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Dhaka Tribune

Asia’s Rasputin and the Power Rangers

Update : 20 Apr 2013, 04:00 PM


This year is in danger of becoming the year when, despite much hyperbole about Myanmar’s transition and transformation, the country’s Muslim minority hasstarted to come under almost unprecedented persecution. I say almost because there is something eerily premeditated about the pogroms that are occurring, with the rhetoric of crude, visceral nationalism, creating a deadly, fascism-infused tinderbox.

A chief protagonist has emerged and he is not Myanmar’s “tsar,” TheinSein, the country’s self-styled reformist. Nor is it Myanmar’s whimsical saint figure,Aung San SuuKyi, but someone equally adept at tapping into that country’s soul: a monk.

The sangha, as monks are collectively known, has been fought over by prior movements for the legitimacy that these men can confer. In much the same fashion as proponents of “the faith” have in Muslim or Christian societies, regardless of the actual degree of faith in the beholder, the honest image of the sangha, instills them with immense political power.

Monks are supposed to stay out of politics but have engaged with devastating effect ever since Theravada Buddhism was adopted as the official religion by the first Burmese king, Anawratha, roughly 1,000 years ago. The most visible recent monk-led engagement in politics was the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” but sources suggest that monks are co-opted by the government to work the other way, in support of and to legitimise military power in Burmese political life.

Wirathu, nicknamed the “fighting monk,” is abbot of Masoeyein Monastery in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay. According to a number of sources, including fellow monks, he has connections with the government or military.

His speeches have consistently reflected a well-worn propaganda technique, which is to deflect all blame from the government to Muslims. As US embassy cable from as far back as 2003 noted: “We frequently hear stories of pro-State Peace Development Council (SPDC)‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

“The Muslims are responsible for nearly all of the crime in Myanmar: opium, theft, many rapes,” Wirathu told the Asia Times Online in 2003. “They are making it bad for everyone in Myanmar. The real reason America put the sanctions on us is because they wanted to punish al-Qaeda, which is here - and now we are all paying. Buddhists are starving because of these connections to al-Qaeda.”

America and the west, had specific reasons for putting sanctions on the country, rightly or wrongly, but “al-Qaeda” was not it. The west has never dealt with “al-Qaeda” through sanctions, in any case. This narrative however has specifically been used by the Burmese military to tarnish the Rohingya and seek support from the west.

This was demonstrated in a rare communication directly from Burmese intelligence to the US embassy. Available through wikileaks, from a time when the two countries had little official communication and western diplomats in country rarely, if ever, talked to the Myanmar government. Myanmar intelligence reported directly with the embassy about a Rohingya group’s alleged “al-Qaeda” connections:

“The Burmese view all these [ethnic armed] groups as terrorists. Their purpose in giving us this report is to make sure we are aware of the alleged contacts between the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO ) and the Burmese insurgent groups on the Thai border. Presumably, they hope to bolster relations with the United States by getting credit for cooperation on the [ctounter-terrorism] front…. Its purpose is probably to draw a connection between al- Qaeda, which has supported ARNO, and Burmese insurgent groups active on the Thai border.”

Rohingya groups are possibly the least violent out of a number of ethnic insurgent groups who have been fighting the central government for 60 years. There have been no reported violent attacks by organised Islamist terrorists, least of all bearing the hallmarks of jihadi terrorists elsewhere in the world.

The tactic of deflecting blame and the use of proxies is not just aired by critics of the government.

DrKyaw Yin Hlaing, formerly at Hong Kong City University, but now an employee of the Myanmar government on a commission to look into last summer’s violence in Rakhine state, noted in a 2008 US legal journal:“In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

Adding that “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Legitimacy is always difficult for a military government to achieve. This creates a situation in which they have behaved like an occupying force throughout the country. Much like colonial administrations, counter-insurgency involves co-opting and using para-military forces closer to the ground and people, as well as manufacturing legitimacy through ideologues such as co-optable Buddhist monks.

One such para-military force that was created was known as the “Power Ranger militia.” These groups can be seen as akin to Bangladesh’s “Razakars” of 1971.

“The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA)-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia is receiving rudimentary riot-control and military training in central Burma and elsewhere.  They are being told their mission is to hold up any attacking Americans long enough for Russia and China to come to the rescue," Dr. Hlaing explained. Chuckling, he added: "The Russians - that's a good one.”

Media reports also claim the government of Burma is training a “paramilitary  People’s Militia in Arakan State to assist in putting down any general uprising,” noted a 2003 US embassy cable entitled: “Mosque razed, paramilitariestrained.”

The USDA was the precursor to Myanmar’s current ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDA started life as a civilian proxy of the military, in a bid to give the army a greater civilian presence.

This is the backdrop that led UN special rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana to note, in response to violent clashes in Meiktila that led to a series of anti-Muslim pogroms in central Myanmar in March:“I have received reports of State involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organised ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs.”

It is important to note here that the Myanmar authorities are not in the habit of standing idly by, whilst disturbances occur. When monks and villagers protested the enlargement of a copper mine at Leptadaung last November, the police went as far as using the internationally banned incendiary weapon white phosphorous to clear peaceful protesters. Even Israel and the US who have used white phosphorous in legally dubious circumstances only used it against people who may have had weapons.

Indeed reports on the ground suggested that the police at Meiktila were ordered not to intervene in the violence. As reported by the New York Times: “When on Thursday I asked a junior police officer in Meiktila how all of this could have happened in the presence of government forces, he said, with distinct unease: We received an order to do nothing but extinguish fires. Obedience is more important than anything else in our service.”

The ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement recently coined a campaign known as 969, which was allegedly started by Wirathu. Much like the early Nazi moves to brand businesses owned by Jews in Munich, it has attempted to foment a boycott of businesses owned by Muslims and to subsequently exclude them. This has extended to posting notices in public naming Buddhists who have simply sold groceries to Muslims, condemning this as a sort of national treachery.

This propaganda was spawned on the web and through printed pamphlets. Whilst 969 was also reportedly written like a calling card on demolished properties such as a mosque in the town of Bago (Pegu), much like the daubed Star of David on shop fronts we see in black and white photos of Nazi Germany. The similarity also stems from the fact that 969 is a reaction to the Islamic 786 which is seen on Halal restaurants or shops in Myanmar, an intentional attempt to use the victims’ identity and habits against them.

969, via its monk figurehead have allegedly received support from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and its leader Aye Maung. The party has gone on the record taking the line that they view their people as unable to share their geographic region with peoples of different religions or races. As such the RNDP are vocal antagonists of the Rohingya. Little mention is made of the generations of Rakhine who have taken shelter in Bengal since the 18th century.

Less accountable still, are Wirathu’s links to men such as former intelligence chief, KhinNyunt, whom he has been photographed meeting. This is telling because of KhinNyunt’s formidable reputation for counter insurgency and psy-ops. As DrKyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out: “Before former intelligence chief General KhinNyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests.”

Counter insurgency tactics were strikingly visible at Depayin ( Where, when Aung San SuuKyi was travelling in central Myanmar in May 2003, she was stopped as dusk fell by two monks, who proved to be “fake monks.” A mob soon appeared and attacked her and her supporters; she was lucky to survive with only a decade of house arrest as a result.

The attack was designed to look like a spontaneous act of vitriol, much like the violence at Meiktila was portrayed, but which the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, Vijay Nambiar noted appeared “to have been done, in a sense, in almost a kind of brutal efficiency. Most of the people I spoke to tended to suggest the attacks were perpetrated by people they did not really recognise, and they may have been outsiders.”

KhinNyunt now claims to spend his time with “philanthropy” and in religious observance, but his shadow still looms.

KhinNyunt was purged from government in 2004 and put under house arrest, being released on January 12, 2012, a few months before anti Muslim violence ignited in May. Wirathu himself spent time in jail; in 2003. “He was arrested because of anti-Muslim riot in Kyautse,” says monk Ashin Sopaka. He was also released just prior to last summer’s tinderbox in Rakhine state.

Wirathu allegedly visited Meiktila just before March’s blood-letting occurred, when, notes Burmese scholar DrMaungZarni: “Wirathu would give a rather hate-filled speech in the morning and then in the evening he would post Burmese language messages on his Facebook about how he and his fellow monks are helping the victims of Muslim violence out of kindness,” concluding that this behavior denotes either “a sign of an intelligence operator or a sick bipolar man.”

Wirathu has also appeared in the press next to famous democracy campaigners such as Min KoNaing and Mothee Zone. Mothee Zone who lead the rebel student uprising and guerilla movement from the late 1980s, known as the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF) told the Tribune:

“I took a short trip to Pa HtooGyi, opposite Mandalay by boat with my colleagues. Wirathu appeared and got into my boat without our invitation. He was talking on the phone all the time. When I came back to Mandalay, two guys were waiting to protest against me, saying ‘Moethee get out of Burma’ and ‘you’re the guy who supports Muslims,’ etc.”

“Then I realised why Wirathu came with me; he arranged for the protests. He plays a double axe policy.  More than 50 local journalists took photos of these two guys who protested against me and printed them in their local newspapers how I was not welcome in Mandalay.”

AshinSopaka has had a similar run in with Wirathu, whom he met last year. Wirathu has claimed to be a former political prisoner and supportive of them yet;

“I met Wirathu in 2012 and he was complaining to me because of my movement to release all political prisoners in 2011 in Mandalay. I was thinking what is wrong with him? I was demonstrating to free all political prisoners.”

The military in Myanmar have had a difficult job legitimising themselves. As Human Rights Watch noted in 2002: “The Burmese military government often uses Buddhism as a means of laying claim to a form of national legitimacy.” Xenophobic, fear-based nationalism has been another sources of mobilisation and control.

Much like the compelling draw of Rasputin in the court of Tsar Nicholas in the dying days of Russian monarchy, military rule in Myanmar has varied from pragmatically using the faith of the nation to control it and in bizarre ( use of superstition to make decisions.

As such the line between official relations between Wirathu and the military is blurry. The violence not only helps to foster a sense of nationalism, it also calls into question the ability of a civilian administration to control the populace, with the conclusion that military force is necessary for domestic security. Many therefore see the violence as perpetrated by “some former generals [who are] using fake monks to organise these riots because they want to take their power back,” says AshinSopaka.

Much like the clumsy military propaganda of old a twisted reading of an ancient “Kalar” (as Wirathu and the Myanmar military pejoratively refer to those with dark skin), a Bihari sage, Siddartha Gautama, is now a contorted rallying point for racist, ultra-nationalism in Myanmar.

As AshinSopaka puts it: “The Buddha never taught us to hate others but to love uncountable beings in the universe. Teaching to hate others is too easy, compared to having metta (Pali for self-less, loving kindness). We should not lose the face of Buddha by [these] violations! Hatred is a disease of all mankind and all should try to heal it.”



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