The Challenge of Modern Terrorism

Myanmar and the underlying cause of terrorism

In Myanmar, the rise of the movement called 969 has emerged. Is this a terrorist organization or merely the rise of nationalism? What strategies could be implemented nationally and internationally to deal with civil unrest and prevent rising hatred and distrust?

Myanmar has had a history plagued with violence, censorship and corruption. The rise of the Buddhist nationalist group the 969 movement has only added to recent civil unrest. The group has been condemned by some as a Buddhist terrorist organisation for inciting violence and opposing Islam (Beech, 2013, July 1). However, it has not been listed on any government websites as one. This brings us to the question, what classifies as non-state terrorism. Is it merely the presence of violence, intimidation and religion? Or is there more?

The essay will address this topic by identifying and outlining what terrorism is, and what the characteristics of a terrorist organisation are. Furthermore, the history and motives of the 969 movement will be explored. In order to identify if it meets the criteria to be considered a terrorist organisation. I will further go on to discuss possible strategies that could be implemented both nationally and internationally to deal with radicalisation and rising hatred and distrust within communities. To provide the required insight needed to undertake this task, I have drawn on frameworks from Alex Schmid‘s four “arenas of discourse” (Weinberg, Pedahzur, Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004, p.79) on terrorism to understand its complexity. 

The debate on what terrorism is and its definition has become a contested concept. Because terrorism has appeared throughout history in so many different forms and under so many, different circumstances that, it’s meaning lends itself “to endless dispute but no resolution” (Weinberg et al, p.777-778). Today scholars and government organisations have stretched the concept of terrorism to the point of vagueness. In a battle to overcome the magnitude of separate definitions, which at last count was 109 (p.780). Alex Schmid has identified four “arenas of discourse” (p.779) in which to divide the discussion of non-state terrorism.

First, there is the academic arena where scholars try to find a definition for conducting research (p.779). Like the one provided by Hoffman (2006) in Inside Terrorism where he defines terrorism as “violence – or, equally important the threat of violence – used and directed in pursuit of, or in the service of, a political aim”. (p.2-3) Second, there are the states definitions of terrorism used by government organisations in statements and for legal purposes such as “laws, judicial rulings and regulations” (Weinberg, 2004, p.779).

The United States Department of State (2013) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (p. 292-293). Whereas under the Australian Criminal Code Act (1995), terrorism is defined as “an action or threat of action where the action causes certain defined forms of harm or interference and the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”. Third, the arena for society and mass media, described by Schmid as the “public debate” (Weinberg, 2004, p.779), are broader definitions of terrorism used by the public to encompass its entirety. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) provides such a definition:

terrorism, n. the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services and police…

Finally, the forth arena entails those who “oppose many of… societies values and support or perform acts of violence and terrorism against what they consider repressive states” (Weinberg, 2004, p.779). Though Schmid’s categories of definition are useful in managing the multitude of different definitions, they do unfortunately overlap and can contribute to confusion.

As demonstrated above, terrorism has no set definition. However, throughout the arenas common characteristics can be identified. Firstly, the motivation to use terrorism generally falls under three main themes – post-colonial/nationalism, idealisms and economic and social disparities. Secondly, a political agenda exists to communicate a particular message. Thirdly, there is the presence of violence or the threat of violence, which is conducted by sub-state actors. Fourthly, victims and audiences are not the same and non-combatant civilians are deliberately targeted. Finally, the act and the victim usually have symbolic significance to the cause (Hoffman, 2006, p.40). By combining, these elements together a basic understanding of what constitutes as terrorism can be achieved.

Furthermore, to understand the concept of terrorism it is important to note the dominant structures and characteristics of terrorist organisations. Typical structures include hierarchical, network or stand-alone affiliate models (US Army Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC G2], 2007, p. 2). Hierarchical structured organizations have a “well-defined vertical chain of command, control, and responsibility” (p. 6). That enables data and intelligence to move up and down corresponding channels of vertical chains. (p. 6). Networks however, are flexible in structure with loose affiliation between groups or individuals from a variety of locations. Network structures will vary between chain, hub, and all-channel structures or alternatively use a combination. As cells within a network, do not contact or coordinate with each other except for the coordination of essentials, groups are able to avoid unnecessary contact. This enhances security and provides deniability for leaders, as there is no direct coordination or command approval (p. 7). Finally, stand-alone affiliate model groups are semi-independent or independent cells “who act within their own means to promote a common ideological position with terrorist organizations that may have regional, international, or transnational reach” (p.7). As groups are not static, they may use one or a combination of models depending on need, capabilities and reach (p.5-6).

Though the above-mentioned terrorist organisational structures are the most common, individuals may also organise and partake in terrorist activities after interpreting a theology and acquiring an extreme viewpoint (p. 8). This is the most likely scenario to have happened in Myanmar, however, before we can come to this conclusion we must eliminate the possibility that the 969 movement is a terrorist organisation. To do this we must first begin to understand the history, motives and actions of the movement.

