SITTWE, Myanmar: A Myanmar court on Tuesday sentenced a prominent ethnic Rakhine leader to 20 years in jail for treason, a verdict likely to intensify anger amid fighting between the ethnic group and the army.
Security forces tried to calm hundreds of supporters outside the court in Rakhine state capital Sittwe as Aye Maung was escorted to a waiting police van following the verdict.
Aye Maung, the former chairman of the Arakan National Party — which is renowned for hard-line views against the Rohingya Muslim minority — was sentenced for treason and defamation over an allegedly inflammatory speech in January 2018, a day before deadly riots.
State-backed media at the time said he railed against the central government for treating the ethnic Rakhine as “slaves” and said it was the “right time” for the community to launch an armed struggle.
The following evening, Rakhine protesters briefly seized a government building and police opened fire, killing seven people.
Aye Maung and a fellow detainee — writer Wai Hin Aung, who also gave a speech at the same rally — were detained days later.
“Both Dr. Aye Maung and writer Wai Hin Aung were sentenced to 20 years each ... for the charge of high treason and two years each for defamation of the state,” Wai Hin Aung’s defense lawyer Aye Nu Sein said.
Myanmar’s Rakhine state is cut by violence and hatred.
A brutal military crackdown in 2017 forced some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims over the border into Bangladesh.
Yet the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population, some of whom are accused of aiding soldiers in the anti-Rohingya campaign, also feels marginalized by the state.
The lawyer said they were discussing whether to appeal.
Treason can carry the death sentence.
Supporters of the pair were enraged by the perceived persecution of two prominent Rakhine figures.
“This is not fair. This is oppression and bullying of ethnic Rakhine people,” one woman shouted in front of court, as the protesters spread to the center of the town.
In recent weeks, the military has waged war on the Arakan Army (AA), an armed group claiming to represent the ethnic Rakhine.
The group launched a brazen attack on police posts in early January that killed 13 officers and killed nine more policemen earlier this month.
The violence has spread to the ancient temple city of Mrauk U, the former capital of the Rakhine kingdom and a popular tourist site — the same town where Aye Maung gave his controversial speech last year.
Support for the AA has grown with the fighting, even though several thousand Rakhine have been forced from their homes by the violence.
A further 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine without citizenship, restricted to either camps or their villages, many unable to access medical care.
Much of northern Rakhine is in lockdown and information is difficult to verify independently.