In the Burmese streets, stickers sporting the numbers “969” are flourishing on moto-taxis, shop windows, betel nut carts… Those three ominous figures are the symbol of a fast-rising Buddhist pride movement, presenting itself as a return to Buddhist roots and the teachings of the Lord.
But, in the new Myanmar, 969 is actually a vehicle of anti-Muslim hatred and Buddhist brainwashing.
“Muslims are fundamentally bad. Mohammed allows them to kill any creature. Islam is a religion of thieves, they do not want peace”, declares Ashin Wirathu the saffron-robed monk nicknamed the “Burmese Bin Laden”
Far from the iconic images of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”, popular Buddhist monks like Wirathu are travelling the country, preaching in front of thousands, urging Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, to avoid marrying them, hiring them or to sell property to them. The 969 movement is appealing to a deep anti‐Muslim resentment implanted in Buddhist minds by fifty years of military propaganda. Burmese activist Maung Zarni recently confessed in a blog post: “Like millions of my fellow Burmese Buddhists, I grew up as a proud racist. For much of my life growing in the heartland of Burma, Mandalay, I mistook what I came to understand years later as racism to be the patriotism of Burmese Buddhists”.
By depicting a Myanmar on the verge of an islamist invasion, the 969 movement is creating a framework for the wave of islamophobic violence that has swept through Myanmar in the last months. In March, the bloodiest clashes up-to-date claimed the lives of forty-five people in the town of Meiktila. “At night, we sleep terribly. We are wondering when they will be coming. It is dark, it is scary. Our ear pay attention to every little noise”, told us a Muslim resident of the city. Throughout the country the Muslim communities are living in the constant fear of new attacks.
Currently 969 has seen little resistance from local or international governments. The movement is currently drafting a law proposal that would ban interfaith marriage, and four 969 monks have been working on a curriculum aimed at educating lay people and children about the ins and outs of protecting Buddhism from Islam. Set to take place in a Sunday school manner, the monks hope this new form of education will save their faith in this majority Buddhist nation but what implications will this have on cross-religious relationships? And will it instigate more religious violence?
Afraid of alienating the Buddhist vote for the 2015 elections, the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is staying silent on this subject. Many see, behind 969 and the religious riots, the hand of hardliners of the army trying to endanger the fragile change Myanmar is going through as the country stumbles towards democracy.
Photographers Nicolas Axelrod and Thomas Cristofoletti travelled to Myanmar (Burma) in June 2013 together with the journalist Alexandre Marchand