The 969 movement is a Buddhist ‘nationalist’ organisation primarily based in Myanmar that is quickly spreading to other Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. The movement was founded in 2001, by the Venerable Ashin Wirathu (969 , n.d). A Buddhist monk who began preaching anti-Muslim sentiment after the (March 2001) destruction of Bamiyan Buddha’s in Afghanistan by Taliban forces (Hazarika, 2013). Dubbed the “Burmese Bin Laden” (Hodal & Symes , 2013) Venerable Wirathu was arrested in 2003, for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets and inciting communal riots in his hometown of Mandalay. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in jail for his involvement in the deaths of Muslim families and the destruction of mosques. He was however, later released under amnesty in 2012 (Marshall, 2013) and since then has continued to incite civil unrest between Buddhists and Muslims throughout Myanmar.

The numbers 969 are religiously symbolic to Buddhists, the 9 stands for special attributes of Lord Buddha, whilst the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of the dharma. The final 9 stands for the special attributes of the monks (Downs, (n.d). The movements’ logo incorporates the Burmese numerals along with a chakra wheel and four Asiatic lions representing the ancient Buddhist emperor Ashoka (Marshall, 2013).

According to the movements’ website, the “vision statement” for the organisation in the next 20-100 years is to “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely access the teachings of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha in their day to day lives. That is our commitment.” (969, n.d). This is a stark contrast to its current vision to “purify” Myanmar of Muslims (Hazarika , 2013), by encouraging discrimination, segregation and violent acts. Investigations found radical monks actively participating in violence and the spread of anti-Muslim material (The Straits Time, 2013). Urging locals to boycott Muslim shops, avoid marrying, hiring or selling homes and land to Muslims and denying them access to Buddhist run shops and services displaying the movements logo (Hazarika , 2013). In his teachings, the Venerable Wirathu has said, “If you buy from Muslim shops, your money doesn’t stop there. It will eventually go towards destroying your race and religion” (Hazarika , 2013). Furthermore, in mid-June, he demanded the government enact legislation to prevent Muslim men from marrying Buddhist women.

In Rakhine, Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and local authorities have gone so far as to impose a two-child limit on Muslim (Hazarika , 2013). It is allegedly the movements intention to purge Muslims from “all positions of wealth, influence and power and ultimately from Myanmar itself” (Hazarika , 2013). The fear is the four percent Muslim population will outbreed the ninety percent Buddhist population(Marshall, 2013) by “stealing Buddhist women” and prohibiting Buddhist ceremonies (Hazarika , 2013). Resulting in a loss of Myanmar’s Buddhist identity. The majority of conflict has occurred in the State of Rakhine, where Buddhist monks have incited attacks. Resulting in an estimated 192 people killed and a further 140,000 left homeless, mostly Rohingya Muslims. This year Buddhist mobs led by monks in Meikhtila and Lashio have terrorised, bombed and burned down Muslim neighbourhoods.   A reported 44 people died and 13,000 were displaced in the conflicts (Marshall, 2013). However, conflict has now spread nation-wide, with the most recent being a series of organised bombings in Mandalay (Lwin, 2013). Fear and intimidation felt amongst Muslim communities has led business to close and families to seek asylum in neighbouring countries.

Several reasons exist for the rising popularity of the 969 movement. Firstly, the movement has used Muslims as a scapegoat for Myanmar’s economic hardship and cultural decay within society (Zarni , 2013). Venerable Wirathu and other monks claim, “Muslim merchants receive cash injections from Middle East oil state brethren and use these funds to undercut Buddhist rivals” (Winn, 2013). The victimising of Buddhists, has stirred past historic prejudices and anti-Muslim racism, prominent amongst Myanmar’s Buddhist history. Thirdly, the 969 movement has come across little or no resistance from government and state intuitions, which has enhanced its ability to spread (Hazarika , 2013). Whilst President Thein Sein has condemned anti-Muslim violence, his administration has done little to prevent it. On the contrary, in a statement provided by the President, he is quoted as saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Venerable Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha” (Marshall, 2013). Furthermore, the lack of opposition from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other groups has been interpreted as support for the movement. Venerable Wirathu himself has said, “By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they are supporting us” (Marshall, 2013).

This brings us back to the question, is the 969 Movement a terrorist organisation or a nationalist group? To answer this question we must first identify any similarities between the Movement and the characteristics of terrorism based on the definitions above. Secondly, if the 969 Movement is not a terrorist organisation, are they responsible for radicalising people to be terrorists.

