The bin Laden of Buddhism

It’s hard to believe, but he actually calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden.” His name is Saydaw Wirathu and he’s a Burmese Buddhist monk who was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, and since then has been stirring up, well, let’s call it what it is, racial hatred. He’s currently urging Burmese people “to join the 969 Buddhist nationalist campaign” and “do business or interact with only our kind: same race and same faith”.

969 comes from a Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels or Tiratana is composed of 24 attributes (9 for the Buddha, 6 for Dhamma or the teachings, and 9 for the Sangha). The movement is a counterpoint to the Muslim 786 movement (evidently based on a Quranic phrase “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful”), which many Burmese believe is a Islamic conspiracy to take over the world. I am not terribly informed on this, but from what I have read it seems that the Burmese characterization of 786 is a misrepresentation.

From a video of Wirathu released this week.
From a video of Wirathu released this week.

In a rant delivered Monday at the Ma-soe-yein monastery in  Mandalay, Wirathu encouraged Burmese Buddhists to think “nationalism” in everything they do and support the boycott because “Your purchases spent in ‘their’ (Muslim) shops will benefit the Enemy. So, do business with only shops with 969 signs on their facets”. Some have called Wirathu a “neo-Nazi” for his Islamophobic activities. He frequently uses a term, “kalar”, the equivalent of the N-word, to describe Muslims of South Asian descent.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, in February, Wirathu inflamed tensions in a Rangoon suburb by spreading false rumors that a local school was being turned into a mosque: “An angry mob of about 300 Buddhists assaulted the school and Muslim-owned businesses and shops in Rangoon.”

Sectarian violence is escalating the country officially known as Myanmar. The DVB reports that “Religious clashes continued to spread through Burma late on Monday night, as Muslim homes and businesses in two townships of Pegu division were ransacked by Buddhist mobs numbering in their hundreds.”

The Democratic Voice of Burma, by the way, is a non-profit media organization based in Oslo, Norway and operated by Burmese expatriates. On their website, the organization states that “Our mission is to provide accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma,  to promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma, to encourage and sustain independent public opinion and enable social and political debate, to impart the ideals of democracy and human rights to the people of Burma.”

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have occurred frequently since last June when riots took place in the Rakhine State, a territory in western Burma, following the killing of ten Burmese Muslims after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman. The Muslims call themselves Rohingya and are not recognized as citizens of the country.

Many Rohingya are being held under shocking conditions in Burmese “refuge” camps. Scores are fleeing Burma, illegally entering neighboring countries such as Thailand and precipitating a humanitarian crisis there. Over the weekend Thailand Marines and residents rescued 106 Rohingya people, starving and without water, adrift in a boat far offshore Thailand. The recent clashes I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the unrest is concerned, and there are even reports of genocide.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the international Buddhist community has been largely silent in the face of  racial and religious persecution committed in Buddha’s name. However, last week one leading monk in Burma, Ashin Nyanissara, did call for restraint in an interview with the DVB. He said that “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.” Nice, but pretty mild.

BuddharakkithaTherotheprimeconspiratorWhether or not Wirathu deserves his self-proclaimed designation as the Burmese bin Ladin, I don’t know. He seems mainly to be a rabble-rouser. Bin Laden was not much on words. He was a terrorist. There have been Buddhist terrorists. One such person was a monk named  Buddharakkhita, who organized the assassination of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in 1959. He was condemned to death in 1961 but the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.
– John F. Kennedy

Fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power.
– Salman Rushdie


8 thoughts on “The bin Laden of Buddhism

  1. That JFK quote is right on man, right on. I’ve been trying to study Buddhism recently and so when I first starting reading this I thought, “Huh? Did he get those words right? Buddhists and terrorist stuff?” That Nyanissara guy says what I always thought since studying Buddhism, “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.” Loving kindness is the buzzword for Buddhism so it’s weird to hear about this guy being all bin laden-like about things. And hey, I’m all about buying local and buying things that your own country makes and what not. Not because I hate others but because I like to support and encourage local stuff. His reasoning for only doing 969 stuff is wacko.

    1. TB, as Nathan notes in his comments, Westerners have long romanticized Burmese Buddhists, and Buddhism in general, that’s why people are shocked when haters like Wirathu appear or when they discover that Roshis are just ordinary people and they want to have sex, too. It’s one thing to preach loving kindness and another to practice it.Rushdie’s quote is right on, too. But it’s not just about power, it’s also about fear. Many Burmese people fear that Muslims are taking something from them, just as many in this and other countries, have the same fear about immigrants. It’s a universal problem.

  2. Burma’s Buddhists have long been romaticized by Westerner Buddhists, and only in recent years have you seen more complex views coming forth. Not only are there Burmese Buddhists engaging in oppressive actions and murder against the Muslim population there, but there’s also been decades of oppression and bloodshed committed by Buddhists in the Burmese majority against various ethnic minority groups – the Karen, Karenni, Chin, and others. I think it’s taken the end of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and her election to the government (and subsequent struggles to be effective) for folks to move past the heroic Buddhists fighting against the tyrannical dictatorship narrative. There’s truth to that, but it’s definitely not the whole story.

    1. Nathan, you are quite right. The Saffron Revolution blinded many. The Rohingyas have been violently persecuted in Burma since the end of World War II. We don’t want to romanticize them either, so it’s important to note that there have been a number of militant Rohingya insurgent groups dating back to the same time.

  3. Maybe the Muslim holocaust of millions of Buddhists in the Middle Ages is still fresh in their minds. Two wrongs don’t make a right but neither is their a moral equivalence. Lets not forget history and the derivation of the word “gore” [Gohr].

    1. Normally, I don’t post Mr. Rogow’s comments. He is a well-known troll, but since he is also a fundamentalist member of an extreme Nichiren sect, the Kempon Hokke Shu, his remark here serves as an example of the sort of intolerant and prejudicial attitude we need to guard against.

      1. Buddhism has Fascist monks and vicious trolls? Maybe I should rethink my relationship to this path….

        Seems to me that Buddhism goes right beyond the fiddle-faddle of “two wrongs don’t make a right” and “moral equivalence,” but I could be wrong. Anyone?

        1. Well you know no one or nothing is perfect. It would be unnatural if Buddhism didn’t have a few blemishes here or there. It is far better I think to follow this flawed human path, than to base your life on magical teachings about imaginary gods.

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