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MANDALAY, Myanmar – Wrapped in a saffron robe, Buddhist monk Wirathu insists he is a man of peace. Never mind his nine years in prison for inciting deadly violence against Muslims. Never mind the gruesome photos outside his office of Buddhists allegedly massacred by Muslims. Never mind that in the new Myanmar, the man dubbed the "Burmese bin Laden" has emerged as the spiritual leader of a pro-Buddhist fringe movement accused of fueling a bloody campaign of sectarian violence.
Wirathu insists the world has misunderstood him.
"If they knew my true ideas, they would call me savior," he says.
EDITOR'S NOTE — This story is part of "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is — and is not — changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.
Wirathu has become the figurehead of a virulent strain of religious nationalism being spread by some of the most venerated members of Burmese society: Buddhist monks. Their core message is that Buddhists must unite against a growing Muslim threat.
While these monks are a minority, some argue they provide an ideological justification for the religious violence that has ripped through Myanmar over the last year, threatening to destabilize the country's still-fragile democracy and raising the specter of a return to military rule. Their rhetoric also reinforces a vision of a divided society as Myanmar tries to integrate its many ethnic and religious minorities after decades of internal conflict.
The spread of this new radicalism has been helped by the very reforms it threatens to derail. A quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after five decades of brutal military rule. New freedoms of speech and assembly soon followed, which have made it easier to disseminate radical views. Wirathu himself was unleashed in early 2012 as part of a widely-praised amnesty for political and other prisoners.
A short man, with a quick smile and evident charisma, Wirathu is the public face of a fast-spreading but still small campaign called "969." Each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks. The campaign urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims. Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem have been popping up on shops, taxis, and buses, marking them as Buddhist. Local 969 groups have been starting religious education classes for children.
The movement, says Wirathu, has one aim: "To protect race and religion."
To suggest that Wirathu is the main force behind anti-Muslim propaganda is to overstate his influence and underestimate how dispersed the ideas he espouses are. Countless grassroots movements, some branded as 969 and others not, propagate the ideas of Buddhist supremacy through sloppily photocopied handbills, unmarked bootleg DVDs, videos that have gone viral on mobile phones, and for the few with Internet access, social networking sites like Facebook.
By cloaking itself in piety, the 969 campaign and others like it have managed to tap into widespread anti-Muslim feeling and temper critics wary of being seen as anti-Buddhist.
Wirathu and others insist 969 is merely a peaceful movement to strengthen Buddhism and that it is being wrongly blamed for inciting religious violence that rolled through central Myanmar in March. Mobs, including monks, led a 10-day streak of anti-Muslim riots that left over 40 dead as police stood idly by. Irrespective of its role in the latest violence, the movement has successfully opened an economic front in the religious war brewing in Myanmar.
One Muslim shopkeeper in northern Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, says his sales have fallen by two-thirds since a video of Wirathu preaching began circulating a month and a half ago. Buddhists, he says, stopped coming to his shop. If business doesn't pick up, he's considering becoming a taxi driver.
"969 is very dangerous," says the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution. "They want to hurt Muslim businesses. When our business goes down, the Burmese will be rich."
Followers say 969 is a response to 786, a number long used by Muslims in Myanmar to mark halal restaurants and shops.
Some erroneously read into 786 — a number whose digits add up to 21 — a secret plan for Muslim world domination in the 21st century. The number is actually derived from a short prayer invoking the name of God. The Arabic letters in the phrase have numeric values that add up to 786, explains Maung Maung, a Muslim tea shop owner in Mandalay, Myanmar's spiritual capital and Wirathu's base.
Maung Maung, who helped form an interfaith group after Buddhist-Muslim violence in western Myanmar last year, says he has no problem with Buddhists using 969 to mark their shops but is troubled by the minority of religious leaders, including Wirathu, who use the symbol to campaign against Muslims.
"Some people are trying to use it in the wrong way for their own ends," he says. "They don't represent the monks' community or the community at large."
In western Yangon, 969 and 786 signs hang side by side above chunks of goat meat gathering flies at Kyimyindaing market. A woman nearby holds an orange peel to her nose to block the smell of pig ribs ripening in the April heat.
Aye Aye Khine, 41, sits beneath two 969 placards at her meat shop. She made the signs herself, copying them from the cover of a 969 DVD a friend gave her. "Before I didn't think about whether people were Buddhist or Muslim," she says. "After listening, I learned how to keep the Buddhist faith."
Business is up 50 percent since she posted the signs a month ago, she says.
Much of the Buddhist-dominated market has been won over to 969, thanks to a few enterprising shopkeepers who decided to start their own chapter.
All men, they met in tea shops and came up with a manifesto, which they photocopied and passed around the neighborhood. They printed T-shirts with the 969 logo and the words "Spread Good Deeds," and say they have recruited 50 members and raised 150,000 kyat ($170) in donations since launching on March 27. They hope to link up with other chapters.
"We intend to unite together," says Wai Phyo, one of the founders, who spent ten years as a monk before opening a rickety DVD stand at Kyimyindaing market. "If something happens, we are ready to organize."
