MEIKHTILA, Myanmar: A Myanmar court sentenced seven Muslims to prison — one of them to a life term — for the killing of a Buddhist monk amid deadly sectarian violence that was overwhelmingly directed against minority Muslims but has produced no serious charges against the members of the country's Buddhist majority.
At least 44 people were killed and 12,000 displaced, most of them Muslim, in more than a week of conflicts with Buddhists that began March 20 in the central Myanmar city of Meikhtila. A dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop triggered rioting by Buddhists and retaliation by their Muslim targets, and the lynching of the monk after the gold shop was sacked en flamed passions, leading to large-scale violence.
While the violence is now contained, questions are arising over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. Hundreds more Muslims have been killed, and tens of thousands have been made homeless, in violence across the country over the past year.
The issue of ethnic strife marred this week's Washington trip by President Thein Sein, which was otherwise filled with praise for the first leader of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years.
President Barack Obama praised Thein Sein on Monday for his efforts to lead his country back on the path to democracy, but also said he expressed concern to his counterpart about violence against Muslims in the country. "The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop," he said.
Thein Than Oo, a lawyer defending the men sentenced Tuesday, said one of his clients, Myat Ko Ko, was given life in prison for murder. Myat Ko Ko was also sentenced to an additional two years for unlawful assembly and two for religious disrespect.
Of the remaining defendants, one received a two-year sentence while the others received terms ranging from six to 28 years.
Four of them, including a minor who tried in a separate court, were convicted of abetting murder and other lesser charges, while two defendants were sentenced only on lesser charges not involving murder. Mandalay Advocate General Ye Aung Myint confirmed the sentences.
The lynching of the Buddhist monk en flamed passions in Meikhtila, especially after photos circulated widely on social media of what was purported to be his body after he was pulled off a motorbike, attacked and burned.
Entire Muslim neighborhoods were engulfed in flames, and charred bodies piled in the roads.
The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore order, but the unrest later spread to other parts of central Myanmar. In parliament in Monday, Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Hsint gave the official figures for casualties and damage over March 20-28: 44 people killed, 90 injured, 1,818 houses, 27 mosques and 14 Islamic schools destroyed. He said 143 people were arrested in connection with the violence, out of which 47 have been formally charged. Parliament on Tuesday formally approved the state of emergency.
The gold shop owner and two employees, all Muslims, were sentenced in April to 14 years in prison each on charges of theft and causing grievous bodily harm.
Hsan Hsint did not break down arrests and charges by religion, but no major cases involving Buddhist suspects have been announced.
Asked why only Muslims have been charged in Meikhtila, Ye Aung Myint, the advocate general said the courts were starting with the initial incidents that triggered the violence, and those involved in later incidents would be charged subsequently.
"There is no discrimination in bringing justice. We dealt with the first two cases and 11 more cases involving Buddhists will be dealt with very soon," he said, adding that about 70 people will face charges for murder, arson and looting.
Thein Sein's administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims or stop the violence from spreading since it began with clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Myanmar last year.
The violence has since morphed into a campaign against the country's Muslim community in other regions. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes have razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds dead and forcing 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, to flee.
In a speech Monday at a university in Washington, Thein Sein vowed to ensure that communal violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims will be brought to a halt, and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. He also called for a new era in US-Myanmar relations.
Rights groups have criticized Thein Sein's US visit, saying human rights injustices are still rampant in Myanmar despite progress made in freeing political prisoners, and in granting more freedom to political opponents and the media, among other changes.
US-based Physicians for Human Rights released a new report Monday detailing a gruesome massacre carried out by Buddhist mobs who hunted down and killed at least 24 Muslim students and teachers from an Islamic school as Meikhtila descended into anarchy in March. The report, based on interviews with survivors, accuses state authorities and police of being complicit in the killings and standing idly by while they were carried out.
"President Obama must use this occasion to persuade Burma's leader that the only path from tyranny to democracy is through the promotion and respect of human rights," said Richard Sollom, the report's lead author. Myanmar is also called Burma.
"One concrete step toward this goal is for President Thein Sein to support an independent investigation into these killings, bring perpetrators to justice, and speak out forcefully against ongoing anti-Muslim violence," Sollom said.
Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that said it was seriously concerned about a "lack of accountability for crimes committed against Muslim communities."
"The authorities need to demonstrate that investigations and prosecutions aren't discriminatory and are in line with international standards, but they aren't doing that," said Matthew Smith, a researcher for the group. "What we are seeing in Meikhtila is consistent with what we are seeing elsewhere in the country — a failure to bring perpetrators to account."
The political fallout has not only raised questions about Thein Sein's commitment to justice, but has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of the country's embattled Muslim community despite her long commitment to human rights.