During a recent trip to Mawlamyine, one of Myanmar’s most pleasant cities, it was a shock to discover how many shops and cafes displayed a 969 sign near the entrance.
The little circular sticker, whose three digits allegedly signify aspects of Buddhist philosophy, indicates that Muslims are not welcome.
When queried about it, one restaurant owner explained that it was just a reflection of patriotic sentiment.
When pressed about what banning fellow citizens who happen to be Muslim had to do with patriotism, he frowned and said it was just better “because they have their own places and we don’t like to mix with them”.
In fact, most Myanmar Buddhists, who form three quarters of the population and hold all key posts in government and business, loathe their Muslim compatriots with a passion.
It is a murderous passion that condones burning property, raping girls and beating up Muslim men, women and children – and not only feeling no shame, but actually boasting about it.
That is the awful reality of modern day “reformist” Myanmar.
In a Yangon taxi, the driver, a rare Muslim who retained his beard, skull cap and long shirt outside his longyi, told me: “This is a bad place now. We are all scared.”
He said fellow Muslims have formed watch groups and are preparing to fight back if they are attacked again, as they were not long ago in Meiktila, Lashio, Yangon, and of course Rakhine State.
“We have to defend ourselves,” he said. “The police do nothing. They just stand and watch.”
Even worse than the behaviour of the security forces is the response of the nation’s political leaders, who have done little else than make anodyne comments of concern.
In volatile Rakhine State last week, President Thein Sein said: “It is important not to have more riots while we are working very hard to recover the losses we had because of previous violent incidents.”
Well, yes, but far more important is for his government to take robust action against bigots like the anti-Muslim cleric Wirathu, by delegitimising hate speech that masquerades as cultural nationalism.
In doing so, he must be supported by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose own condemnations of anti-Muslim pogroms have been shamefully muted.
As the International Crisis Group noted earlier this month, unless all Myanmar’s politicians unite and push for a fundamental change in social attitudes, anti-Muslim violence will probably escalate.
The ICG report, which blamed the racist purges on reduced military control and endemic intolerance by the majority Barman Buddhists, pointed out that continued anti-Islamic riots will have regional repercussions.
Already, Myanmar nationals working in Malaysia have been murdered in reprisal attacks and there have been threats of a global jihad against Myanmar.
That is why fellow ASEAN leaders must press Thein Sein and Suu Kyi to get their act together – or else this year’s Southeast Asian Games and next year’s hosting of the group’s annual summit may be jeopardised.
Said Jim Della-Giacoma, ICG Asia Programme Director: “Those who spread messages of intolerance and hatred must not go unchallenged. Otherwise, this issue may come to define the new Myanmar.”
Instead of repeatedly stressing that the constitution must be amended to allow her to run for president in 2015, Suu Kyi should concentrate on preserving racial harmony at home.
Yet during her recent visit to Eastern Europe, she repeated that it was not up to her to stop the anti-Muslim sectarian attacks. “It’s not something that I could learn to do,” she said in Warsaw.
The comment was shocking. Imagine Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa, confronted with ethnic genocide, standing back and saying they cannot learn how to stop the killings.
No, what can, and must, be done immediately is to outlaw the display of 969 signs and put Wirathu and his ilk in jail. That would send a signal that might nip this evil in the bud once and for all.