"It's not to fight," he adds. "It's to protect."
Outside Wirathu's office at the New Ma Soe Yein monastery hangs a large poster of him gazing heavenward next to a dove with an olive branch in its beak. Dozens of faithful mill nearby, buying DVDs of his sermons and ogling the photos of dead Buddhists — some with skulls split like coconuts or faces burned beyond recognition. The thriving monastery houses 2,855 monks, a school, a library and a medical clinic.
The son of a tractor driver, Wirathu does not have the mind of a philosopher. The family moved frequently when he was young, disrupting his schooling. When he became a monk at 17, he had only completed eighth grade. Today, at 44, he prefers the concrete to abstraction. He habitually makes lists, of reasons, goals and real or imagined atrocities committed by Muslims against Buddhists. He gestures gently with his small hands as he talks about the violence. His enumerations of rapes, lynching and hateful slurs sound a familiar schoolyard complaint: They started it.
He says he began to weld an anti-Muslim ideology to the number 969 in 2001. He lectured about the need to unite against the threat of a rich Muslim minority bent on marrying and converting Buddhist women, buying up land with foreign funding and flooding the population with Muslim babies.
Only around 4 percent of Myanmar is Muslim, according to official statistics. Muslims here are seen as relatively prosperous, which has fueled economic jealousies — though Buddhist businessmen with ties to the old regime and military-linked companies dominate the economy. Still, Wirathu maintains that Muslim domination is a pressing threat.
"It's a very dangerous situation because in some cases the whole village becomes Muslim," he says. He likens Muslims to African catfish, an invasive species. "The African catfish have a very great population and they eat each other and destroy nature. These catfish are not allowed into the country to breed."
969 began to coalesce as a political movement after Buddhist-Muslim riots in western Rakhine state last June and October. More than 200 were killed, 70 percent of them Muslim. Over 125,000 remain homeless.
About 50 monks in the southern city of Moulmein began meeting late last year, according to Wirathu and one of the monks involved. They branded the ideas of 969 with a logo: the iconic lion statue of India's Buddhist emperor, Ashoka the Great, set against a prayer wheel and the colorful stripes of the Buddhist prayer flag.
Wirathu says 969 supporters have popped up in almost every town, but the movement is strongest in Yangon, Mandalay, Moulmein and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. "It's because of me the ideas spread," he says.
Around four months after the campaign was born, masked men dressed as monks rampaged through the central town of Meikhtila with swords, burning mosques and Muslim shops. Muslims also killed Buddhists. The attacks left charred bodies in the streets and around 12,000 people, mostly Muslim, without homes. The government declared a state of emergency as the violence spread to 14 more townships. Over 40 people died.
The chaos reinforced the power of the army, which was called in to restore peace, and fueled widespread speculation that the instability was orchestrated by hardline interests seeking to derail reform and strengthen the hand of the military.
"We also condemn these acts," Wirathu says. "969 doesn't accept terrorism."
Human rights groups, however, have documented a pattern to the anti-Muslim pogroms of the past year: Words precede the bloodshed. Human Rights Watch says that before the October violence in Rakhine, monks distributed anti-Muslim pamphlets with rhetoric similar to 969's and political parties advocated ethnic cleansing. The Burma Campaign U.K. found anti-Muslim leaflets, without the 969 logo, that were circulated in Meikhtila before the attacks. The riots radiated from Meikhtila to Bago region, where Buddhists marked their homes and shops with 969 so they would not be harmed, said Tun Kyi, a Muslim activist from Yangon who visited two townships there. "Even in their homes they have to write 969 with chalk," he said.
"The 969 campaign is more than a boycott. It's clearly becoming a rationale for violence," says Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group. "It's creating an existential threat to Buddhism and the country that's not there and then blaming Muslims for it. Then what we see is this violence."
On March 28, eight days after the violence in Meikhtila erupted, Myanmar's president Thein Sein issued a warning to "political opportunists and religious extremists" who have "tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths."
Police arrested dozens of people in conjunction with the March riots, but so far only three — all Muslims — have been convicted.
Plainclothes police also seized one of Wirathu's followers, a 969 supporter named Ye Min Oo. His family members and lawyer say police accuse him of inciting violence against Muslims and supporting extremist monks, including Wirathu. Ye Min Oo denies wrongdoing.
"The government is assaulting Buddhism," Ye Min Oo shouted, his cuffed hands high above his head, as police pushed him through a crowd outside a Yangon courthouse recently.
Wirathu says he now fears arrest as well.
To critics, the government's response, which comes after allegations from human rights groups that security forces failed to halt and, in some cases, abetted atrocities against Muslims, is too little too late.
Moderate voices say Wirathu's vision of an "us" and a "them" is not sustainable. Pannasiha, a monk who goes by one name and teaches at a prestigious Buddhist academy in Yangon, says Myanmar cannot thrive as a collection of separate communities living side by side. He opposes the 969 ideology, though he does not see Wirathu as anti-Muslim.
"We can't live separately," he says. "Maybe for a few days or months, but we have many years."