A soldier walks among debris after a riot between Muslims and Buddhists in Lashio township May 30, 2013. Security forces struggled to control Buddhist mobs who burned Muslim homes in the northern Myanmar city of Lashio in a dangerous widening of ultra-nationalist Buddhist violence. (Soe Zeya Tun/REUTERS)

In Burma, when monks speak, people listen.

And with a rise in violence targeting minority Muslims, some senior members of Burma’s Buddhist monkhood, the revered Sangha, are counseling their peers to choose their words wisely.

That’s because some of the men accused of stirring up anti-Islamic violence hail from their own ranks, presenting a jarring counterpoint to the image normally associated with Burma’s crimson-robed monks — meditation, good works and brave resistance to the country’s former authoritarian regime.

The religious tensions are complicating Burma’s still-fragile transition from military rule to democracy and were high on the agenda as more than 1,500 monks met June 27 at a monastery in Insein township, on the northern outskirts of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and commercial center.

Leaders told attendees that “all of the monks in Myanmar must be in harmony and must be patient and must control themselves,” the Venerable Pannananda, a Rangoon monk, said outside the meeting, using the name the former ruling junta gave the country.

Yet amid the calls for calm, the monks also discussed a controversial proposal to restrict marriages between Buddhists and Muslims. It was written by U Wirathu, a Mandalay-based monk who warns of a rising internal Islamic threat to Burma’s 89 percent Buddhist majority.

U Wirathu has been a leading advocate of the “969” campaign, which, among other things, urges Buddhists to patronize Buddhist-run shops. The numerals relate to Buddha and his teachings, but the campaign plays on long-standing tensions — often suppressed during the days of military rule — between Buddhists and Muslims, who, according to official statistics, make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Outside the meeting, a small group of young men wore red T-shirts featuring U Wirathu’s face. His visage also graced the cover of Time magazine’s July 1 international editions with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror” — causing public anger and some sadness in Burma. The episode took on a political tone as the government banned the Time issue just months after the official end of state censorship.

In the wake of that episode, even some monks viewed as moderates are rallying to support U Wirathu, who maintains his innocence in the violence. Monks were among the protesters who converged on Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon last Sunday to denounce the magazine.

Burma’s reformist president, Thein Sein, said in state-run news media Tuesday that the Time article, by “depicting a few individuals who are acting contrary to most of Myanmar, is creating misconceptions of Buddhism.”

Burma’s monks gained international acclaim for their bravery in 2007 during the “Saffron Revolution,” sparked by the former military government’s decision to allow fuel prices to rise dramatically. The monks’ peaceful resistance in the face of a violent government crackdown helped undermine the former junta’s grip on power. In this highly traditional Buddhist country, the monkhood permeates everyday life, and most Buddhist males spend at least a short stint as a novice monk during their childhood.

Conspiracy theories abound, and many assume that elements associated with the old regime are whipping up the current violence, exploiting religious divisions to justify a return to military rule.

Lingering Buddhist resentment

As deadly incidents have spread from long-volatile Rakhine state to parts of the country where Buddhists and Muslims have lived in relative harmony, some monks have taken part in the riots, according to media reports. But they appear to be a minority. Leaders of a Buddhist monastery, for instance, sheltered more than 1,000 Muslims during a recent riot in Lashio, near the eastern border with China.

And many people here, regardless of their personal prejudices, quietly deplore the violence, which has many local Muslims on edge.

“Extremists usually speak the loudest, partly because they feel very strongly about the issue, and partly because they attract the most public and media attention,” Ardeth Thawnghmung, a professor in the political science department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said during a recent visit to her native Burma.

Activists this year started an interfaith “Pray for Myanmar” campaign, for example, featuring Buddhist monks and Muslim, Hindu and Christian leaders, although its message lacks the punch of the 969 movement, whose stickers can be seen in shops and on cabs.

The Muslim community in Burma is itself divided between hard-liners and moderates. But Muslims have not enjoyed full citizenship rights since the 1960s, and lingering Buddhist resentment about Indian Muslims who came to Burma during British colonial times is common.

U Wirathu’s proposed marriage law seeks to prevent Buddhist women from converting to Islam when they marry Muslim men, drawing on concerns about forced conversions.

Ashin Dhammapiya, a senior Burmese monk who has studied and taught in California, said that many monks oppose the harsher elements of U Wirathu’s marriage proposal, including a section that would force non-Buddhist men to convert if they marry a Buddhist woman, under threat of a 10-year jail sentence. But, he said, they support the broader intent to “protect the nation.”

Thein Sein has not taken a public position on the proposal, but opposition leader and possible presidential contender Aung San Suu Kyi has weighed in against it. But Suu Kyi has resisted international calls to more strongly condemn recent violence, saying she does not want to exacerbate the problem.

A troubled history

Some observers point to a complicated legacy of mistrust in a country that is surrounded by more-powerful neighbors, has 135 official ethnic groups and was held together by force for decades. “There is an insecurity and fear that comes with being Burmese,” said Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Burma.

U Sona, a monk from the Sagaing division on the Indian border, said that when “there are more Islamic people in one place, they make problems.” But, he said, “political people” — not monks — are the ones causing the violence.

Thein Sein’s administration denies any government or military involvement but has been criticized for not bringing Buddhist perpetrators to justice.

Myo Win, a Muslim who runs a nonprofit educational organization in Rangoon, said the problem is the failure of the formerly autocratic government to stop repeated riots.

“Some Buddhists are saving Muslim people in their homes,” he said. “This is a problem with the radicals.”