11 Nov 2013 16:00
In August 2012 the rioting began. Fueled by religious extremists and invisible politicians with murky motives, arson spread to every major city in Myanmar.
In the beginning the lynching of three Muslims in the country's most westerly state sparked cycles of revenge attacks between it's two inhabiting ethnic groups, the native Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya, descendents of immigrant Bangladeshi sherpas working for British colonialists. A dawn-to-dusk curfew was enforced by martial law, the streets desolate with shutters pulled low over the normally bustling markets. Workers stopped turning up for work and at night they defended their villages from creeping arsonists. Acres of downtown turned to blackened wastelands, whole blocks of wooden houses reduced to ash. Possessions and the skeletons of livestock lay amongst the fallen rubble where they were left, and orphanages filled with abandoned children.
Since, targets have widened to include anyone of Muslim faith in Myanmar. In cities like Sittwe, Meikhtila, Mandalay, and Lashio the attacks follow a similar pattern, an individual racist attack, a lynching in response, followed by cycles of revenge attacks from both sides. Houses are burnt, hundreds die, and thousands are left homeless. Muslims being the minority, accounting for only 5% of the country's population, always come off worse. They are no longer allowed to vote, travel, or hold positions within the government services.
Now the military struggles to contain and downplay the violence, President U Thein Sein admits the country's push for democracy is jeopardized, complicating the idea of budding democracy amongst peaceful Buddhists.
In Burmese markets, luminous “969” stickers tell Buddhists where to spend their money. Rows of stalls proudly display the logo; tyre shops, jade booths, hotels, betel carts and pharmacies. But this is not a method of religious inclusion, it's a ploy to keep Muslims out. An aggressive nationalistic movement, of which Buddhist monk Wirathu is figurehead.
Wirathu was released from prison in 2011, after serving seven years for inciting religious violence. He was released under a government amnesty program.
"Muslims are only well behaved when they are weak, "said Wirathu in an interview with the Global Post. "When they become strong, they are like a wolf or a jackal; in large packs they hunt down other animals."
The number 969 is taken from the Buddhist texts, where each number relates to an aspect of the religion - Buddha, Dhamma (teachings), and Sanga (monks) – the Three Gems of Buddhism. But under the peaceful umbrella of promoting trade between Buddhists and protecting their cultural identity, the 969 are segregating faith and commerce, undermining religious relations, and driving a wedge with continued violence. But the movement's roots grow into something much more sinister, the beginnings of genocidal thinking, and right wing nationalism.
Photos by Spike Johnson