Meikhtila — A court in Myanmar sentenced seven Muslims to terms ranging from life to two years in prison on Tuesday for the killing of a Buddhist monk during sectarian violence that is posing a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government.
While the violence is contained for now, questions are arising over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. No Buddhists have yet faced serious charges, despite atrocities carried out against the Muslim community.
The defendants were accused of involvement in Muslim-Buddhist conflicts that began on 20 March in the town of Meikhtila.
Thein Than Oo, a lawyer defending the men, said one of his clients 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. One of the seven is a minor.
A dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop in Meikhtila triggered rioting by Buddhists and small-scale retaliation by their Muslim targets. Over several days at least 43 people were killed and 12 000 displaced, most of the victims being Muslims. The unrest later spread to other parts of central Myanmar.
The lynching of a Buddhist monk after the gold shop was sacked enflamed passions, leading to large-scale violence against Muslims.
Thein Sein's administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticised 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 the west last year.
Thein Sein on Monday became the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years. President Barack Obama praised him for his efforts to lead his country back on the path to democracy.
However, Obama 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.
The sectarian violence in Myanmar that flared nearly a year ago in Rakhine state has 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 at a university in Washington, Thein Sein called for a new era in US-Myanmar relations. On domestic challenges, he vowed to ensure that communal violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims that has claimed hundreds of lives over the past year would be brought to a halt and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.