Updated at 4:45 p.m. EST on 2015-02-10
A Muslim community leader in Myanmar who was granted amnesty this week from a lengthy jail sentence stemming from a 2012 outbreak of communal violence says he wants to devote his energy to healing tensions in the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian country.
Physician Tun Aung had tried to calm down crowds as violence surged between Muslims and Buddhists in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in mid-2012, but was jailed for 19 years for “inciting violence” and other charges his supporters in the international human rights community say were fabricated.
Tun Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service after his release on Jan. 19 that prison authorities said he was to be “released through an amnesty given by the President” of Myanmar, Thein Sein, on short notice after serving two years and eight months.
“There is a Burmese saying that one of the happiest days [in life] is being released from jail,” said the 65-year-old Tun Aung, adding he was pleased to be united with his daughter and son-in-law. His daughter told RFA she planned to reunite her parents in Yangon.
Asked if he suffered torture while in captivity, Tun Aung said “not physically.”
He said that during his time in jail, his thoughts were dominated by the question of “what is it that I can do” to heal the conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists which since June 2012 has left nearly 300 people dead and 140,000 homeless.
“I cannot say why this happened. I cannot understand it. There is no reason for such things to happen,” he said of the riots almost three years ago.
“I would like our region to be peaceful, stable and developed, for the various peoples to understand one another again, and to live together peacefully, like in the past many years,” said Tun Aung.
Tun Aung’s case was taken up by Amnesty International, Myanmar-focused advocacy groups the U.S. Campaign for Burma, The Burma Campaign UK and the Czech-based Prague Freedom Foundation (PFF). U.S. Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois also fought for the doctor’s release.
Amnesty International said it believed that Tun Aung, who was chairman of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council in Maungdaw, Rakhine state, was persecuted for his role as a Muslim community leader.
“Myanmar has taken a great step forward in human rights reform and in its transition of its government,” said the PFF’s John Todoroki, who along with Schock greeted Tun Aung upon his release from prison.
Rights groups, however, say many Rohingyas displaced in the June 2012 riots and subsequent clashes remain in squalid camps with no clear prospects of returning to their homes.
Call for dialogue