Terror in Burma: Buddhists vs. Muslims

For a devoutly Buddhist country, Burma has lots of people who hedge their bets. Animism is still a force in the country, especially in the villages, and animist beliefs have been incorporated into Burma’s brand of Theravada Buddhism for centuries (thirty-seven Great Nats, or spirits, are recognized as guardians of Buddhist temples). Fortune telling and astrology are widely practiced, and many Burmese employ astrological charts in naming their children. Numerology has also long figured into decisionmaking in the country, sometimes in ways that to outsiders seem downright bizarre.

On the advice of astrologers, for instance, the country became formally independent from Great Britain at exactly 4:20 a.m. on January 4, 1948 (the Brits had pushed for January 1st). The military leaders who ruled the country from 1962 until 2011—Ne Win and Than Shwe in particular—often seemed obsessed with lucky numbers. Ne Win’s lucky number was nine, the principal reason that he introduced currency in loopy 45-kyat and 90-kyat units in 1987. The number eleven was Than Shwe’s favorite; hence the origin of the sixty-five-year prison sentences handed out in 2008 to fourteen prominent pro-democracy activists. Six plus five makes eleven—get it?

And there is also the so-called “8888 Uprising” that got its name because it was timed to begin on August 8, 1988, a date seen as propitious in Burma (and other parts of Asia). Not to be upstaged, General Saw Maung, Ne Win’s cat’s-paw, crushed the uprising on September 18th. (September is the ninth month, and one plus eight equals nine.) In a disingenuous concession to the activists, the government (then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC) later scheduled a general election—the first since 1962—for Sunday, May 27, 1990. Why? In the Gregorian calendar, which is used formally in Burma, it was the fourth Sunday of the fifth month. There’s that nine again.

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So numbers matter in Burma, and, unfortunately, two numbers that matter a lot in Burma today are 969 and 786. Much has been written this year about the 969 movement, led by Buddhist nationalists, that, according to many observers, is fomenting—or, at the very least, supporting—a broad range of anti-Muslim activities, including violent ones, across much of Burma. Although the Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu (known just as Wirathu) has become “the face of Buddhist terror,” as Time magazine recently put it, the writings in the 1990s of another Burmese monk, Kyaw Lwin, were instrumental in creating the ideological basis for today’s 969 movement. If Wirathu is “the Burmese bin Laden”—as the monk has referred to himself—Kyaw Lwin is the 969 movement’s equivalent to Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of jihadism.

Doing the numbers is crucial for understanding Burmese politics. In fact, 786 became significant before 969. The number 786 is derived from the numerical value in the Arabic Abjad numeral system of the opening passage of the Koran. In the Abjad system, all twenty-eight letters in the Arabic alphabet are assigned numeric values. The Koran opens with the words “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.” The numerical value of these words in the Abjad system comes to 786. In parts of the Muslim world, especially in South Asia and Burma, the number 786 has come to be posted on shops, stores, buildings, etc., as a kind of signaling mechanism to denote, “This place is Muslim.”

But in the increasingly tense ethno-cultural atmosphere in numerological-fixated Burma of recent decades, the number 786 has been interpreted by some Buddhists as possessing a coded meaning over and above this simple ethnic identification. Because seven plus eight plus six equals twenty-one, Muslims, in posting the number publicly, are said by some Buddhists to be pronouncing that they will dominate the world in the twenty-first century.

Buddhist ideologues in Burma came up with 969 as a political counterpunch. These numbers are said to capture in symbolic form the key virtues of Buddhism. The Lord Buddha has nine special attributes. There are said to be six special attributes to Buddhist teachings, and Buddhist monks, too, possess special attributes—nine in fact. Thus 969, a number that also happens to be much larger than the Muslim 786.


