A Muslim man was sentenced to two years in prison in central Burma this week for “insulting” religion, after he removed an extremist Buddhist “969” sticker from a shop, according to local media.
Forty-two-year-old Armin (aka Soe Lwin) from Kyaukgyi township in eastern Pegu division scraped the nationalist symbol – which has been used to promote anti-Muslim propaganda in Burma – from a local betel nut shop’s window on Saturday. Local authorities sued him two days later, according to the Voice Daily newspaper.
After a one-day trial, Judge Myint Kyaw from Kyaukgyi township court sentenced him to two years imprisonment under a draconian section of Burma’s penal code, which bans “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
The notorious “969” logos have been used as part of a targeted anti-Muslim campaign – led by the self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” or monk Wirathu – to spread Islamophobia across Burma. The movement has been largely blamed for a wave of anti-Muslim riots, which swept through the country in March.
The news comes the same week that seven Muslims, suspected of murdering a Buddhist monk on the first day of the unrest – are standing trial in a Meikhtila court, where they could face the death penalty.
“They should be punished with the death sentence. I would be satisfied with this,” a local monk told Reuters.
Last month’s violence erupted after a dispute in a Muslim-owned gold shop escalated, culminating in the murder of a local monk – allegedly by 11 men. His death prompted mobs of Buddhists to go on a seven-day rampage throughout central Burma, torching mosques, homes and murdering dozens of Muslim civilians.
The UN’s Vijay Nambiar described the violence as being carried out with “brutal efficiency” and fuelled by “incendiary propaganda”. Wirathu is known to have held a number of anti-Muslim sermons in nearby Mandalay in the weeks ahead of the violence in Meikhtila.
The Burmese authorities have been criticised for failing to stop the violence, which follows two bouts of ethno-religious clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma last year. Earlier this week, video footage obtained by the BBC shows police officers standing by and watching as a Buddhist mob sets houses on fire in Meikhtila, while a Muslim man burns to death.
Although President Thein Sein vowed to hold perpetrators – including “political opportunists and religious extremists” – to account for the violence, questions remain over why Wirathu and his legion of “969” followers have been allowed to continue the practice of hate speech.
The nationalist monk is currently touring Karen state in eastern Burma, where he has reportedly delivered a series of inflammatory sermons, in which he described the destruction of mosques as “sinless” because they are “buildings of the enemy”. However, Wirathu has repeatedly denied that his “969” campaign played a role in fuelling last month’s violence and insisted that his only agenda is to “preserve” the Buddhist faith.
Three Muslims involved in the gold shop brawl, which sparked the riots, were sentenced to 14 years in jail earlier this month. But so far no Buddhists have been prosecuted for inciting violence, although a small number of residents have been charged with “breaching” the state curfew, which carries a much lighter sentence.
The wave of anti-Muslim unrest left 43 dead and displaced over 13,000 people, most of whom are living in temporary shelters near Meikhtila. A number of locals report that renewed threats of arson attacks are preventing them from returning home.