Thursday, October 03, 2013

Burmese human rights activist Dr Muang Zarni on “Buddhist neo-Nazis" behind anti-Rohingya violence

Below is an excerpt of an interview done earlier this year that provides an excellent snapshot analysis of the religious-nationalist fervor in Burma/Myanmar today as news reports document more anti-Muslim violence and indiscriminate killings of Rohingya Muslims by self-styled Buddhist fanatics.

The logo of the fast-growing "Buddhist" neo-Nazi group '969
VICE: Who are the 969, and what does the number mean? 
Dr. Muang Zarni: The 969 leaders are Burmese men in monks’ robes. It’s a bit difficult to describe them as genuine monks because they are preaching a message of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is completely incompatible with the Buddhist message of universal kindness. The 969 number stands for three things: the 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha, the founder of the religion; the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of dharma; and finally, the last 9 stands for special characteristics or attributes of the clergy.

You’ve described the 969 group as “Burma’s fastest-growing neo-Nazi ‘Buddhist’ nationalist movement.” What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
I use the word neo-Nazi because their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma—all of them, including the ethnically Burmese—are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root.

There is a parallel between what we saw in Nazi Germany and what we are seeing today in Burma. The 969 movement and its leading spokespersons call for attacking the Muslims of Burma—not just the Rohingyas in western Burma who were incorrectly framed as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but all Muslims from Burma. Buddhist people who try to help Muslims or buy groceries from Muslim businesses are either beaten up or intimidated or ostracized by other Buddhists.

Also, the military is involved with this movement. At best, the military authorities are tolerating the message of hatred coming from the Buddhist preachers. At worst, and I believe this to be true, elements within the military leadership are passively backing this movement. Over the past 50 years since the military came to power, there has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organizations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.

What does the Burmese government have to gain from this violence?
There are three goals, as far as I can tell. One is, the military leadership has swapped their generals’ uniforms for civilian clothing, but at heart, they still remain irredeemably authoritarian and dictatorial. They are security obsessed and some of them feel the reforms that are unfolding in the country are going too far. So they want to slow it down and roll back the reform process. In order to do that, they must create social instability and use volatile situations as an excuse to say, “The people can’t handle freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of organization. Therefore, we need to have a strong handle on the situation to make sure people stay in line and don’t kill each other.”

Secondly, when all these waves of violence against Rohingya Muslims started last year, the military and the proxy political party of the military was in a worrisome situation because it lost by a landslide in the elections. So within two months of their defeat, they decided to create this very powerful anti-Muslim communal sentiment around the country. And now, [activist and political leader An San] Suu Kyi is in a difficult situation because she can only speak the liberal language of human rights and democracy, which is not as powerful as the ideology that the military and these neo-Nazi monks have whipped up. When it comes to fighting this kind of abnormal religious movement, the language of human rights is never enough.

Thirdly, I think the military is not leaving anything to chance. They have another round of elections in 2015, and they want to make sure that they have a new proxy political movement that they can use to square off Suu Kyi’s party. As a result, the 969 neo-Nazi movement is the most popular movement in the country.

In a YouTube video of a sermon given by Wirathu, one of 969’s leaders, he says that Muslims are taking over the country and destroying the Buddhist way of life. Is this way of thinking only popular in extremist circles, or are everyday Burmese buying it? 
The reaction is mixed. We Burmese tend to be prejudiced against people with darker skin color. And that’s typical among Far East or Southeast Asian countries where lighter, paler skin is considered more prestigious and desirable. This 969 movement is preying on the historical and cultural prejudices we have as a society towards darker skin color.

Also, when you have a country that is the poorest in Southeast Asia, the language of economic nationalism is appealing, and that’s what the neo-Nazi movement is using. They tell people they are poor because their wealth is taken away by the “Islamic leeches.”
Read the rest of the interview here.
Comment: I watched an interview with Dr Zarni on Al Jazeera yesterday afternoon and I was struck by his analysis of the current spate of anti-Muslim/Rohingya violence in Burma.

What stood out for me was his emphasis on the racist roots of the violence which has a long historical reach and is a major reason why the Rohingya have been stripped of their Burmese citizenship.

But perhaps more striking was his point - which flows from the historical context above - that we must separate anti-Muslim sentiment from Rohingya violence even though they are connected.

In other words, Burmese neo-Nazis are anti-Muslim and their brand of Islamophobia is directed at all Muslims in Burma not only the Rohingya.

Second, the hatred of the Rohingya is deep seated in a racist construction of their worth as "dark skin" people and this hatred is genocidal at its root.

The implication of this separation is that even if a measure of tolerance is meted out to all Muslim citizens in Burma the Rohingya would still be the focus of genocidal mania by neo-Nazi Buddhists - in large part because as non-citizens they are being forced out both figuratively and literally from the land of their birth.

In effect, anti-Muslim sentiment is being used to further vilify the Rohingya - it is a toxic combination of hate and genocide.

Zarni also pointed out that the government was complicit in the violence and extermination of the Rohingya because it supported their nationalist vision and ambitions.

When he was asked about Aung Sun Su Kyi and her position he commented that she continues not to take a stand.

Su Kyi is the worst of politicians in my mind and an absolute sellout.

See this article in The Independent entitled "Burma's Rohingya Muslims: Aung San Suu Kyi's blind spot" (August 20, 2013).  I would, however, not term her complicit silence as a "blind spot".

Also I highly recommend you read Dr Zarni's blog for more cutting analysis.  See in particular his article that was also published in the Asia Times entitled "The backgrounder to Myanmar's on-going anti-Muslim Violent Campaigns in Arakan or Rakhine State."

969 Logo and Caption Credit

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