Muslim Gold Shop Owners Imprisoned for Meikhtila Unrest

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 12 April 2013

RANGOON—The Muslim owners of a gold shop in the central Burma town of Meikhtila have been sentenced to more than a decade in prison after a dispute at their shop sparked a wave of anti-Muslim riots that killed at least 43 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

The two owners and one employee of New Waint Sein gold shop were each sentenced on Thursday to 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, robbery, attempted injury, and aiding and abetting crimes, state-run media reported on Friday.

The police in Meikhtila, an upcountry town 130 kilometers north of Naypyidaw, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the three defendants were among a total of 70 people, including 28 Muslims and 42 Buddhists, who had been arrested for their alleged roles in the riots.

“The rest are still under investigation,” an officer said. “We may arrest more.”

The Meikhtila Township court found the two shop owners and employee guilty of assaulting Buddhist customers during an argument at their shop on March 20, The Mirror newspaper reported on Friday.

The argument began after a Buddhist woman accused employees of damaging a gold hair clip that she wanted to sell, according to Reuters reports. One shop owner slapped the woman and three employees beat her husband outside, the news agency reported, citing witness testimony.

A crowd of mostly Buddhists arrived at the scene and started throwing rocks and yelling anti-Muslim insults, Reuters reported. They eventually destroyed the shop and surrounding businesses.

Later that day, a group of Muslim men killed a Buddhist monk, Reuters reported, and mobs of Buddhists responded with anti-Muslim riots.

The violence spread to 11 townships in Mandalay Division and Pegu Division.

Although the gold shop altercation was reportedly the first incident of unrest, it has been widely speculated that the riots were systematically organized. Some observers have pointed to an increasingly vocal nationalist Buddhist movement known as 969 that urges people to shun Muslim shops and businesses in Burma.

According to government reports, 43 people were killed during three days of clashes in Meikhtila, while 86 people were injured and 1,355 houses, shops and buildings were destroyed.

Nearly 13,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced in the violence, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The Irrawaddy reporter Snay Lin contributed to this report.