Magazine article New Internationalist

Keeping the Peace

Magazine article New Internationalist

Keeping the Peace

Article excerpt

Ashin Issariya appears unassuming, but the quiet demeanour quickly changes when he has something to say. In the pre-dawn light of Burma's nascent reform process the Buddhist monk and former Saffron Revolution leader isn't afraid to say what others won't, even if it seems to put him at odds with his own.

Based in the country's commercial capital, Rangoon, Issariya helped lead thousands of monks to challenge the former military regime in 2007, a choice that cost him nearly five years as a political prisoner. Now he heads up a grassroots organization made up of different religious leaders opposed to the new 969 movement.

'The real message of the 969 is not to attack other religions, but some monks are using it like a shield,' he said. Many would like to denounce it but hesitate because it is 'the real teaching of the Buddha'.

The numbers represent the 'three crown jewels': the nine attributes of Buddha; the six attributes of his teachings; and the nine attributes of the monastic order known as the sangha.

Stickers produced and distributed by 969 advocates have appeared in shop windows across the country. The symbol distinguishes Buddhist-owned businesses from Muslim.

Issariya wants 'to bring peace to Burma'. He says 'pro-government' commentators regularly accuse him on his Facebook group of 'taking money from Muslims' and 'helping Christians, Muslims and Hindus'. It's true; Issariya takes money from Muslims to help Muslims, but also Buddhists. The monk created a group that hosts lectures by different religious leaders to 'teach the people how to live in peace'. Together they have also raised money to help both Muslim and Buddhist victims of the sectarian violence which flared up dramatically last year.

'Real Muslims are not angry with Buddhists, real Buddhists are not angry with Muslims.'

They're more concerned with 'trying to get their rice' than the 'religious problem', Issariya explains.

Rampaging mobs

Yet the 'religious problem' keeps recurring across the country. Earlier this year, the numbers 969 were found spray-painted on the walls of a torched building in Mandalay Division.

Ashin Wirathu, the 969 campaign's most vocal advocate, stands accused of stoking the fire - his anti-Islam themed religious lectures came in several cases weeks or even days ahead of the violence. Wirathu was jailed for inciting violence against Muslims in 2002. In 2012 he received amnesty along with other political prisoners.

The government has been criticized for doing nothing to stop the violence. In March, police waited for orders that didn't come while mobs went on a rampage that lasted for days in Meiktila. Afterwards, flash mobs roamed the countryside for over a week, attacking Muslim quarters in various townships without being checked by the police.

The Physicians for Human Rights report 'Massacre in Central Burma: Muslim Students Terrorized and Killed in Meiktila' records how over 20 children were murdered by angry mobs. Some of their bodies were set on fire. The killings happened in plain view of police who were escorting 150 Muslims away from a mosque towards the 'would be' attackers, said the report.

Other statements in the report from eye witnesses were equally disturbing.

A Buddhist monk allegedly told a Muslim, 'If you don't want to die, you must sit and worship us.' Other testimonies recounted how several Muslims were taunted with or forced to eat pork. …

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