MEIKHTILA, Myanmar // Seven Muslims in Myanmar today were sentenced to prison, one to a life term, in the killing of a Buddhist monk amid sectarian violence that overwhelmingly targeted minority Muslims.
At least 44 people were killed and 12,000 displaced, most of them Muslim, in more than a week of conflicts with Buddhists that began March 20 in the central Myanmar city of Meikhtila.
A dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop triggered rioting by Buddhists and retaliation by their Muslim targets, and the lynching of the monk after the gold shop was sacked inflamed passions, leading to large-scale violence.
No serious charges have been filed against the members of the Buddhist majority.
While the violence is now contained, questions are arising over whether minority Muslims can find justice in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. Hundreds more Muslims have been killed, and tens of thousands have been made homeless, in violence across the country over the past year.
The issue of ethnic strife marred this week's Washington trip by President Thein Sein, which was otherwise filled with praise for the first leader of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years.
Barack Obama, the US president, praised Thein Sein on Monday for his efforts to lead his country back on the path to democracy, but also said he expressed concern to his counterpart about violence against Muslims in the country. "The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop," he said.
Thein Than Oo, a lawyer defending the men sentenced yesterday, said one of his clients, Myat Ko Ko, was given life in prison for murder. Myat Ko Ko was also sentenced to an additional two years for unlawful assembly and two for religious disrespect.
Of the remaining defendants, one received a two-year sentence while the others received terms ranging from six to 28 years. Four of them, including a minor tried in a separate court, were convicted of charges including abetting murder. Two were convicted only on lesser counts.
The lynching of the Buddhist monk inflamed passions in Meikhtila, especially after photos circulated widely on social media of what was purported to be his body after he was pulled off a motorbike, attacked and burned. Entire Muslim neighbourhoods were engulfed in flames, and charred bodies piled in the roads.
In parliament in on Monday, the religious affairs minister, Hsan Hsint, gave the official figures for casualties and damage from March 20 to 28: 44 people killed, 90 injured, 1,818 houses, 27 mosques and 14 Islamic schools destroyed. He said 143 people were arrested in connection with the violence, out of which 47 have been formally charged.
Asked why only Muslims have been charged in Meikhtila, Ye Aung Myint, the advocate general, said the courts were starting with the initial incidents that triggered the violence, and those involved in later incidents would be charged subsequently.
"There is no discrimination in bringing justice. We dealt with the first two cases and 11 more cases involving Buddhists will be dealt with very soon," he said, adding that about 70 people will face charges for murder, arson and looting.