporters.

The reporters at the independent Mon newspaper have good relations with both communities, and this allows them to help both sides to talk. They organised a meeting the same evening at the Mawlamyaing Strand Hotel. I told the business owner to write a story for the newspaper and to rent a room to invite Muslim and Buddhist leaders for tals said Min Latt.

At the meeting, Buddhist and Muslim leaders agreed that they were only stories. Both sides decided not to take action, and to meet again if necessary, said Min Latt.

They also exchanged telephone numbers. This was useful after a new story on Facebook a week later. This time a ship with automatic weapons sent from Malaysia for Muslims to attack Buddhists had arrived in the harbour. A quick visit to the mosque which people said had the weapons showed the story was not true.

U Khin Maung said that they could stop the stories without all meeting with each other. ‘Some people are causing trouble to separate the communities that have been living [together] peacefully for years.’

Brennan O’Connor is a Canadian photojournalist. He has been recording the lives of Burma’s ethnic nationalities since 2008.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see:http://newint.org/features/2013/10/01/keeping-the-peace/