Kyaw Kyaw, lead singer of the punk band Rebel Riot, says “If they were real monks, I’d be quiet, but they aren’t. They are nationalists, fascists. No one wants to hear it, but it’s true.”
Radical monks have been leading the violent campaign against Muslims, and almost no one in the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people are speaking out against them. Being Buddhist is a part of being Burmese, and because the monks are the most venerable members of society, they are above reproach.
Some of just in denial about what’s going on, or actually believe the claims that the Muslims, just 4 percent of the population, are a threat to the nation’s culture and traditions.
Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the United States-based Anti-Defamation League, says mobs have razed mosques and cheered as Muslims are hunted down and beaten to death with chains and metal pipes, and the silence from the public is as dangerous as the mobs.
Drawing parallels to the Holocaust in Germany and the genocide in Rwanda, Salbert says “It’s not perpetrators that are the problem here. It’s the bystanders.”
After 50 years of military rule, a new civilian government has made sweeping reforms, granted more freedoms to the people, opened up the media, and thrown out the censor’s pen.
But these same freedoms have given a voice to radical monks like the charismatic Wirathu, a supporter of 969. He travels the country calling for boycotts of Muslim shops and a ban on marriages between Muslim men and Buddhist women, warning that a higher birthrate could make Muslims a majority of the population in the future.
Few in Myanmar are speaking out against the religious violence. Westerners living in the country are often surprised at the silence of their Burmese friends.
“I’m sure a lot of them think this is total madness, but they don’t dare to say that openly,” says Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and author of several books on Myanmar. “If they do they will be attacked by these new nationalists, religious bigots, accused of being friends with Muslims … . It’s a very difficult situation.”
President Thein Sein, lauded by the US and others for his reforms, banned an issue of Time magazine that had Wirathu on the cover and called him “the face of Buddhist terror”. Sein issued a statement saying he supports 969 and considers Wirathu a “son of Lord Buddha.”
With national elections coming up in 2015, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said nothing, evidently worried, analysts say, that she will be hurt at the polls if she is perceived as anti-Buddhist.
So that leaves the punk rockers, who already know what it’s like to be outsiders.
During the years of military rule, the tiny punk community practiced and performed in secret before a small group of friends. While others were silenced by the ever-present threat of arrest and imprisonment, they screamed out against the abuses of the army.
And now they have a new battleground – religious intolerance. And they have no intention of shying away. Image/AP