YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A court in Myanmar has found two Muslim women guilty of sparking a recent outbreak of sectarian violence, one of them by bumping into a Buddhist novice monk.
Myint Thein of the pro-government National Unity Party, who attended their trial, said Wednesday the two women in the central township of Okkan were convicted of "insulting religion." Both were sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor. A police officer in Okkan, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed the sentences.
The verdicts may be seen as offering support for contentions by human rights groups that Myanmar's court system is biased in favor of the Buddhist majority. Although the vast majority of victims of the violence in the past year have been Muslims, most of those convicted of serious offenses in connection with the unrest have been Muslims.
Sectarian violence began in western Rakhine state last year, when hundreds died in clashes between Buddhists 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, Buddhist-led violence — fueled by the killing of a monk after a Buddhist mob burned down several Muslim-owned shops — swept the town of Meikthila in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people.
The two women's trial, held earlier this month, was related to an April 30 incident in Okkan that culminated with Buddhist mobs destroying shops and homes in several villages. No Buddhists have been convicted so far in the unrest. Myint Thein said police arrested about 30 people in connection with the violence but 60 others were still at large. He said court hearings in those cases had begun in the first week of May but had not yet been completed.
Myint Thein said the court heard that one of the women was detained after bumping into the monk as he was collecting alms, enraging a crowd of Buddhist residents, and that the other was taken into custody after grabbing the young monk by his shoulders. It is considered highly inappropriate in Buddhism for women to have any kind of physical contact with monks.
The violence broke out in an atmosphere already charged from the deadly violence in Meikhtila. The Okkan incidents were among several that occurred at that time in central Myanmar, and in late May, similar unrest spread to the northeastern town of Lashio.
Heavy prison sentences have already been handed down to Muslim men who were involved in the incidents that triggered the violence in Meikhtila and Lashio.
The unrest threatens to undermine the political and economic reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein, who came to power as an elected chief executive in 2011 after almost five decades of repressive military rule.
The government's failure to effectively tackle the problem also risks shaking the confidence of Western countries, which have rewarded Thein Sein's reforms by lifting sanctions that were applied against the previous military regime.