Myanmar has jailed seven Buddhists for their roles in an Islamic school massacre and sentenced a Muslim man to life imprisonment for the death of a Buddhist student during deadly sectarian violence in the central Meikhtila town earlier this year, media reports said Thursday.
They were among more than 20 people who were convicted this week for various offenses in the communal violence that left at least 43 people dead and more than 12,000 displaced in Meikhtila in March.
The seven were ordered jailed on Wednesday for between three and 15 years in connection with the massacre at the Islamic boarding school Mingalar Zayone Madrassa, where 36 students and teachers were killed, the Associated Press reported.
A local reporter who attended the hearing told the news agency that some of the men were found guilty of murder and causing injuries, while others were convicted for lesser offenses.
Clashes in Meikhtila erupted on March 20 amid an argument between Buddhists and Muslims at a gold shop, unleashing more than a week of deadly communal violence that prompted a state of emergency in several townships in central Myanmar.
In a separate report, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Meikhtila district and township courts on Wednesday sentenced a total of 24 people to between one and 18 years in prison over the violence.
It did not give details of what crimes they had committed or their religious faiths.
The deadliest incident of the Meikhtila unrest took place at the Mingalar Zayone school, where according to rights groups 32 male Muslim students aged 18 to 24 were killed along with four of their teachers after a Buddhist mob armed with machetes, pipes, and stones set fire to the school and attacked those inside.
Overseas rights groups have called the violence a “massacre” and accused security forces of standing by while it happened.
According to the Associated Press, the state-run Keymon daily reported that eight people — seven Buddhists and one Muslim — were convicted Wednesday in the Meikhtila district court for crimes connected to the school massacre. The paper offered no details about the Muslim’s case, it said.
Muslims have also been sentenced over other incidents in the city, though according to the Meikhtila district chairman, Tin Maung Soe, most of the 73 people charged with crimes related to the rioting there are Buddhists, the Associated Press reported.
One Muslim man was sentenced on Tuesday to life in prison over the death of a 19-year-old university student during the unrest in the town, where local officials have said mosques reopened Friday for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Wave of violence
The Meikhtila clashes were part of a wave of violence in the Buddhist-majority country over the past year that has left more than 250 people dead and 140,000 homeless.
They include two rounds of clashes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June and October last year in which stateless ethnic minority Muslim Rohingyas bore the brunt of the violence by Buddhist Rakhines.
The attacks in Meikhtila, Rakhine, and elsewhere have marred the Buddhist-majority country's image abroad as it emerges from decades of military misrule and prompted calls this week from U.N. and Islamic nations for better protections for Muslims.
UN Secretary General
Speaking in New York on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said if Myanmar failed to address the violence it could risk "undermining the reform process and triggering negative regional repercussions.”
“I am deeply troubled by the communal violence that swept Rakhine and elsewhere,” he said at a meeting of 14 countries—mostly Western nations—that make up the “Group of Friends on Myanmar.”
He urged Myanmar authorities to provide citizenship for Rohingyas.
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the government to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The stateless Rohingyas have been described by the U.N. as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
“It will be important for the Myanmar authorities to take necessary steps to address the legitimate grievances of minority communities, including the citizenship demands of the Muslim/Rohingya in Rakhine.”
“Moderate voices from religious leaders and civil society organizations could also help promote harmony,” he said.
A delegation from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of Islamic nations, met with Ban on Wednesday to appeal for greater U.N. pressure on Myanmar to protect the rights of Muslims in the country, particularly Rohingyas.
At a news conference after the meeting, Djibouti's U.N. Ambassador Roble Olhaye, the head of the delegation, said “ongoing atrocities” against the Rohingya Muslims are “intolerable” and “unacceptable.”
"The Myanmar authorities are failing in taking the necessary measures to stem the violence," Olhaye said, according to reports.