YANGON, Myanmar – A court in Myanmar has charged six Muslims with murder for their alleged role in an outbreak of sectarian violence that shook the country in March, authorities said Tuesday, as a rights group raised concern over a judicial system that has so far failed to prosecute Buddhists who brutally hunted Muslims down in the streets and torched whole neighborhoods.
The charges issued Monday are the latest legal action against minority Muslims in the central city of Meikthila, one of several recent flashpoints for anti-Muslim violence that the New York-based group Human Rights Watch said included an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in the Buddhist nation.
At least 43 people were killed and 12,000 displaced during several days of unrest in Meikhtila, which descended into anarchy as Buddhist mobs rampaged through the town and police stood idly by. Most of the victims were Muslim. Since then, authorities have detained 50 people, including members of both religious groups, but so far no Buddhists have been formally charged with serious crimes.
Containing the violence has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalization after nearly half a century of harsh military rule. It has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of the country's embattled Muslim community.
All six Muslim men charged Monday face possible death penalties for allegedly killing a Buddhist monk, Advocate-General Ye Aung Myint said. He told The Associated Press that police on Monday also opened a case against 15 people — including two Muslims — for the more minor crimes of robbery and looting during the unrest.
The March violence started after a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and several Buddhist customers triggered a wave of anti-Muslim violence across the city that left entire Muslim neighborhoods in flames and charred bodies piled in the roads. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore order.
The gold shop owner and two employees, all Muslims, were sentenced by the same court in April to 14 years in prison on charges of theft and causing grievous bodily harm.
Human Rights Watch said it was seriously concerned about a "lack of accountability for crimes committed against Muslim communities."
"The authorities need to demonstrate that investigations and prosecutions aren't discriminatory and are in line with international standards, but they aren't doing that," said Matthew Smith, a researcher for the group. "What we are seeing in Meikhtila is consistent with what we are seeing elsewhere in the country — a failure to bring perpetrators to account."
Among those killed in the riots was a Buddhist monk who was reportedly pulled off his motorbike, attacked and burned. The six men accused of attacking him were part of a larger group, and authorities are searching for four more men, Ye Aung Myint said.
The sectarian violence in Myanmar first flared nearly a year ago in western Rakhine state between the region's Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds dead and forcing 125,000 people to flee, mostly Muslims.
Human Rights Watch has accused authorities — including Buddhist monks, local politicians, government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslims in Rakhine state. The government has denied the charges.
The Rohingya living in Rakhine state are widely seen as foreign intruders from neighboring Bangladesh, and are largely denied citizenship even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Since the Rakhine violence, religious unrest has morphed into a campaign against the country's Muslim community in other regions. The latest violence flared last week when several Muslim villages north of Yangon were burned to the ground.
Thein Sein vowed Monday that his government would do everything it can to protect the rights of minority Muslims.
In a speech broadcast on state television, Thein Sein said his "government will take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims in Rakhine state, and to accommodate the needs and expectations of the Rakhine people."
"In order for religious freedom to prevail, there must be tolerance and mutual respect among the members of different faiths," he said. Only then, he added, "will it be possible to coexist peacefully."
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Bangkok contributed to this report.