YANGON, Myanmar – Twenty-five Buddhists were sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison for murder and other crimes during a night of rioting, burning and killing in central Myanmar, following weeks in which it seemed only Muslims were being punished for sectarian violence aimed primarily at members of their own religion.
But the sentences issued Wednesday and Thursday did not erase a sense of unequal justice: A day earlier, a Muslim received a life sentence for murdering one of the 43 people killed March 20 and 21 in the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila.
A wave of violence over the past year in this predominantly Buddhist Southeast Asian country has left more than 250 people dead and 140,000 others fleeing their homes, most of them Muslim. The attacks, and the government's inability to stop them, have marred the Southeast Asian country's image abroad as it moves toward democracy and greater freedom following nearly five decades of military rule.
Most of the sentences were handed down Wednesday, and the toughest stemmed from the deadliest incident of the Meikhtila riots: a brutal mob attack on an Islamic school, its students and teachers that killed 36 people.
Buddhist mobs torched Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School, Muslim businesses and all but one of the city's 13 mosques following a dispute between a Muslim and a Buddhist at a gold shop and the burning death of a Buddhist monk by four Muslim men. While security forces stood by, a mob armed with machetes, metal pipes, chains and stones killed 32 teenage students and four teachers. Video clips online show mobs clubbing students to death and cheering as flames leap from corpses.
The state-run Keymon daily said eight people – seven Buddhists and one Muslim – were convicted Wednesday in Meikhtila district court for crimes connected to the school massacre.
Tin Hlaing, a local reporter present during the hearings, told The Associated Press that four of the eight were found guilty of murder and causing other injuries, getting between 10 and 15 years in jail.
He did not provide details about their roles in the slaughter but said the other four convicted were involved in lesser offenses. The Keymon daily said the seven Buddhists received sentences of three to 15 years, but offered no details about the Muslim's case.
Tin Hlaing also said four Muslim men on Tuesday received sentences of at least seven years in prison – with one getting a life sentence – for their roles in the murder of a 19-year-old university student during the unrest.
The district court also sentenced 10 Buddhist men Wednesday to one to nine years for their involvement in the death of a Muslim man. A township court sentenced six men and one woman, all Buddhists, to two years' imprisonment each for damaging the gold shop.
Meikhtila district chairman Tin Maung Soe said in a telephone interview that one Buddhist man was sentenced to five years' imprisonment Thursday for causing grievous hurt in connection with the killing of two Muslim men. He did not provide further details.
Sectarian violence in Myanmar began in Rakhine state just over a year ago in the country's west, then spread in March to the central towns of Meikthila and Okkan.
There have been many earlier sentencings, in Meikhtila and elsewhere, but the majority involved Muslim defendants. Tin Maung Soe said most of the 73 people charged with crimes related to the rioting there are Buddhists.
Asked why Buddhists were given lighter sentences than some of the Muslims, Meikhtila district legal officer Khin Win Phyu said the sentences were handed down "based on the testimonies of the witnesses."
"The courts passed their verdict according to law and there is no bias or privilege toward any group," she said.
The state-owned newspaper Myanman Ahlin has reported that close to 1,500 people have been arrested on charges related to sectarian violence, and 535 of them have been convicted. Most of the cases are in Rakhine state, where more than 200 people were killed last year as tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were driven from their homes. The paper did not break down the numbers by religion.
About 12,000 people were displaced by the Meikhtila riots. Tin Maung Soe said about 3,500 Muslims and 850 Buddhists are still living in temporary shelters.
He also said three mosques in the town reopened Wednesday as Muslims prepared for the holy month of Ramadan. Authorities provided security.