Based on the four arenas of discourse discussed earlier, the 969 Movement satisfies four of the five common characteristics of terrorism. Firstly, the 969 Movement is motivated by themes of nationalism, idealisms and economic and social disparities. Its leaders have taken advantage of Myanmar’s history and strong nationalistic nature. By uniting a population through religion and economic and social disparities, it has created distrust, division and hatred amongst communities. Secondly, the 969 Movement has a strong political agenda. It aims is to purify Myanmar of Muslims by slowly taking away civil and human rights. Moreover, due to the Movements influence, little to no political or institutional action has been taken against them. Thirdly, it is clear the victims of conflict within Myanmar are Muslims whilst the audience is Myanmar’s Buddhist population. Fourthly, acts of violence and destruction within Muslim neighbourhoods have clear symbolic significance to the 969 cause of purify the nation of Muslims. However, though there has been open violence against Muslim, the Venerable Wirathu has denied any involvement in the violence. Buddhist monks have been seen participating in riots. However, according to Merari (2007) riots are not considered terrorist acts due to their “spasmodic eruption rather than a planned, organized, protracted campaign” (p.22). Therefore, though movement members have participated in violence, no direct link has been made to organised violence. Due to this crucial element the 969 movement cannot be classified as a terrorist organisation (Hoffman, 2006, p.38). However, this does not mean they are not responsible for inciting terrorism.

According to McCauley & Moskalenko (2008) there are “multiple and diverse pathways leading individuals and groups to radicalisation and terrorism” (p. 429). Those most relevant to this essay are individual and group radicalization (p. 422). Individuals are radicalised by personal or identity-group grievances, usually conveyed by media, rumour or others. Individuals can also be moved to radical action and violence in response to trends and events (p.417-419). Though individual action is rare, a person will likely be “ideologically motived, inspired and animated by a movement or a leader” (Hoffman, 2006, p. 38). Furthermore, group radicalisation occurs when groups of individuals are brought together to discuss issues of risk or political opinion. During these discussions two kinds of change occur: an increased agreement on the opinion of issue and a shift in the average opinion of the group. Therefore, if individuals favour risk taking behaviour before the discussion then the group will shift its opinion in line with the general consensus (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008, p.422).

It is clear that through the 969 movements’ actions, teachings and influence radicalisation of individuals and groups have occurred in Myanmar. Evidence of this radicalisation can be seen through the increasing popularity and influence of the movement, the open shift in public opinion against Muslims and the violence and destruction targeted at Muslims. In order to deal with civil unrest the Myanmar government and internationally community must actively participated in addressing and countering radicalisation.

The government of Myanmar must uphold its responsibility to protect all its populations, regardless of ethnicity or creed and reject any justification for violence, religious or otherwise. The challenge of combating radicalisation and terrorism must be spread across national, regional and local levels. Myanmar’s government must:

  • Vigorously promote security, justice, democracy and opportunity for all.
  • Empower moderate voices by engaging with [Buddhist] organisations and faith groups that reject the distorted version of [Buddhism] put forward by [the 969 Movement].
  • Put in place the right legal framework to prevent individuals from inciting and legitimising violence and limit the activities of those playing a role in radicalisation.
  • Co-ordinate and enhance efforts to change [Myanmar’s Buddhist population] of unfair or inaccurate perceptions of Islam and Muslims.
  • Eliminate the structural factors supporting radicalisation by responding and targeting inequalities and discrimination where they exist and promote inter-cultural dialogue, debate, and, where appropriate, long term integration.
  • Ensure policies do not exacerbate division amongst communities.
  • Set social, education, and economic policies that can foster equality and inclusion within mainstream society.
  • Create safe spaces to address grievances perceived by communities.

(Council of the European Union, 2005, p. 3-6)

Along with these measures, the international community must also help. The recent lifting of sanctions and cancellation of bilateral debt by a number of countries has contributed to Myanmar’s democratic reform (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013). However, Myanmar has been ineffective in dealing with this matter. Further sanctions should be lifted, as an incentive, once the successful implementation of the above action plan has been made and the welfare of minorities are acceptable. Additionally, humanitarian aid and support must be given for those affected by violence and who have been displaced (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2013).

According to 969 members and its leader, they are not terrorist and denying being a terrorist organisation. Based on the research conducted on the definitions of terrorism and the common characteristics, our findings show this statement is true. Due to the fact, there is no evidence of a direct link between organised violence and the 969 movement. However, responsibility cannot be denied for the radicalisation of individuals and the incitement of violence. Responsibility also falls upon the Myanmar government and international community. Myanmar faces a number of challenges in dealing with this conflict, such as its weak central government, strong religious influence and long standing grievances. However, national, regional and local strategies can be implemented to address issues of discrimination, division and misconceptions between communities. International pressure can also help to quicken these processes and help to rebuild the nation through guidance, lifting of sanctions and humanitarian aid. In order for Myanmar to successfully transition to a democratic state, the government must uphold its responsibility to protect all its population. Only by being accountable and maintaining peace can Myanmar begin to achieve stability and prosper.




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