RANGOON— A Burmese court has imprisoned two Muslim women for sparking communal violence earlier this year in the town of Okkan, near Rangoon, in the latest conviction of minority Muslims while Buddhist suspects have yet to face trial.
The two women were blamed for sparking the violence in April after they were involved in an altercation with a Buddhist monk that angered local Buddhists, leading to anti-Muslim rioting in the city about 100 kilometers from Rangoon. One Muslim man was killed and nine were injured in the unrest, while 81 homes and a mosque were burned to the ground.
“The court gave them a sentence of two years each in prison and hard labor on June 5,” an official from the court in Taik Kyi Township, where Okkan is located, told The Irrawaddy.
Burma has seen clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in several states this year, but so far only Muslims have been imprisoned. Muslims make up only about 5 percent of the country’s 60 million or so population.
In Okkan, the violence erupted on April 31 after a Muslim woman bumped into a novice monk, spilling his food and breaking his alms bowl. The woman and the monk were detained by the police following the incident, and both were released about two hours later after the woman apologized.
But when they left the police station, another Muslim woman grabbed the young monk and shook him, accusing him of lying to the police. This prompted both Muslim women to be detained. A mostly Buddhist crowd gathered outside the police station and began destroying Muslim properties in neighborhood.
The two women were charged with offending religion in Buddhist-majority Burma. An article of the country’s penal code prohibits people from engaging in “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
As of last month, a total of 39 suspects were reportedly in police custody for their alleged roles in the rioting.
“We are summoning witnesses and still investigating the case,” an officer at Okkan’s police station told The Irrawaddy, adding that he did not have the authority to disclose the exact number of suspects still in detention.
Before the rioting in Okkan, inter-communal strife between Buddhists and Muslims broke out last year in west Burma’s Arakan State. The violence spread this year to central Burma and east Burma—with clashes in the town of Meikhtila, then in Okkan, and mostly recently in Lashio. In total, more than 200 people have been killed and more than 150,000 people—mostly Muslims—have been displaced.
In the unrest this year, the government has convicted more than 10 Muslims but no Buddhists.
In east Burma’s Lashio Township, a Muslim man was sentenced to 26 years in prison last week after an incident in late May which sparked an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence that left one person dead and displaced about 1,400 Muslim residents. He was convicted of attempted murder, voluntarily causing grievous harm and two drug-related charges.
In the central Burma town of Meikhtila, the Muslim owners of a gold shop and an employee were sentenced in April to more than a decade in prison after a dispute with a Buddhist customer in March sparked anti-Muslim riots that left at least 43 people dead and destroyed hundreds of homes. Last month, seven Muslim men were also imprisoned for the death of a Buddhist monk during that unrest.
In both cases, most of the remaining suspects under investigation are Buddhists. Seventy-four suspects in custody in Meikhtila have been charged with the destruction of property and murder, while 44 suspects in Lashio have been detained but not yet charged, according to regional authorities.
Kyaw Khin, chief secretary of the All Burma Muslim Federation, told The Irrawaddy that he had no comment on the convictions of those who were guilty.
“If they are guilty of the crime, they should be punished fairly—no bias against religion and race,” he said.
“But as of now, all the people who have earned imprisonment are minority Muslims. So I have to ask, where are the majority [Buddhist] people who committed the crimes of looting, rampaging, arson and killing during the riots?”
Kyee Myint of the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network called on the government to ensure equal treatment for suspects of all religions.
“At the moment, they are just playing a game of politics to please the Buddhist majority,” he said.
“But don’t worry: They are going to sentence Buddhists who were involved in the riots very soon.”