Brightly-coloured posters and stickers bearing the number "969" are popping up in cities all over Burma. These look innocuous enough at first glance. However, “969” actually denotes an anti-Islam campaign led by hardliner Buddhist monks. Burmese Muslims say it has stirred up hatred and paranoia, resulting in a string of bloody anti-Muslim riots across the country over the past weeks.
The three digits ‘969’ originally refer to the Buddha’s “three jewels” , but they are now being used as a brand name for a nationalist, anti-Muslim campaign led by a prominent monk based in Mandalay. Wirathu, who likes to refer to himself as the “Burmese Bin Laden”, was jailed in 2003 for inciting riots against Muslims, but was released as part of a general amnesty in 2012. Since then, he’s spearheaded the fast-growing ‘969’ movement, making numerous speeches calling on Buddhists to “buy 969” and boycott Muslim-owned stores.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has boiled over repeatedly since the ‘969’ campaign first emerged several months ago. In late March, rioters went on a three-day rampage in the central town of Meikhtila, burning down Muslims’ homes, businesses, and mosques. About 40 people were killed. The remnants of Muslim-owned stores were spray-painted with the digits ‘969’. Many witnesses said that during all this, the police stood by and watched. Shortly afterwards, more riots erupted in the Bago region after travelling monks preached the ‘969’ ideology. And early this week, fresh clashes broke out in Oakkan, a town north of Rangoon, where at least one person was killed.
With no end to these tensions in sight, thousands of Muslims displaced by these recent riots are staying shut up in refugee camps. According to the latest census, Muslims make up about 4 percent of Burma’s total population.
“My sister, who owns a store, has lost nearly all of her customers since the start of the ‘969’ campaign”
Aung (not her real name) lives in Rangoon. She is Muslim.
I started seeing ‘969’ stickers and signs in Rangoon just a couple months ago. Some shopkeepers put them on their storefronts, and taxi drivers stick them to their windshields. It’s a minority, but it belies a wider boycott of Muslim stores. Supporters of ‘969’ have been passing out pamphlets telling people not to shop at Muslim-owned stores.My sister owns a store, and has lost nearly all her customers since the start of this campaign. They know she’s Muslim – she looks Muslim, and wears a scarf. Like many other Muslim business owners, she is facing serious financial troubles because of this boycott.“All of my closest friends are Buddhists, and all of them avoid me these days”I recently visited one of my oldest friends’ stores, and noticed she had put up a ‘969’ sign. She’s Buddhist and has recently started treating me like a stranger, so I didn’t dare ask her why she did this. All of my closest friends are Buddhists, and all of them avoid me these days.I don’t feel safe in Rangoon anymore. I don’t think Muslims are safe anywhere in this country right now. I would like to go live abroad, but my parents are too old to move, and I can’t leave them alone.
A ‘969’ sticker in a Rangoon textile store. This photo was sent to us by one of our Observers.
“The more we see the ‘969’ signs, the less safe we feel"
Ko Moe Myint (not his real name) is a technician who lives in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital. He is Muslim.
In Naypyidaw, the ‘969’ campaign has really kicked off in the past few days. Unknown people in vans are now going around house-to-house, shop-by-shop to distribute ‘969’ stickers and DVDs. They’re also putting stickers up in public areas, like at bus stops. It’s like they’re carrying out a marketing campaign! They’re doing this mainly along Yaza Hta Nay Road, which is a major business area but is also home to a mixed community of Buddhists, Muslims and some Chinese business people.Recently, I’ve also seen lots of DVDs of Wirathu’s speeches being sold in town. One store I went to had about 100 copies. Newspaper vendors sell it out on the street, too. Lots of copies are spreading hand-to-hand. Others spread his speeches online, mainly through Facebook.“Some ‘969’ campaigners told people that meat and vegetables sold at Muslim-owned stores were poisonous”This campaign is clearly influencing Buddhists quite a lot. For example, I’m currently building a house, and some of my employees are Buddhists. They’ve just quit. They either don’t want or don’t dare to talk to me anymore. I saw ‘969’ stickers on their motorbikes.Buddhists now go only to shops owned by Buddhists. Some ‘969’ campaigners warned people not to eat meat and vegetables bought at Muslim-owned stores. They told them that it was poisonous! They said that it was not immediately poisonous, but that they would be dead in six months…Some Buddhists say that the ‘969’ campaign doesn’t attack other religions, that it is just expressing pride in Buddhism. However, since it’s emerged, Muslim communities across the country have been targeted! For us Muslims, ‘969’ is a sign of violence, a threat. The more we see the signs, the less safe we feel. Buddhist and Muslim communities that had lived together peacefully in the past are now torn apart because of ‘969’. As long as this campaign exists, I don’t think there will be any stability in Burma.