— Sectarian violence that has spread across Burma reached several villages north of Rangoon this week, when two people died in rioting that destroyed more than 100 homes, shops and mosques. Locals say the fighting in Okkan began when a young Muslim woman on a bicycle collided with an 11 year-old novice monk, breaking his alms bowl. Soon after, villagers from surrounding areas began destroying Muslim-owned property.
The rioting in Okkan shows that relatively minor incidents between Muslims and Buddhists can lead to widespread violence.
One of the buildings destroyed during the initial violence on Tuesday was an Islamic school. Lachman, a teacher there, was hiding in the compound as villagers armed with farming tools entered and ransacked it.
"We heard about what happened in Meikhtila, so we didn't fight back," he explained. "Our religious leader warned us not to fight back against people who are destroying your property, just run and save your lives."
Last month fighting in Meikhtila drove more than 10,000 Muslims from their homes into guarded camps that they say they are not allowed to leave. Authorities claim the camps are for their own protection.
The outbreak of violence in Meikhtila started when a dispute at a Muslim-owned gold shop turned violent. As fighting erupted, a monk who was riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi was killed.
Now seven Muslim men are on trial for his death.
The motorbike's driver took monastic vows two days after violence and testified in court as an eyewitness. Ashin Nanthiya is his devotional name.
He said as they drove into town, they saw Muslims armed with sticks threatening them, and as they drove through town, a man was beating the monk on the back of the bike. Finally, a crowd gathered around them, and four Muslims doused the monk in petrol and burned him alive after beating him.
Ashin Nanthiya believes the men on trial should be sentenced to death, and said it would be better if there were no Muslims living in Meikhtila.
One of the suspects, Nyi Nyi Naing, accused of beating the monk with a sword, is just 15 years old. Last week in court he withdrew a confession he said was extracted from him under duress. His wife, Zinmar Win, has been living in a camp for displaced people since her home burned down in the riots. She says she has struggled to be able to see him.
"I don't know whether my husband committed the crime or not, but I haven't been able to see him and I don't know whether he is guilty or not, so I've come to the court to try to see him," she said.
The seven suspects are charged with murder and grievous hurt, and will likely face the death penalty. Three Muslims from the gold shop incident were sentenced to 14 years for theft earlier this month, and the court told reporters the hefty sentence was due to the riots that followed.
Defense lawyer Thein Than Oo is representing some of the seven accused of killing the monk. He said four suspects still at large in the case are the real killers. He added that some of his clients were not even at the scene of the killing and were arrested for having similar names or for being related to the accused.
"I think they all are Muslims, and their physical appearance is similar. Even the eyewitnesses cannot differentiate one from the other. Who is Myo Win, Myo Tun Nyunt, or Myo Nyunt, the three brothers, they can't differentiate them clearly," said the lawyer.
The neighborhoods surrounding the court in Meikhtila still bear signs of a deadly riot. Locals say among the 40 dead are children from a nearby Islamic school.
The riots follow a pattern of violence similar to the conflict that broke out last year in Burma's northwestern Arakan state, where communities once had an even ratio between Buddhists and Muslims. Now, many of the Muslims have been displaced.
New York-based Human Rights Watch
recently published a report
saying the violence and impunity of the Buddhist attackers has amounted to ethnic cleansing. Phil Robertson is the Asia deputy director.
"And this seems to be a general trend within today's Burma. That violence takes place, the police stand around, they don't take action to stop it. Eventually after a period of time the army steps in and then no one is held accountable. It's the problem we see in Arakan state, it's also the problem we see in central Burma where there was also violence in March," Robertson said.
Amid the fighting, there are also worrying signs of broader anti-Muslim sentiment in areas of the country yet to experience outbreaks of violence. The so-called 969 movement started by Buddhist monks insists it is peaceful, but the group is encouraging Buddhists to avoid patronizing Muslim businesses or interacting with Muslim people.