Almost 1,200 people have been arrested and 500 sentenced to jail for their involvement in two episodes of deadly communal violence which rocked western Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, a senior government official said Tuesday, as the U.N. vowed to lead reconciliation efforts in the restive region.
Union Minister Aye Myint said that nearly 200 cases had been brought to court in relation to the sectarian unrest in June and October 2012 between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, which left about 200 people dead and 140,000 displaced.
“The trials for 195 cases are complete and the perpetrators were sentenced,” Aye Myint announced at a press conference during a visit by Myanmar’s Vice President Sai Mauk Kham to camps for the displaced in Rakhine state on Tuesday.
“There were 507 convicted [and jailed] and we are still working on other trials, which we hope to finish as soon as possible.”
Sai Mauk Kham said that 662 people are still on trial related to 45 different cases.
The announcement came as the United Nations pledged to lead reconciliation efforts between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas, who rights groups have said bore the brunt of last year’s violence and represent the largest share of displaced persons.
Rakhine state Attorney General Hla Thein told reporters Tuesday that authorities maintained the separation of the region’s Buddhist and Muslim communities in the wake of the clashes because of the “possibility of riots” if they were to live side-by-side.
He said that the state government had arranged “proper security” for the region’s Muslim camps and have prevented ethnic Rakhines from entering Muslim communities.
“More than 6,000 police and plenty of soldiers are on guard in Rakhine state right now,” Hla Thein added.
More than U.S. $80 million has been spent in rehabilitating Rakhine state and its affected communities since July 2012, officials said, and the Rakhine state government has received more than U.S. $66 million from donor countries.
Last week, Myanmar’s Eleven online journal quoted a state media announcement that 1,189 suspects had been arrested with 977 “homemade guns” in relation to the Rakhine violence.
It said eight suspects from 21 cases had been acquitted and that during criminal hearings 12 suspects died, while 37 others are at large as fugitives.
Meanwhile, Thin Khine, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) program manager in Myanmar, said that his agency would kick off reconciliation efforts between Rakhines and Rohingyas in hundreds of villages this month.
“We are going to begin this reconciliation process in 500 villages from Maungtaw township in July,” Thin Khine told a press conference in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, also on Tuesday.
“What we want is to bring relations of the two communities back to what they were before June of last year.”
Thin Khine said that in addition to leading reconciliation efforts in Maungtaw, the UNDP would also work with communities in two other townships, without providing the locations.
He said that if the efforts in the three areas proved successful, the UNDP would extend its work to other townships with the help of civil society organizations.
“As both communities have lost trust in each other, the first part of reconciliation should entail building trust,” he said.
“We will take as long as is necessary to bring good relations back to the two groups.”
Thin Khine said that 10 years of the UNDP’s development work in Rakhine state had been destroyed in the two waves of violence last year, but said the agency’s projects would be restarted.
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 illegal immigrants despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
The U.N. describes these stateless people as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Violence between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslim minority, which accounts for some 4 percent of the 60-million population, had threatened to derail reformist President Thein Sein’s plans for national reconciliation and democracy following nearly five decades of military rule.
Buddhist-Muslim violence had also flared outside Rakhine state.
In March, clashes stemming from a quarrel between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner of a goldsmith shop in central Myanmar’s Meikhtila spread to other towns in the region and raged for more than a week, leaving at least 44 dead and 12,000 displaced—most of them Muslims.
On May 1, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists occurred in Okkan township, located about 100 km (60 miles) north of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon.
More than 20,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have fled Myanmar by boat since last year’s violence to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking.
Reported by Yadana Oo and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.