THANDWE, Myanmar (Reuters) - The Buddhist mob mutilated and burned Khin Naing so severely his son couldn’t recognise the body, one of series of attacks that suggest a resurgence of a monk-led movement in Myanmar accused of stoking violence against Muslims.
Flies were buzzing around the bloodied patch of earth outside a ransacked mosque in Tha Phyu Chai village where police removed Khin Naing’s body after he was hacked to death by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
“He couldn’t run fast enough from the Rakhine people,” said his son, Tun Tun Naing, 17, who emerged from hiding to identify his father’s corpse from what remained of his charred clothing.
Khin Naing was one of five Muslims killed and four Rakhine Buddhists wounded in four days of violence in Thandwe, a township in western Rakhine State popular with foreign tourists for its nearby Ngapali Beach.
Not far from its resorts, Buddhists armed with sticks, slingshots and machetes launched repeated attacks on Muslim villagers from Sunday, burning down dozens of homes, witnesses said.
Sectarian violence in Myanmar has killed at least 240 people and displaced 140,000, most of them Muslims, since June 2012.
The latest bloodshed in Thandwe shows Myanmar’s reformist government struggling to curb the spread of a Buddhist nationalist movement known as 969 and control members of an ethnic Rakhine political party implicated in violence.
The 969 movement is led by firebrand monks who preach that Islam is a threat and urge supporters to shun interfaith marriage and boycott Muslim-run businesses.
The numbers symbolise the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. Many anti-Muslim attacks have taken place where monks have preached the 969 creed but the violence had ebbed in recent weeks until the Thandwe attacks.
Police in Thandwe say they have arrested six people, including the local chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and supporters of the 969 movement. RNDP members were implicated in anti-Muslim violence last October in which at least 89 people were killed, a Reuters investigation found.
The latest violence coincided with a three-day visit to Rakhine State by President Thein Sein. Tension was high as he arrived in Thandwe on Wednesday, with police firing shots in the air to disperse a crowd.
Evidence of 969 activity is hard to miss.
Banners bearing the movement’s logo flank roads to Ngapali beach. Muslims said 969 supporters had recently blasted Buddhist nationalistic songs from speakers at Thandwe town hall.
That followed a sermon in Shwe Hlay village by a prominent 969 monk called Wirathu, who once described mosques as “enemy bases”.
“After that, we had to be very careful in the village and not bump into Buddhists or make them angry,” said Myint Aung, one of scores of Muslim residents of Tha Phyu Chai village huddled near one of the few homes left standing.
Wirathu’s admirers include Sann Sint, minister of religious affairs, who told Reuters in June the monk only promoted “love and understanding between religions”.
President Thein Sein has called Wirathu “a son of Lord Buddha” and said 969 “is just a symbol of peace”.
About five percent of Myanmar’s 60 million people are Muslim, according to government estimates. About a million more are Rohingya Muslims, mostly stateless and living in northern Rakhine State.
Maung Myint Htay, a Buddhist resident of Tha Phyu Chai, said he played no part in Tuesday’s attacks, but didn’t condemn them.
“It’s not wrong,” he said, adding that Rakhine people had a “historical duty” to protect their homeland from Muslims.
Myint Moe of a group called the Committee for the Protection of Religion and Nationality acknowledged that he distributed 969 stickers and had the support of hundreds of Buddhist monks.
Myint Moe rejected the name “Rohingya” and instead referred to members of that community as “Bengalis”, a term that implies they are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
An RNDP official in Thandwe said the arrest of party members could cause more unrest.
“It’s the responsibility of the government because they arrested the party leader and religious leaders,” said Maung Maung Phyu. “People are angry.”
(The story was refiled to amend transliteration of name in paragraph three to Tun)
Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo in Yangon; Editing by Martin Petty, Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel