Thousands of Buddhist monks in Myanmar, including leaders of a controversial anti-Muslim movement, gathered Wednesday to establish a new “fortress”-like association aimed at defending their religion.
The meeting, held in the northern city of Mandalay, launched the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief, starting with an Upper Myanmar chapter.
“Forming this association makes us stronger, as if we have built a fortress in Upper Myanmar which people from different religions won’t be able to destroy,” Raza Dhamma, a prominent monk and conference organizer, told the congregation.
He said the association would “help our nationality and religion to endure” in Myanmar, where a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment has spread across the 60 million-strong Buddhist majority since a nominally civilian government took over in 2011 following decades of tightly controlled military rule.
Prominent monks from across the country participated in the meeting, including Wirathu, leader of a controversial nationwide campaign known as the “969 Movement” which claims Myanmar’s minority Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority.
Radical Buddhist monks have been accused of spreading hate speech and fueling sectarian violence as the country was ravaged by anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013 that left more than 200 people dead and tens of thousands homeless, mostly Muslims.
The clashes first broke out in western Rakhine state, home to minority Rohingya Muslims considered stateless in Myanmar, and later spread to communities in other parts of the country.
Rights groups have said Rohingya Muslims bore the brunt of the violence in Rakhine state and blamed radical anti-Muslim Buddhist monks for stoking tensions in other areas.
Some monks told the Mandalay conference that peaceful coexistence with other religions was critical while defending Buddhism.
Nyanissara, a prominent monk who addressed the conference, said Buddhist monks’ efforts to promote interfaith dialogue had helped ease inter-communal tensions since last year.
“We have more natural understanding and respect for one another than before because we have tried to hold interfaith dialogues on coexistence,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the meeting, which followed a similar forum in the commercial capital Yangon last year.
“What all of us from different religions and different nationalities must know is that we have to live together in the land of Myanmar peacefully and in safety, with mutual understanding and respect.”
In his speech, he urged monks not to react angrily if people from outside the country accuse Buddhist monks of inciting violence.
“If people from other countries accuse us of being terrorist monks, please don’t get angry or be upset. If you do, it will be dangerous for the unity of our community of Buddhist monks.”
'Protecting religion and nationality'
The meeting, like last year’s conference in Yangon, had helped encourage support for “protecting our religion and nationality,” he said.
At last year’s conference, which Wirathu helped organize, monks supported a proposal of his for a new law restricting interfaith marriage.
Since then members of the 969 Movement, which is named after numbers symbolizing the virtues of the Buddha, and other monks have been working to collect signatures and earn lawmakers’ support for the proposal.
The 969 Movement also calls on Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned shops and avoid fraternizing with Muslims.
Reported by Khin Pyay Sone, Set Paing Toe, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, and Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.