Are feelings of mutual admiration blossoming between two headline-grabbing, anti-Muslim factions: one in England, one in Myanmar?
Wirathu, the soft-spoken but sharp-tongued face of Myanmar’s 969 movement, has told the Times of London that his organization aims to imitate the English Defence League or EDL, a movement that recently made headlines by launching angry street protests after two hardline Muslim men hacked a British soldier to death in a London street.
“People give me various names: the Burmese bin Laden, the bald neo-Nazi… we would like to be like the EDL. Not carrying out violence but protecting the public,” the well-known Buddhist monk told reporter Richard Lloyd Parry.
There is much overlap between the two movements’ world views. Both regard Islam as a force threatening to undermine the mainstream way of life in their respective nations. Both are accused of stoking violence, though each presents itself as merely calling attention to Islam’s alleged dangers.
The 969 movement, which derives its title from Buddhist numerology, urges Buddhist merchants to brand their shops with signature emblems so that fellow Buddhists can discern a common faith and keep their money out of Muslim hands. “If you buy from Muslim shops, your money doesn’t just stop there,” Wirathu said in a February speech widely circulated in Myanmar, the troubled Southeast Asian nation formerly called Burma. “It will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion.”
That quote is now posted to the Facebook page of EDL’s Jewish Division with the tagline, “I really do have a soft spot for Buddhists.”
More recently, a Facebook page devoted to mutual admiration between the groups has appeared. Its title: “Myanmar Buddhists Who Support English Defence League.”
Light violence, threats, vandalism and scores of arrests have accompanied the EDL’s recent street rallies. But this is extremely tame compared to the backdrop of extreme violence that has exploded this year in Myanmar in concert with 969’s popularity.
In multiple cities in Myanmar’s interior, dozens have died in wild riots that have sent Muslims fleeing as their neighborhoods are torched. Along the coast near Bangladesh, home to a stateless Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, nearly 200 have died in systematic purges that have driven Muslims into squalid, makeshift camps.