Monks, PowerPoint Presentations, and Ethnic Cleansing

Damning new evidence shows the Myanmar government's role in promoting anti-Muslim hatred.

Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who tried to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence, cry as they receive news that they cannot find refuge in the country, in Teknaf, on June 18, 2012. At least 50 people have died in western Myanmar's Rakhine state in more than a week of sectarian violence and revenge attacks between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Bangladesh is coming under increasing international pressure to open its border to Rohingya, but has so far refused to do so. AFP PHOTO/ STRINGER        (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/GettyImages)
Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, who tried to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence, cry as they receive news that they cannot find refuge in the country, in Teknaf, on June 18, 2012. At least 50 people have died in western Myanmar's Rakhine state in more than a week of sectarian violence and revenge attacks between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Bangladesh is coming under increasing international pressure to open its border to Rohingya, but has so far refused to do so. AFP PHOTO/ STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/GettyImages)

YANGON, Myanmar — In October 2011, Ashin, a monk, was released from prison after four years in detention for his involvement in the pro-democracy “saffron revolution” protests. (Only the religious honorific of Ashin’s name has been used here to protect his identity.) Three top Myanmar officials, including generals and a government minister, told Ashin that since he had just been released from prison, he was poor. The officials told the monk that he could earn money by joining other monks in promoting “race and religion preservation” against the threat of a rival faith: Islam.

The pitch was simple. Things had changed since 2007’s saffron revolution, in which Ashin had played a leading role. Now, the government officials claimed, “they were implementing [the] democracy that we had been demanding.” Indeed, Ashin himself had been released as part of a series of amnesties ordered by President Thein Sein, who had taken over the reins of the country in March 2011. There was a new cause, “and [they] asked me to work with them,” he said. “If I did that, they would let me preach in various townships. If I preach, I get money.”

Over the past three years, Myanmar’s Muslim population, conservatively estimated to number 2.5 million people, have faced increasing hostility from the Buddhist majority, who make up roughly 90 percent of the state’s 53 million citizens. The most assailed community among Myanmar’s Muslims has been the stateless Rohingya ethnic group, who live in Rakhine state in the west of the country, where they endure apartheid-like conditions. The government officially refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” in accordance with its long-standing claim that the group is mostly comprised of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Pressure on Muslims has only increased with the approach of this year’s election, set to take place on Nov. 8, the country’s first free poll in 25 years. Much of this is due to the rise of an ultranationalist lobby group known as the “Ma Ba Tha,” whose name is an acronym for the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Since its founding in 2013, the movement and its most prominent member, Mandalay-based monk Ashin Wirathu, have toured the country preaching about the threat that Islam poses to Buddhism and national sovereignty.

It was exactly the movement Ashin was being invited to join after his release from prison. The three officials who met with Ashin were retired Gen. Hla Htay Win, the chief of the general staff in the armed forces; U Zaw Aye Maung, Yangon region’s minister for the affairs of the Rakhine ethnic minority; and Myint Swe, chief minister of Yangon region.

Ashin didn’t accept their offer. But others did, swelling the ranks of the embryonic version of the Ma Ba Tha. Ashin is one among four leading clerics who were active in the saffron revolution eight years ago claiming to have been offered inducements to join Myanmar’s powerful ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim movement as it grew in strength over the past four years.

Their testimonies, as well as documentary evidence linking the Myanmar government to anti-Muslim incitement were obtained as part of research for the “Genocide Agenda,” an investigative documentary aired by Al Jazeera this week. The film points to a multi-pronged strategy by the government to encourage anti-Muslim hatred across the country, while pursuing policies against the Rohingya that legal scholars in the film refer to as “genocidal.”

In 2011, Myanmar’s reformist government launched a cautious process of liberalization that removed long-standing restrictions on opposition party activity, allowed for relative freedom of the press, and led to the release of many political prisoners. Yet the country’s gradual opening has also been blamed for the emergence of ferocious sectarian violence between the Buddhist majority and members of the Muslim minority. This conflict is often depicted as organic and spontaneous, a grassroots eruption of stored-up grievances enabled by new freedoms.

Yet what this version of events ignores is that government officials and members of the military elite have played an active role in fomenting interethnic tensions. Evidence obtained by Al Jazeera shows conclusively that the recent surge of anti-Muslim hatred has been anything but random. In fact, it’s the product of a concerted government campaign clearly aimed at promoting instability and undermining the opposition by stirring up the forces of militant nationalism.

For its part, the government has denied allegations that it is linked to the violence. One senior government official, described such claims as “nonsense” in 2013, while President Thein Sein personally pledged to crack down on the activity of extremists in the same year. (State officials declined repeated requests for interviews with Al Jazeera.)

Myanmar’s monk-led anti-Muslim campaign first came to international prominence after two bouts of deadly violence in 2012 in Rakhine state. Clashes between members of the largely Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group and the Rohingya mutated into organized pogroms, in which the Rakhine slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya. Over the last few years, around 140,000, largely Rohingya, have been made homeless and forced to move into squalid camps for the displaced. A report by Human Rights Watch accused state agencies of committing “crimes against humanity” against the group. And in May, a report commissioned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum warned that the minority group was at increasing risk of genocide.

