* Read this story in a PDF link.reuters.com/beg29t
* Anti-Muslim riots mark emergence of extreme Buddhism
* Movement has seized on a doctrine called 969
* They preach anti-Muslim sermons, call for Muslim boycotts
* Ministry of religion originally fostered 969 doctrine
* Religion minister supports 969's most incendiary preacher
By Andrew R.C. Marshall
YANGON, June 27 The Buddhist extremist movement
in Myanmar, known as 969, portrays itself as a grassroots creed.
Its chief proponent, a monk named Wirathu, was once jailed
by the former military junta for anti-Muslim violence and once
called himself the "Burmese bin Laden."
But a Reuters examination traces 969's origins to an
official in the dictatorship that once ran Myanmar, and which is
the direct predecessor of today's reformist government. The 969
movement now enjoys support from senior government officials,
establishment monks and even some members of the opposition
National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of
Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wirathu urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun
interfaith marriages. He calls mosques "enemy bases."
Among his admirers: Myanmar's minister of religious affairs.
"Wirathu's sermons are about promoting love and
understanding between religions," Sann Sint, minister of
religious affairs, told Reuters in his first interview with the
international media. "It is impossible he is inciting religious
Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in Myanmar's army,
also sees nothing wrong with the boycott of Muslim businesses
being led by the 969 monks. "We are now practicing market
economics," he said. "Nobody can stop that. It is up to the
President Thein Sein is signaling a benign view of 969, too.
His office declined to comment for this story. But in response
to growing controversy over the movement, it issued a statement
Sunday, saying 969 "is just a symbol of peace" and Wirathu is "a
son of Lord Buddha."
Wirathu and other monks have been closely linked to the
sectarian violence spreading across Myanmar, formerly known as
Burma. Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the
country for nearly half a century. But the worst fighting has
occurred since the quasi-civilian government took power in March
Two outbursts in Rakhine State last year killed at least 192
people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly stateless Rohingya
Muslims. A Reuters investigation found that organized attacks on
Muslims last October were led by Rakhine nationalists incited by
Buddhist monks and sometimes abetted by local security forces.
In March this year, at least 44 people died and 13,000 were
displaced - again, mostly Muslims - during riots in Meikhtila, a
city in central Myanmar. Reuters documented in April that the
killings happened after monks led Buddhist mobs on a rampage. In
May, Buddhists mobs burned and terrorized Muslim neighborhoods
in the northern city of Lashio. Reports of unrest have since
The numbers 969, innocuous in themselves, refer to
attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. But
969 monks have been providing the moral justification for a wave
of anti-Muslim bloodshed that could scuttle Myanmar's nascent
reform program. Another prominent 969 monk, Wimala Biwuntha,
likens Muslims to a tiger who enters an ill-defended house to
snatch away its occupants.
"Without discipline, we'll lose our religion and our race,"
he said in a recent sermon. "We might even lose our country."
Officially, Myanmar has no state religion, but its rulers
have long put Buddhism first. Muslims make up an estimated 4
percent of the populace. Buddhism is followed by 90 percent of
the country's 60 million people and is promoted by a special
department within the ministry of religion created during the
Monks play a complex part in Burmese politics. They took a
central role in pro-democracy "Saffron Revolution" uprisings
against military rule in 2007. The generals - who included
current President Thein Sein and most senior members of his
government - suppressed them. Now, Thein Sein's ambitious
program of reforms has ushered in new freedoms of speech and
assembly, liberating the country's roughly 500,000 monks. They
can travel at will to spread Buddhist teachings, including 969
In Burma's nascent democracy, the monks have emerged as a
political force in the run-up to a general election scheduled
for 2015. Their new potency has given rise to a conspiracy
theory here: The 969 movement is controlled by disgruntled
hardliners from the previous junta, who are fomenting unrest to
derail the reforms and foil an election landslide by Suu Kyi's
No evidence has emerged to support this belief. But some in
the government say there is possibly truth to it.
"Some people are very eager to reform, some people don't
want to reform," Soe Thein, one of President Thein Sein's two
closest advisors, told Reuters. "So, regarding the sectarian
violence, some people may be that side - the anti-reform side."
Even if 969 isn't controlled by powerful hardliners, it has
broad support, both in high places and at the grass roots, where
it is a genuine and growing movement.
Officials offer tacit backing, said Wimala, the 969 monk.
"By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I
assume they are supporting us," he said.
The Yangon representative of the Burmese Muslim Association
agreed. "The anti-Muslim movement is growing and the government
isn't stopping it," said Myo Win, a Muslim teacher. Myo Win
likened 969 to the Ku Klux Klan.
The religion minister, Sann Sint, said the movement doesn't
have official state backing. But he defended Wirathu and other
monks espousing the creed.
"I don't think they are preaching to make problems," he
Local authorities, too, have lent the movement some backing.
