YANGON, Burma (AP) — A court in Burma has charged six Muslims with murder for their alleged role in the death of a Buddhist monk during an outbreak of sectarian violence that shook the country in March, authorities said Tuesday.
The charges issued Monday mark the latest legal action against minority Muslims in the central city of Meikthila, one of several recent flashpoints for anti-Muslim violence that rights groups say includes an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the Buddhist nation.
At least 43 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in Meikhtila, some of them hunted down and burnt to death by Buddhist mobs. Authorities have detained Buddhists allegedly involved in the attacks, but so far none have been charged with crimes.
Containing the violence has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein’s reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalization after nearly half a century of military rule. It has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of the country’s embattled Muslim community.
(READ MORE: Burma president vows to protect Muslim rights)
All six men charged Monday face the death penalty if convicted, said Advocate-General Ye Aung Myint. He said the men were among 50 people detained in connection with several days of violence in Meikhtila that also displaced more than 12,000 people, most of them Muslim.
The March violence started after a dispute between a gold shop owner, who is Muslim, and some of his customers, who are Buddhists. The argument triggered a wave of anti-Muslim violence across the city that left entire Muslim neighborhoods in flames and charred bodies in the streets. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore order.
The gold shop owner and two employees, all Muslims, were sentenced by the same court in April to 14 years in prison on charges of theft and causing grievous bodily harm.
Among those killed in the riots was a Buddhist monk who was reportedly pulled off his motorbike, attacked and burned. The six men accused of attacking him were part of a larger group, and authorities are searching for four more men, said Ye Aung Myint.
The sectarian violence in Burma first flared nearly a year ago in western Rakhine state between the region’s Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds dead and forcing 125,000 people to flee, mostly Muslims.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities — including Buddhist monks, local politicians, government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslims in Rakhine state. The government has denied the charges.
The Rohingya living in Rakhine state are widely seen as foreign intruders from neighboring Bangladesh, and are largely denied citizenship even though many of them have lived in Burma for generations.
Since the Rakhine violence, religious unrest has morphed into a campaign against the country’s Muslim community in other regions. The latest violence flared last week when several Muslim villages north of Yangon were burned to the ground.
Thein Sein vowed Monday that his government would do everything it can to protect the rights of minority Muslims.
In a speech broadcast on state television late Monday, Thein Sein said his “government will take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims in Rakhine state, and to accommodate the needs and expectations of the Rakhine people.”
“In order for religious freedom to prevail, there must be tolerance and mutual respect among the members of different faiths,” he said. Only then, he added, “will it be possible to coexist peacefully.”