Seven Muslim men, including a minor, were sentenced to jail on Tuesday for the murder of a monk, whose death allegedly sparked a wave of religious riots across central Burma in March.
One of the men was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, while the rest received jail terms ranging between two and 28 years for other charges, including abetting murder. The juvenile was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The lawyer of the primary suspect, Myat Ko Ko, who was sentenced to life in jail, told DVB he was “relieved” that his client did not receive the death penalty. Myat Ko Ko was also handed four additional years for “unlawful assembly’ and “defaming religion”.
The news comes a day after an independent report detailed evidence of state complicity in a brutal massacre of 20 Muslim schoolchildren in Meikhtila, in an apparent revenge attack for the monk’s death. But nobody has been held to account for the atrocity.
The report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) compiles data from more than 30 sources, including several eyewitnesses, who testified that “local police stood by and watched” while hundreds of people and monks “went on a rampage of violence and destruction, including the killing of unarmed Muslims”.
Violence flared in the central Burma city, after a brawl in a Muslim-owned gold shop culminated in a monk being beaten to death. It prompted Buddhist mobs to ransack the town, destroying mosques, homes and murdering dozens of Muslim civilians – including 20 children and four teachers from a local school.
Students and teachers from the Islamic school in one of Meikhtila’s Muslim quarters, Mingalar Zayyone, told PHR how they fled into some nearby bushes when neighbouring houses and mosques were set ablaze. Several of them recall seeing gangs of Buddhists scouring the area, chanting “Find the Kalars and kill them!”, while others torched their school.
Over a hundred students, teachers and locals later escaped to a nearby compound, where they hid until police arrived the next morning. But witnesses told PHR that the police, who had promised to escort them to safety, “led them straight into a group of armed Buddhists” instead.
A local Muslim woman, Thiri, who was at the front of the crowd with her husband and five children, recalls watching the police stand by as the mob set upon them with sticks and knives. One boy was sliced across the face with a knife, while two others were beaten to death with sticks and metal pipes.
“Only the people in the middle of the line of people did well,” Thiri said.
Her daughter, Hla, told researchers that she heard policemen laughing as locals taunted the group with pieces of pork. Other Muslims reported being forced to worship a monk, while a policeman encouraged them.
At least two young boys were doused in gasoline and set on fire in front of their classmates, while Thiri’s husband was stabbed to death and torched. Thiri, who had been moved further away with a group of other women, recalls smelling burning flesh and grabbing a policeman’s leg.
“There’s a fire! Please, please put it out!” she said. But the policeman replied, “Don’t look back; if you do, we can set fire to you, too.”
The Meikhtila violence raged until the army was called in to restore order three days later. But by then anti-Muslim riots had spread to several townships across central Burma, claimed over forty lives and displaced nearly 13,000. While some Muslims have begun to return to the city, locals report persistent fear and distrust among their Buddhist neighbours.
Although President Thein Sein has vowed to protect the rights of Muslims in Burma, his government has been criticised for failing to prosecute Buddhist instigators behind the violence, including the Meikhtila school massacre.
So far mostly Muslims, including three men involved in the gold shop brawl, have been sentenced to jail for their role in the riots. While some Buddhists have also been prosecuted, they have mostly been charged with “breaching” the state curfew, which carries a much lighter sentence.
Richard Sollom, the report’s lead author and PHR’s director of emergencies, called on the president “to support an independent investigation into these killings, bring perpetrators to justice, and speak out forcefully against ongoing anti-Muslim violence.”
Anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise in former military dictatorship since last year, when Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya clashed in western Burma. The government has been accused of carrying out a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya, who are considered illegal Bengali immigrants and denied citizenship.
But Thein Sein, who is currently on a landmark tour of the US capital, has dismissed allegations of state involvement in anti-Muslim pogroms. This week US President Barack Obama lauded Thein Sein for implementing a series of democratic reforms in Burma, but warned that violence against Muslims must stop.