Its logo - now one of Myanmar's most recognizable - bears
the Burmese numerals 969, a chakra wheel and four Asiatic lions
representing the ancient Buddhist emperor Ashoka. Stickers with
the logo are handed out free at speeches. They adorn shops,
homes, taxis and souvenir stalls at the nation's most revered
Buddhist pagoda, the Shwedagon. They are a common sight in areas
plagued by unrest.
Some authorities treat the symbol with reverence. A court in
Bago, a region near Yangon hit by anti-Muslim violence this
year, jailed a Muslim man for two years in April after he
removed a 969 sticker from a betel-nut shop. He was sentenced
under a section of Burma's colonial-era Penal Code, which
outlaws "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage
The 969 movement's ties to the state date back to the
creed's origins. Wimala, Wirathu and other 969 preachers credit
its creation to the late Kyaw Lwin, an ex-monk, government
official and prolific writer, now largely forgotten outside
Myanmar's former dictators handpicked Kyaw Lwin to promote
Buddhism after the brutal suppression of the 1988 democracy
uprising. Thousands were killed or injured after soldiers opened
fire on unarmed protesters, including monks. Later, to signal
their disgust, monks refused to accept alms from military
families for three months, a potent gesture in devoutly Buddhist
Afterwards, the military set about co-opting Buddhism in an
effort to tame rebellious monks and repair its image. Monks were
registered and their movements restricted. State-run media ran
almost daily reports of generals overseeing temple renovations
or donating alms to abbots.
In 1991, the junta created a Department for the Promotion
and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS), a unit within the Religion
Ministry, and appointed Kyaw Lwin as its head. Sasana means
"religion" in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada
Buddhism; in Burma, the word is synonymous with Buddhism itself.
The following year, the DPPS published "How To Live As A
Good Buddhist," a distillation of Kyaw Lwin's writings. It was
republished in 2000 as "The Best Buddhist," its cover bearing an
early version of the 969 logo.
Kyaw Lwin stepped down in 1992. The current head is Khine
Aung, a former military officer.
Kyaw Lwin's widow and son still live in his modest home in
central Yangon. Its living room walls are lined with shelves of
Kyaw Lwin's books and framed photos of him as a monk and
Another photo shows Kyaw Lwin sharing a joke with Lieutenant
General Khin Nyunt, then chief of military intelligence and one
of Myanmar's most feared men. Kyaw Lwin enjoyed close relations
with other junta leaders, said his son, Aung Lwin Tun, 38, a car
importer. He was personally instructed to write "The Best
Buddhist" by the late Saw Maung, then Myanmar's senior-most
general. He met "often" to discuss religion with ex-dictator
Than Shwe, who retired in March 2011 and has been out of the
public eye since then.
"The Best Buddhist" is out of print, but Aung Lwin Tun plans
to republish it. "Many people are asking for it now," he said.
He supports today's 969 movement, including its anti-Muslim
boycott. "It's like building a fence to protect our religion,"
Also supporting 969 is Kyaw Lwin's widow, 65, whose name was
withheld at the family's request. She claimed that Buddhists who
marry Muslims are forced at their weddings to tread on an image
of Buddha, and that the ritual slaughter of animals by Shi'ite
Muslims makes it easier for them to kill humans.
Among the monks Kyaw Lwin met during his time as DPPS chief
was Wiseitta Biwuntha, who hailed from the town of Kyaukse, near
the northern cultural capital of Mandalay. Better known as
Wirathu, he is today one of the 969's most incendiary leaders.
Wirathu and Kyaw Lwin stayed in touch after their 1992
meeting, said Aung Lwin Tun, who believed his father would
admire Wirathu's teachings. "He is doing what other people won't
- protecting and promoting the religion."
Kyaw Lwin died in 2001, aged 70. That same year, Wirathu
began preaching about 969, and the U.S. State Department
reported "a sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence" in Myanmar.
Anti-Muslim sentiment was stoked in March 2001 by the Taliban's
destruction of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and in
September by al Qaeda's attacks in the United States.
Two years later, Wirathu was arrested and sentenced to 25
years in jail for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets that
incited communal riots in his hometown. At least 10 Muslims were
killed by a Buddhist mob, according to a State Department
report. The 969 movement had spilled its first blood.
969 VERSUS 786
Wirathu was freed in 2011 during an amnesty for political
prisoners. While the self-styled "Burmese bin Laden" has become
the militant face of 969, the movement derives evangelical
energy from monks in Mon, a coastal state where people pride
themselves on being Myanmar's first Buddhists. Since last year's
violence they have organized a network across the nation. They
led a boycott last year of a Muslim-owned bus company in
Moulmein, Mon's capital. Extending that boycott nationwide has
become a central 969 goal.
