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Communal violence and the courts

In this Thursday, March. 21, 2013 photo, a group of people try to destroy a building in Meikhtila, Mandalay division (AP Photo)

December 12, 2013 

Court proceedings in the wake of communal violence in Myanmar have often seen Muslims sentenced more quickly and to harsher punishments than non-Muslims, a Mizzima investigation has found.

Analysts say court processes and decisions reveal injustices that have been present in the legal system for years and have reinforced perceptions of bias among non-Buddhist communities.

But perceptions of bias are not justified in all cases, the investigation found, and in each community where sectarian violence has occurred, the patterns of arrests, prosecutions and convictions have varied.

The sensitivity of the issue can make it difficult to obtain information about total numbers of arrests and convictions – assuming it is available – and to elicit comment from officials. When figures were requested from courts and police, most said the information was not available or had not been collected. The attorneys general in the affected states and regions, including the Rakhine State Attorney General, U Hla Thein, all declined to comment for this report. There are indications that inadequate police investigations led to sweeping arrests. In some places, local police chiefs were transferred before investigations were completed.

Information from courts in Rakhine State since sectarian violence erupted there last year after the rape and murder by two Muslims of a Buddhist woman shows that of 1,085 suspects arrested, 240 were non-Muslim. Of the 845 Muslims arrested and held in custody, more than 270 have been convicted of violent crimes. About 550 Muslims remain in custody and many are yet to be charged, the information shows.

A court in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, took 14 months to charge six non-Muslim suspects with the murder of 10 Muslims on a bus attacked by a mob at Taungupin the southern part of the state on June 3 last year. An informed source said the reason for the delay was due to “issues” involving local law enforcement, which prompted the government to send a mobile police team from Naypyitaw to Taungup to take over the investigation and carry out arrests. At of the time of going to press, the court was yet to hand down verdicts in the case.

But although more Muslims than non-Muslims were arrested after the explosion of violence sparked by an argument in a goldshop at Meikhtila in central Mandalay Region in March this year, far more non-Muslims than Muslims – 57 and 12 respectively – were subsequently convicted in connection with the bloodshed, in which 43 people died. However, the average sentence for Muslims was higher, said a witness to court proceedings.

A total of 93 people were charged over communal violence that flared in southern Rakhine State’s Thandwe Township in late September, government officials were quoted as saying by Voice of America in a November 26 report, which also cited a Muslim as claiming that non-Muslims detained over the incident received favorable treatment. He said Buddhist suspects were granted bail and released but Muslims detained over the incident were still in custody. However, in a possible indication that the response from the authorities was fairly even-handed, earlier reports said charges had been brought against 34 Buddhists and 27 Kaman Muslims, who are recognized by the government as one of Myanmar’s indigenous minority groups. The violence in Thandwe left seven people dead, most of whom were Muslims, and scores of homes razed. Tensions had been simmering in the area following the arrest of two Muslims for the rape of a Buddhist woman in June. The two suspects were convicted on October 21 and were each sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Communal violence at Okkan in northern Yangon Region in late April resulted in the destruction of homes and shops and at least one person being fatally injured. Dozens of arrests were made but by the end of June the only convictions were of two Muslim women accused to having instigated the incident, who were each sentenced to 15 years in jail with hard labor, reports said.

Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst who has studied the sectarian violence, found that the authorities have been quick to prosecute those accused of having caused unrest to prevent tensions from escalating.

“What’s clear is the authorities have made a point of prosecuting those who were seen as sparking the incidents that then led to the violence, and in many cases that was the Muslims…but I have the sense that this may have been done to create the possibility to prosecute Buddhists, in an attempt to not be seen as targeting any one community,” Mr Horsey said. “But, certainly, the initial impression people got was that courts were disproportionately targeting Muslims.”


U Kyaw Win, an academic who works with the Burmese Muslim Association in Britain and has been tracking the arrests and convictions of Muslims after the violence, says the convictions serve to legitimize and encourage extremists to attack Muslims and result in Islamic communities being labeled as troublemakers.

“The way Muslim communities were punished by the court is inflaming the problem,” U Kyaw Win said. “The process of law is so fast against Muslims for [minor infractions] whereas the process of law is paralyzed against Buddhists even for a heinous crime such as murder,” U Kyaw Win said.

He said structural threats remain in place while authorities tolerate perpetrators of violence, creating a narrative that Muslims are to blame for unrest.

However, U Thein Than Oo, a lawyer and former political prisoner who defended seven of the Muslims convicted over the Meikhtila carnage, said he believed his clients received fair trials and that the law was applied fairly by the judge. His clients included those sentenced to 43 years’ imprisonment for murdering a monk, an incident which inflamed tensions already aroused in Meikhtila by the dispute in the goldshop.

Daw Nang Kham Ohng, who served as a public prosecutor in Yangon for more than 20 years, said that under the circumstances, the harsh sentences were not surprising.

Matthew Walton, the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, said perceptions that the law has been applied unfairly had undermined prospects for reconciliation.

Dr Walton said the issue relates to biases in the institutions and individuals responsible implementing or enforcing the law.

“Security forces, courts, lawyers, judges are under pressure to find people who are responsible,” he said.

Dr Walton said that while Muslim defendants in Rakhine State have few powerful advocates, there are strong political advocates on behalf of Rakhine Buddhists.

“There’s pressure to look like they’re doing something, which means finding someone as quickly as possible and giving it the appearance of rule of law, but I think there’s this blind spot, and we get arbitrary decisions like in the past, making decisions based on personal relationships and prejudices.”

Dr Walton said there was a blind adherence to the law, which could be used as a cover for structural injustices.

“The police are going to round up more Muslims because of those structural and individual biases and if the law is implemented unfairly and blindly that means those Muslims people are going to be charged more and sentenced more.”

There is a problem, said Dr Walton, with the discourse about the rule of law.

“Rule of law is presumed to be this neutral vehicle but it doesn’t take into account what are more positive mechanisms of justice which recognize structural and historical injustice as well,” he said.

Dr Walton says court decisions and in particular prosecution processes seen as being unfair, will be an obstacle to reconciliation.

“Where there has been violence it has contributed to further stratification and separation of the communities and the courts definitely contribute to that,” he said.

“In the long term they continue to erode what little faith marginalized communities have in the legal system; that’s not just Muslims, a lot of Buddhists also don’t have faith in the justice system.

“Reconciliation is going to require people to have faith in the government and the justice system.”

This Article first appeared in the December 05, 2013 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

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