YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Muslim man whose attack on a Buddhist woman set off sectarian rioting in Myanmar’s northeast has been sentenced to 26 years in prison, a local politician said.
The court sentenced 48-year-old Ne Win on Tuesday after he was convicted of attempted murder, causing serious injury and possession and use of illegal drugs, said National League for Democracy member Sai Myint Maung, who attended the trial.
The rioting in Lashio in Shan state marked the extension of deadly anti-Muslim violence from areas in western and central Myanmar.
The failure of President Thein Sein’s government to stop the religious strife has cast doubts on the progress of his ambitious political and economic reforms, begun when he took office in 2011 after almost five decades of repressive military rule. The violence has also tarnished the reputation of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not unequivocally condemned the tide of prejudice.
The unrest in Lashio began May 28 after Ne Win splashed gasoline on a woman and set her on fire. She was hospitalized with serious burns.
Buddhist mobs took revenge by burning several Muslim shops, one of the city’s main mosques, an Islamic orphanage and a movie theater. One person, a Muslim, died.
While Muslims have overwhelmingly been the victims of the past year’s violence, the justice system has been slow to punish the perpetrators, who come mostly from the overwhelmingly Buddhist majority.
The sectarian violence began in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds died in clashes between Buddhist and Muslims that drove about 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes. The violence had seemed confined to that region, but in late March, similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people.
Several other towns in central Myanmar experienced less deadly violence, mostly involving the torching of Muslim businesses and mosques.
A Myanmar court last month sentenced seven Muslims to prison — one of them to a life term — in the killing of a Buddhist monk during the unrest in Meikhtila. In April, a gold shop owner and two employees, all Muslims, were sentenced by the same court to 14 years in prison on charges of theft and causing grievous bodily harm. Their scuffle with Buddhist customers led to the rioting there. No Buddhist has been tried on any serious charge for the violence there.
Prejudice against Muslims — who with generally South Asian features are physically distinct from most other residents of Myanmar — is longstanding and widespread, but passions have been further inflamed by Buddhist monks belonging to a nationalist movement called 969 that urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and not to marry, sell property to or hire Muslims. They claim Muslims pose a threat to racial purity and national security.
The monks’ credibility stems from their religious standing and also from historically playing a vanguard role in politics — in the past against British colonial rule, and in more recent decades against military dictatorship.
More than 200 Buddhist leaders across the country are to attend a meeting near Yangon on Thursday and Friday to discuss how to resolve the communal conflict. However, there is no guarantee that the radical monks in 969, who enjoy popular support, would be constrained by any decisions made at the meeting.