Muslims held many senior government positions after Myanmar
gained independence from Britain in 1948. That changed in 1962,
when the military seized power and stymied the hiring and
promoting of Muslim officials. The military drew on popular
prejudices that Muslims dominated business and used their
profits to build mosques, buy Buddhist wives and spread Islamic
All this justified the current boycott of Muslim businesses,
said Zarni Win Tun, a 31-year-old lawyer and 969 devotee, who
said Muslims had long shunned Buddhist businesses. "We didn't
start the boycott - they did," she said. "We're just using their
By that she means the number 786, which Muslims of South
Asian origin often display on their homes and businesses. It is
a numerical representation of the Islamic blessing, "In the Name
of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful". But Buddhists in
Myanmar - a country obsessed by numerology - claim the sum of
the three numbers signifies a Muslim plan for world domination
in the 21st century.
It is possible to understand why some Buddhists might
believe this. Religious and dietary customs prohibit Muslims
from frequenting Buddhist restaurants, for example. Muslims also
dominate some small- and medium-sized business sectors. The
names of Muslim-owned construction companies - Naing Group,
Motherland, Fatherland - are winning extra prominence now that
Yangon is experiencing a reform-era building boom.
However, the biggest construction firms - those involved in
multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects - are run by
tycoons linked to members of the former dictatorship. They are
Buddhist clients have canceled contracts with Muslim-owned
construction companies in northern Yangon, fearing attacks by
969 followers on the finished buildings, said Shwe Muang, a
Muslim MP with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development
Party. "I worry that if this starts in one township it will
infect others," he said.
"OUR LIVES ARE NOT SAFE"
For Zarni Win Tun, the 969 devotee, shunning Muslims is a
means of ensuring sectarian peace. She points to the Meikhtila
violence, which was sparked by an argument between Buddhist
customers and a Muslim gold-shop owner. "If they'd bought from
their own people, the problem wouldn't have happened," she said.
Her conviction that segregation is the solution to sectarian
strife is echoed in national policy. A total of at least 153,000
Muslims have been displaced in the past year after the violence
in Rakhine and in central Myanmar. Most are concentrated in
camps guarded by the security forces with little hope of
returning to their old lives.
A few prominent monks have publicly criticized the 969
movement, and some Facebook users have launched a campaign to
boycott taxis displaying its stickers. Some Yangon street stalls
have started selling 969 CDs more discreetly since the Meikhtila
bloodbath. The backlash has otherwise been muted.
Wimala, the Mon monk, shrugged off criticism from fellow
monks. "They shouldn't try to stop us from doing good things,"
In mid-June, he and Wirathu attended a hundreds-strong
monastic convention near Yangon, where Wirathu presented a
proposal to restrict Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men.
In another sign 969 is going mainstream, Wirathu's bid was
supported by Dhammapiya, a U.S.-educated professor at the
International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in
Yangon, a respected institution with links to other Buddhist
universities in Asia.
Dhammapiya described 969 as a peaceful movement that is
helping Myanmar through a potentially turbulent transition. "The
969 issue for us is no issue," Dhammapiya told Reuters.
"Buddhists always long to live in peace and harmony."
NO MOSQUES HERE
The only mass movement to rival 969 is the National League
for Democracy. Their relationship is both antagonistic and
In a speech posted on YouTube in late March, Wirathu said
the party and Suu Kyi's inner circle were dominated by Muslims.
"If you look at NLD offices in any town, you will see bearded
people," he said. Followers of Wimala told Reuters they had
removed photos of Suu Kyi - a devout Buddhist - from their homes
to protest her apparent reluctance to speak up for Buddhists
affected by last year's violence in Rakhine. Suu Kyi's reticence
on sectarian violence has also angered Muslims.
The Burmese Muslim Association has accused NLD members of
handing out 969 materials in Yangon.
Party spokesman Nyan Win said "some NLD members" were
involved in the movement. "But the NLD cannot interfere with the
freedoms or rights of members," he said. "They all have the
right to do what they want in terms of social affairs."
Min Thet Lin, 36, a taxi driver, is exercising that right.
The front and back windows of his car are plastered with 969
stickers. He is also an NLD leader in Thaketa, a working-class
Yangon township known for anti-Muslim sentiment.
In February, Buddhist residents of Thaketa descended upon an
Islamic school in Min Thet Lin's neighborhood which they claimed
was being secretly converted into a mosque. Riot police were
deployed while the structure was demolished.
A month later, Wimala and two other Mon monks visited
Thaketa to give Buddhists what a promotional leaflet called
"dhamma medicine" - that is, three days of 969 sermons. "Don't
give up the fight," urged the leaflet.
Today, the property is sealed off and guarded by police.
"People don't want a mosque here," said Min Thet Lin.
As he spoke, 969's pop anthem, "Song to Whip Up Religious
Blood," rang over the rooftops. A nearby monastic school was
playing the song for enrolling pupils.
(Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo.; Editing by Bill Tarrant
and Michael Williams)