Shortly after violence began in Rakhine state, the “969 movement” headed by Wirathu came into prominence as it toured the country, warning of a looming Muslim threat to Buddhism and national sovereignty. In many cases, areas visited by the group would experience flare-ups in community tensions shortly after. In 2013, the Ma Ba Tha all but replaced the movement.

Monks who spoke to Al Jazeera claimed that Wirathu worked for the government and attempted to recruit them to join his anti-Muslim crusade on its behalf. “He said he would set up an office for me and regularly give me money,” Tha Kha Na, another veteran of the saffron revolution recalled, adding that he would be provided with resources to spread his anti-Muslim message. “He would set up an office…with telephones for communications, laptops, and office materials. He asked me to be the head of that office.”

Another former activist monk who wished to remain anonymous told a similar story. “After we got released from prison in 2011, we returned to our monasteries. I came to Yangon, and [Wirathu] contacted me by telephone. [Wirathu] asked me, ‘Come over. Come see me.’ And so, I did.” Wirathu told the monk he would give him money in return for preaching in favor of Wirathu’s nationalist movement. The monk declined. When approached by Al Jazeera, Wirathu denied any links to the government or its leader, whom he had publicly endorsed on social media. “President Thein Sein and I have no connections,” he said, adding that he had no link to any part of the state.

However, friends of Wirathu have claimed that they have personally witnessed close interactions between the monk and state authorities. A community leader who had worked with Wirathu in their hometown of Mandalay, in central Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that he regularly saw Wirathu speaking with Myanmar’s security services. “Every time there was a problem, township head of police force, head of police station, and township chief administrator came to Wirathu and talked to him regarding the problem and got instructions from him. I’ve seen that,” the friend said.

Another acquaintance of Wirathu’s, who asked to be interviewed anonymously, said that the city’s Special Branch (SB) agency, known for its long history of targeting minorities and dissidents, were working closely with the monk. “I know generations of SB,” he said, adding, “I learned from them that he has to be in touch with them at all times.” He claimed that he had also seen SB members at Wirathu’s monastery on several occasions.

Further evidence of links between the state and members of the anti-Muslim monkhood are contained in a mobile phone video obtained by Al Jazeera. The film appears to show a secret meeting between government officials and Ma Ba Tha clerics, in which the visitor asks his audience to check if any former prisoners freed in an amnesty were Muslim. If so, “we will re-arrest [them],” he promises.

While neither statements nor the mobile phone recording constitute absolute proof of a direct link between the government and Wirathu or the Ma Ba Tha, internal documents obtained by Al Jazeera show that several organs of the state have been involved in inciting anti-Muslim hatred. One such item is a PowerPoint presentation used by members of the armed forces in October 2012 at a training session in the capital city of Naypyidaw. The lecture aid instructs army cadets to view the Muslim population as a threat to its very existence and as mortal enemies of Buddhism. Titled “Fear of Losing One’s Race,” the presentation calls for its audience to promote Buddhism and raises the possibility of the “extinction” of faith and nation at the hands of Muslim interlopers.

Sai Thein Win, a former military insider who famously leaked Myanmar’s nuclear secrets to the West, explained its significance. He told Al Jazeera that the training college where the lecture took place is a center for psychological warfare. “The purpose of that school is…[that] they recruit the propagandists and create rumors which spread among the people. In this way they influence the policy of the country…. make the people worry, spread the fear, hatreds and create conflicts,” he said.

Another document, circulated among township administrators in all states of Myanmar in September 2013, is even more direct in raising the prospect of a Muslim conspiracy to harm Buddhists. The document encourages officials to make “necessary preparations” to counter the alleged maneuvers, which include a plot to rape Buddhist women and to start riots “nationwide.”

While the predicted events never occurred, analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera saw the purpose of the memo as more than just a warning. Penny Green, director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) based at the Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera that she regarded the document as “propaganda issued by the state.”

A third document, obtained by Al Jazeera this year, also warns government officials of a terrifying threat. It includes a report of a Muslim terrorist plot, scheduled for July of this year. The report cites an anonymous informant who claims that “terrorist groups have joined together and have highly encouraged Bengali people in Rakhine State…[to] carry out terrorist acts.” The memo adds, “If unsuccessful, they are highly encouraged to cut off the heads of departmental staff members and kill them.”

Whatever the reason such reports have been circulated, one thing is clear: The idea of a vicious and well-organized Muslim threat is being encouraged by officials working within state agencies, no matter how little evidence emerges of its existence. Moreover, this appears to be taking place in coordination with parts of the monkhood, which is spreading the same message in the public sphere.

This does not bode well either for community relations or the nascent democratic political space that has opened up in Myanmar. But the stakes are even higher. Many outside observers from legal scholars to human rights groups allege that the policies of Myanmar’s government toward the Rohingya are genocidal. Given such a finding, it is more than ominous to see just how obsessively the government insists on presenting them not as victims, but as monsters.

The Al Jazeera documentary the “Genocide Agenda” will be aired on Al Jazeera English for the week starting Oct. 26. The author was the lead investigator on the documentary. 

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/GettyImages

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher, specializing in human rights. He was researcher and investigative producer of the Al Jazeera documentary the "Genocide Agenda.”

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