MEIKHTILA, Myanmar — A Myanmar court sentenced seven Muslims to prison Tuesday — one of them to a life term — in the killing of a Buddhist monk amid deadly sectarian violence that was overwhelmingly directed against minority Muslims but has not led to any criminal trials against members of the country's Buddhist majority.
As the country tries to rebuild democracy after decades of military rule, the issue poses a dilemma for politicians who would lose support if they embraced justice for the unpopular Muslim minority. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest under the former ruling junta but now hopes to bring her party to power, spoke of the law but not of sectarian tensions when asked about the verdict.
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 enflamed passions, leading to large-scale violence.
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 sectarian strife has tarnished the image of Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of the country's Muslims despite her long commitment to human rights. Her supporters, especially abroad, fear she is afraid to take a politically unpopular stand now that her party will mount a bid for power in the next general election in 2015. Prejudice against Muslims is widespread in Myanmar, and it is hard to find public figures willing to speak in defense of the Muslim community.
In a press conference Tuesday in the capital, Naypyitaw, she did not directly address the plight of the Muslim minority. Instead, she spoke in familiar terms about the rule of law when asked about the verdict.
"There is no transparency in Myanmar's justice system and there is too much influence from the administrative branch," she said, echoing the opinions of many human rights groups. "The judicial system has to be independent to be credible."
Suu Kyi has been criticized for failing to take a strong stand on attacks last year against the Muslim Rohingya community in western Rakhine state. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of homes, leaving hundreds dead and forcing 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, to flee,
When asked whether she was concerned about her reputation over the issue, she said she wasn't worried. "If I had to be concerned about my image, I should not have become a politician right from the beginning," she said.
The issue of ethnic strife also marred this week's Washington trip by President Thein Sein, a trip otherwise filled with accolades for the first leader of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years.
President Barack Obama 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. "The displacement of people, the violence directed toward them needs to stop," he said.
Thein Than Oo, a lawyer defending the men sentenced Tuesday, 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. Mandalay Advocate General Ye Aung Myint confirmed the sentences.
"It's not fair!" shouted one of the convicted men shouted from inside a prison van as they were being driven away after the trial.
But members of a crowd of about 30 people outside the court house expressed unhappiness over the verdict for a different reason: They said they wished the death penalty had been applied against those who were convicted of killing the monk. Myanmar has the death penalty for premeditated murder, but the defendants were charged under a different murder category.
Thein Than Oo said he would await his clients' instructions on whether to appeal the verdicts.
The lynching of the Buddhist monk enflamed 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. Monks are highly respected both for their religious devotion and as community leaders.
Entire Muslim neighborhoods were engulfed in flames, and charred bodies piled in the roads. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore order, but the unrest later spread to other parts of central Myanmar.
In parliament in Monday, 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. Parliament on Tuesday formally approved the state of emergency.
The gold shop owner and two employees, all Muslims, were sentenced in April to 14 years in prison each on charges of theft and causing grievous bodily harm.
Hsan Hsint did not break down arrests and charges by religion, but no major cases involving Buddhist suspects have been announced.
Asked why only Muslims have faced trial 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 tried 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.
Thein Sein's administration, which came to power in 2011 after half a century of military rule, has been heavily criticized for not doing enough to protect Muslims or stop the violence from spreading since it began with clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year.
In a speech Monday at a university in Washington, Thein Sein vowed to ensure an end to the violence and justice for the perpetrators. He also called for a new era in U.S.-Myanmar relations.
Rights groups have criticized Thein Sein's U.S. visit, saying human rights injustices are still rampant in Myanmar despite progress made in freeing political prisoners, and in granting more freedom to political opponents and the media, among other changes.
U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights released a report Monday detailing a gruesome massacre carried out by Buddhist mobs who hunted down and killed at least 24 Muslim students and teachers from an Islamic school as Meikhtila descended into anarchy in March. The report, based on interviews with survivors, accuses state authorities and police of standing idly by while the killings were carried out.
Richard Sollom, the report's lead author, called for Thein Sein to support an independent investigation into the killings and speak out more forcefully against anti-Muslim violence.
AP writers Aye Aye Win in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, and Matthew Pennington and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.