Reading political developments in Burma is never easy, but getting a handle on the 969 movement is especially tricky. Its origins can be traced back to the early 1990s. In response to the 8888 Uprising and the pro-democracy agitation in the years thereafter, the generals in charge of the country, hoping at once to split apart and co-opt some part of the community of Buddhist monks involved in anti-government activism, began promoting what was touted as a Buddhist renewal movement. The movement’s ideology combined Buddhist religious fanaticism with intense Burmese nationalism and more than a tinge of ethnic chauvinism. Not surprisingly, it became strongest—perhaps I should say most virulent—among the Bamar, the principal ethnic group in Burma, accounting for about two-thirds of the country’s population, and especially prominent in the lowlands of the Irrawaddy Basin. The vast majority of the Bamar are Theravada Buddhists.

The main message of 969 was (and is) Burma for Buddhists, particularly for Buddhists who are Bamar rather than members of other ethnic groups. Shortly after the movement began, a monk named Kyaw Lwin became a central figure, and his writings were distilled and distributed by a unit of the official Religious Ministry, first as “How to Live as a Good Buddhist” (1992) and later as “The Best Buddhist” (2000). After Kyaw Lwin’s death in 2001, at the age of seventy, Wirathu—who had known Kyaw Lwin for a number of years—along with a number of other monks, picked up the mantle and began elaborating upon the dead monk’s thoughts, albeit with a more explicitly and aggressively anti-Muslim message.

The movement gained momentum in Burma in 2001, helping to precipitate an upsurge of anti-Muslim activity (the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Islamist Taliban in March played an incendiary role). Such activity included anti-Muslim riots, most notably in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, in February 2001, and in Taungoo, in the Bago Region of south-central Burma, about two hundred and twenty kilometers north-northeast of what was then the Burmese capital, Yangon, in May 2001. In the latter, more than two hundred Muslims were killed and eleven mosques destroyed. All of this happened even before September 11th exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma and elsewhere.

Violence against Muslims continued intermittently after Sittwe and Taungoo—I myself witnessed several such incidents while visiting the ancient temple complex at Mrauk U, in Rakhine State, in January 2002—and Wirathu, who had been fanning the flames, was arrested in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim riots in his hometown near Mandalay, riots in which Buddhists killed ten Muslims. Wirathu was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, but was released as part of a broader amnesty in 2011, shortly before the latest surge of anti-Muslim activity in the country, which spiked in the period from fall 2012 through summer 2013. During this spike, Kyaw Lwin’s ideas, mediated by Wirathu, became increasingly salient, and the 969 appeared menacingly all over the country.

Since November 2012, more than two hundred and fifty people have been killed and many more injured—the vast majority of them Muslims—as a result of a series of acts of what some have labeled Buddhist terror, mostly in the west and in central Burma. In addition, somewhere between about one hundred and forty thousand and two hundred and fifty thousand Muslims—estimates vary dramatically—have been displaced, mostly from their homes in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State), the western part of which abuts Bangladesh. The 969 movement is deeply involved, but it is a politically and culturally complex situation.

It seems pretty clear that what is going on in most of Burma right now is more akin to terrorism than to sectarian conflict, as some have preferred to style it. Even in Rakhine State, where there is a large Muslim minority and the violence is somewhat less one-sided, the power of the Buddhist majority—supported, when necessary, by the Buddhist Bamar-controlled government—is ironhanded. To be sure, Muslims have often been accused of instigating specific incidents across Burma—there have been an uncanny number of rumors of Muslim men attempting to rape Buddhist women, for example—but the weight of the evidence suggests that such rumors are more often than not fictions useful primarily for provocation or to rationalize Buddhist promoting, or at least supporting, violence.


To those with only a casual interest in Asian affairs, the notion of Buddhist terrorism seems something of an oxymoron. For example, in Time magazine’s much-discussed story on the country (“The Face of Buddhist Terror,” July 1, 2013), there is a pullout quote on the first page that reads: “It’s a faith famous for its pacifism and tolerance. But in several of Asia’s Buddhist-majority nations, monks are inciting bigotry and violence—mostly against Muslims.” Later in the piece, another line reads: “To much of the world, it [Buddhism] is synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2,500 years ago.” This sentence is qualified immediately by another: “But like adherents of any other religion, Buddhists and their holy men are not immune to politics and, on occasion, the lure of sectarian chauvinism.”

A brief glimpse back at Burma’s history shows how true, and truly complex, this idea is. During the British colonial period, Burmese, by which we generally mean Buddhist Bamar, periodically denounced and rose up against the relatively small communities of indigenous Muslims and especially against Muslim immigrants from South Asia whose arrival was encouraged by the British rulers. Some of the actions ostensibly directed against Muslim migrants were actually animated by anger toward the British for “Indicizing” the country, purportedly to the economic detriment of the Bamar (among other native-born ethnic groups).

The South Asians who migrated to Burma in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century came mainly from Madras, Bengal, and Ceylon. Over half of them were Muslim and they took up residence mainly in cities and labor-scarce areas in Lower Burma. Over time, they came to play important roles in the country as seasonal labor in agriculture, in transportation and construction, as workers in rice mills, as stevedores (dockworkers), as merchants and moneylenders, as well as in the British civil service and the British military. There was a lot of turnover, with most South Asian migrants arriving by sea for short-term, often seasonal stints, then returning back to their homeland. Many immigrants also arrived in western Burma from Chittagong and other parts of Bengal via overland routes. While some of these migrants later quit Burma as well, a substantial number remained in Arakan, now Rakhine State, which has remained a flash point in ethnic-religious conflict even today.

There were instances of the (overwhelmingly Buddhist) Bamar lashing out against South Asian immigrant communities, sometimes violently, as in 1926, 1930, and 1938, but it was not clear whether these outbreaks had to do mainly with economic resentments or were manifestations of political opposition to the British colonizers and their South Asian confederates. Or what role “race” and “color” played. The Bamar are of East Asian origin—their language is considered Sino-Tibetan—and they are generally lighter-skinned than South Asians in Burma, who are sometimes referred to pejoratively in the Burmese language as kala, a term that can be loosely translated as “dark-skinned foreigner.”

The South Asian and Muslim presence—and the “problem” it represented in Burma—receded considerably as a result of the Great Depression, World War II, and the end of colonial rule. With the Burmese economy tanking, fewer South Asians migrated and many of those already in the country left for home. Wartime disruptions and dislocations lessened Burma’s appeal even more, and when the British, their nominal protectors, were ousted in 1948, South Asians’ interest in Burma further waned.

There were, of course, still South Asians, many of them Muslims, in Burma after independence. Although such communities included groups that had participated in the anti-colonial coalition, with independence the country became more and more dominated by the Buddhist Bamar majority. Anti–South Asian and anti-Muslim activities accelerated sharply in Burma after Ne Win’s coup in 1962, which led many of the remaining South Asians to leave the country and reduced the status, rights, and privileges of the Muslims who remained, South Asian or otherwise.

So what does the Muslim community—or, more accurately, the various Muslim communities—in Burma look like today? It is not easy to answer this question because of the information gap caused by Burma’s stubborn isolation. The last official government census was taken in 1983 and that one was incomplete because no population counts were taken in the parts of the country in states of insurgency at the time. The best estimates place the Muslim minority today at somewhere between four and eight percent of the total population, in a country of roughly fifty-five to sixty million. The Muslim population is widely dispersed. For example, so-called Panthays (Chinese Muslims) are located in various parts of northern Burma, including Mandalay; numerous Muslims of Malay ancestry live in the far southeast of the country; and thousands of Indian Muslims still dwell in Rangoon, particularly downtown in the area to the west of the Sule Pagoda.

