Religious nationalism and the shadow of Burmese army in sectarian violence
by Francis Khoo Thwe
A movement of monks fueling the "969"campaign, which calls for a boycott of businesses belonging to the Muslim minority. Leader of the group the "Bin Laden" of Myanmar. Behind the scenes the moves of the former military junta, which intends to undermine the democratic reforms of the current government.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - A movement of Burmese monks is fueling tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, theater in the last months of violence that has left dozens dead and thousands displaced in different parts of the country. Among the principal architects of this anti-Islamic fringe - which calls for a boycott of shops and activities of the followers of Muhammad - is a famous Monk named Wirathu, who in spite of being defined a "man of peace" is known by the nickname " Burma's Bin Laden ". So much so that in recent weeks the saffron clad monk, a colour reminiscent of the struggle against the military dictatorship violently repressed by the junta, has reportedly become the so-called "spiritual leader" of the campaign of ethnic-confessional hatred.

He has become the familiar face of a violent campaign against Muslims, justified by a fierce religious nationalism and whose message is "Buddhists united against the Islamic threat." The presence of monks also provides "ideological" coverage for the conflict, which has reached alarming levels in Rakhine State against the Rohingya minority. It is also likely to jeopardize the "fragile democracy" that is taking shape in Myanmar, fueling suspicions that behind this religious group there may be the long arm of the (former) military dictatorship.

Behind Wirathu's public image is a growing movement in support of the "969" campaign in which the three digits represent the virtues of the Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks. Stickers and flyers with the number are appearing with increasing frequency of shops, taxis, buses and markets. A Yangon Muslim merchant reports that, following the wave of anti-Muslim violence, his turnover has "dropped by 75%" because the Buddhists no longer come to his shop.

So far appeals for calm from the international community and the invitation to put an end to the violence, also launched by the Archbishop of Yangon Msgr. Charles Bo, have gone unheard.  In a recent message the Catholic prelate recalled the "core values" of "love and compassion" present "in Buddhism, Islam and Christianity".

Burmese policy experts interviewed by AsiaNews say that these sectarian tensions arising from "a mix of factors." The "economic dimension" that "Muslims are successful in business" overlaps "nationalist sentiments" inherent in Burmese. It is not difficult to find - even in the recent past - confirmation of a "strong patriotic militancy" among the monks, along the lines of what is happening in Sri Lanka. Added to that is a strong "anti-Islamic" sentiment, fueled mostly "at the time of the dictatorship of General Ne Win." It is not impossible, says a source, that "there are also elements of the former military junta who are orchestrating the current violence and tensions, to bring instability and endanger political reforms."