RANGOON — Leading Buddhist monks of the nationalist 969 movement said they have been holding sermons in several townships in northern Arakan State, which has been wracked by bloody violence between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The activities raise concerns that the monks, who have been accused spreading hate speech against Islam, will inflame tensions and cause new outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in the volatile state.
Myanan Sayadaw U Thaddhamma said he and six monks from the Mon State capital Moulmein arrived in Arakan State in mid-December and have since visited Arakanese Buddhist communities to give Dhamma sermons—talks that are supposed to explain Buddhist teachings.
“The main intention of our talks is that we want to share a religious experience with our Buddhist people. We also wanted to show our sympathy to the people who are suffering and we will tell them that the [Burmese] heartland people did not abandon them,” U Thaddhamma told The Irrawaddy in a phone call.
“We recognize that Rakhine [Arakan] people and monks protected their state and religion very well. This is why we went to go and meet people from town to town,” he said. U Thaddhama claimed that Arakan State, on Burma’s border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, was the “Western Gate” that is being “protected” by Arakanese Buddhists.
U Thaddhamma said his monks had visited Thandwe and Myebon townships and were currently holding three days of talks in Sittwe, adding that they also planned to visit Buddhist communities in the mostly Muslim townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw.
The 969 movement, led by the Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, has become extremely controversial in the past year after it began a nationwide campaign that claims that Burma’s Muslim are threatening the Buddhist majority.
The monks, who are deeply revered in Burma, have called on Buddhists to shun Muslim communities and buy only goods from Buddhist-owned shops. The sermons are considered hate speech and have been linked to outbreaks of Buddhist mob violence against Muslim communities throughout Burma.
Since 2012, such violence has left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 150,000 people, most of them Muslim. Northern Arakan State has been the worst-affected after long-standing tensions between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority exploded and mob attacks led to the death of 192 people in June and October last year.
The most recent outbreak of deadly inter-communal violence occurred in Thandwe Township in October and the Buddist mob attacks there were preceded by sermons organized by the 969 movement.
U Thaddhamma denied the movement’s activities in the region would contribute to rising tensions, adding that local authorities had allowed the monks to travel and spread their message.
“We did not hold talks to create any problem,” he said, before claiming that the Muslims had initiated the inter-communal violence in Burma in the past year. “They were first people who started the violence. Then, when they were suffered, they blamed our 969 monks,” he said.
Arakan State spokesperson Win Myaing said the authorities saw no problem with the 969 events planned in their volatile region. “It is a normal Dhamma talk. The people here do it yearly. There will be no problem because they did not hold talks in the Muslim community,” he said.
Tens of thousands of displaced Rohingyas languish in poorly-run camps and tensions between the communities in Arakan State remain high. The central government and state authorities have been accused of siding with the Buddhist communities in the conflict and are said to have done little to promote inter-communal harmony and dialogue.
The government denies the roughly 800,000 Rohingyas citizenship and claims that the minority in northern Arakan are “Bengalis” who entered the country illegally from neighboring Bangladesh.
Aung Win, a Rohingya human rights activist and community leader in Sittwe, said he did not oppose the holding of Buddhist ceremonies, but expressed concern over the fact that 969 monks were spreading their message throughout the strife-torn state.
“They have the right to hold talks. But, it is better not to insult the other religion when they are speaking,” he said. “These monks speak about how [Buddhists] should not accept Bengali people and that Islam is organizing a migration of Muslims into Arakan State.”
“We mostly need interfaith dialogue here. This is very important. But, I do not see it,” Aung Win said.