The largest concentration of Muslims, however, resides in western Burma, in Rakhine State, much in the news of late because of reports of intermittent acts of Buddhist terror against Muslims in the region. Muslims constitute a large minority of the population, perhaps as much as a quarter, in this state of roughly four million. Muslims have lived in Rakhine since the eighth or ninth century. Most of the early Muslim migrants arrived in the region by sea as part of one or another circuit in the voluminous Bay of Bengal trade. However, Rakhine was lightly populated in comparison to neighboring Bengal, and some Bengalis had always migrated eastward over land. After Bengal became Islamicized in the early thirteenth century, migration eastward continued. Over time, Bengali Muslims came to constitute a sizable minority of Rakhine’s population, especially in the far west. Rakhine was conquered and annexed by Burma in 1784, after which time some Burmese Muslims also settled down in the area. The British acquired Rakhine as a result of the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26), and once in control, they encouraged South Asian migration into the region, most of which consisted of Bengali Muslims from the area around Chittagong.

Over time, Muslims from Bengal overwhelmed in numbers other Muslim communities in Rakhine. As a result, some scholars and journalists refer to all Muslims in Rakhine as Rohingya—from Rohang, which in the Rohingya language is the word for Rakhine. Others believe that the Rohingya constitute but one discrete part of Burma’s Muslim population: Chittagonian Bengalis. This Muslim subgroup, concentrated mainly in the far west of Rakhine, is allegedly comprised largely of people who have migrated relatively recently—and illegally—into Burma. In some ways, this is all definitional parsing: Whatever the case, it is clear that large elements of the Bamar population support a spectrum of “actions” against Muslims in Rakhine ranging from discrimination to persecution to paramilitary or military assaults to expulsion. Indeed, actors ranging from 969 to the military to the government and at times even to democracy advocate and Nobel Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi have proven willing to countenance, if not explicitly to endorse, varying levels of anti-Rohingya activity in Rakhine, with some willing to apply this same repression to Muslims in Burma more generally.

On the other hand, human rights groups, NGOs, and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, and the UN, view the Rohingya not as “stateless” people but as rightful members of Burmese society who have been subjected, for decades if not centuries, to illegal and immoral actions stretching all the way to attempts at ethnic cleansing by elements of the Buddhist Bamar majority.

Although I think it is possible to distinguish, even in Rakhine, between Rohingya specifically and Muslims generally, both groups (and other minorities in Burma) have legitimate grievances regarding their treatment at the hands of the Bamar-controlled state. This is not to suggest that Muslims have been blameless in cases where anti-Muslim violence has occurred, but, by and large, extremist elements in the Bamar community, taking advantage of the political opening that began in 2011, have found reasons to settle old scores, emphatically reassert ethno-cultural solidarity and dominance in the country, and maybe even redraw the economic, demographic, and political maps.


To much of the world, news emanating from far-off Burma about “Buddhist terrorism” seems puzzling because it cuts so deeply against the stereotype of a peaceful, tolerant, and serene religion. In fact, Burma isn’t the only Buddhist-majority country where extremist Buddhist elements are engaging in violence against other groups for political ends. (Sri Lanka and Thailand are two others.) Moreover, historically, there have been numerous terrorist groups with Buddhist backgrounds in Burma, as well as in other Buddhist countries and regions such as Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, and Tibet.

Burma has witnessed many dramatic developments in recent years, most of them positive but some troubling and even dangerous. Buddhist terrorism must be seen in this hazy light. Flurries of anti-Muslim activity, including terrorism, have occurred periodically during Burmese history, but Buddhists and Muslims have also lived together in the country in peace for long stretches. The Bamar are not (and have never been) universally anti-Muslim, much less universally involved in or even supportive of terrorism. Indeed, contacts in Yangon have recently told me of many Buddhists willing to harbor, in some cases even to stand with and protect, Muslim friends in the city when dangers arise.

Buddhist terrorism is clearly useful to elements in Burma, including politicos of various stripes who hope to unify the Bamar politically on an ethno-cultural basis as the country democratizes. It is hard to know how far they will go, in large part because we don’t know how far they are currently going. One thing we can say for sure, though: The answer to the question of Buddhist terrorism in Burma has to do with the difference between 969 and 786.

Peter A. Coclanis is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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