Five Buddhists standing trial for their alleged role in stirring anti-Muslim riots in central Burma in March were released on bail by a regional court on Wednesday, according to local sources.
The five males, including four juveniles, from Pegu division’s Moenyo township are facing charges for defaming religion, aggravated burglary, unlawful assembly and vandalism. The other man is a local official from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Nan Htike.
“The five have been released on bail but it is very likely they are going to prison,” a Moenyo resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told DVB. “They were granted bail as they have been in custody for about a month already,” he said, adding that they were likely to receive 6-7 year jail sentences.
The next court hearing for the group is scheduled for 15 May. But the Moenyo resident said authorities are only targeting “followers” rather than the organisers behind the attacks, which swept through central Burma in late March.
“The [riot] was organised by [individuals] in the town,” he said, implicating members of the leading Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and several monks, who he claimed to “know” personally. “But none of the hard-liners have been detained yet.”
Meanwhile, 10 people in Pegu division’s Zigon town are also facing trial for their alleged involvement in the riots, according to one of the defendant’s lawyer, Zin Moe Htike.
In Mandalay division’s Meikhtila township, where the riots first erupted, six Muslim men are facing the death penalty for the murder of a Buddhist monk, which allegedly sparked the violence. Their lawyer, Than Than Oo, told DVB that judges heard testimonies from defence witnesses this week, and that the next court hearing is scheduled for 13 May. A 17-year-old is due to be tried separately in a juvenile court.
Anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise in Burma since last year and recently spread through its central heartlands, claiming over 40 lives and displacing 13,000 people. Despite making public pledges to protect Muslims in Burma, the government has come under fire for its slow response to the violence and failing to prosecute key instigators.
The vast majority of people jailed have been Muslims, including three gold shop-owners in Meikhtila, who were sentenced to 14 years in jail for assaulting a Buddhist man, whose wife had quarreled with them.
On Tuesday, ten Arakanese men from Kyauktaw township were sentenced to four years in jail and hard labour for their role in last year’s ethno-religious clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma. The ten are due to appeal their sentences.
The recent wave of anti-Muslim violence has cast a heavy shadow on Burma’s reformist president, Thein Sein, who has been widely lauded for releasing political prisoners and easing media restrictions in the former pariah state.
Burma’s human rights champion, Suu Kyi, has also come under fire for her silence on religious discrimination, notably against the stateless Rohingya minority, who are viewed as illegal Bengali immigrants by the government and heavily persecuted.
Earlier this month, NLD spokesperson, Nyan Win, told GlobalPost that the democracy icon does not believe there are any Rohingya in Burma.
“She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group. It is a made-up name of the Bengali. So she can’t say anything about Rohingya. But there is international pressure for her to speak about Rohingya. It’s a problem.”
Western countries, including the US and EU member states, have been reluctant to publicly criticise Suu Kyi on the issue and has lifted most of their remaining sanctions against Burma.