Three aid workers – accused of inciting violence in the recent sectarian clashes in Arakan state – have been sentenced to jail by a local Burmese court, a UN spokesperson confirmed today.
A Maungdaw court on Friday handed hefty jail terms to three Burmese nationals employed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), one of their partner NGOs and the World Food Programme (WFP). They are all believed to be Muslims.
According to the Associated Press, the aid workers were given jail terms of six, three and two years respectively for charges that included inciting religious hatred and participating in arson attacks. But UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan told DVB that they had heard conflicting reports over the past few days and still needed to confirm the details.
“What we do know is that one of our staff members were convicted – we don’t know for how long and what the charges are, because we’ve never really been told,” said Vivian Tan in a telephone interview on Monday. “We’ve been asking to meet [the workers] and we’ve been asking for more information, but we’ve had none of that so far.”
Twelve local aid workers were arrested without any official explanation in the wake of deadly sectarian violence that ripped through Arakan state in June, killing at least 87 people and displacing tens of thousands.
Opaque criminal proceedings have since been pursued against an undisclosed number of them, despite repeated international calls for access.
Six aid workers were reportedly freed earlier this month, including staff from UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders and the Netherlands-based AZG. 73-year old Kyaw Hla Aung from AZG recently told RFA that he was accused of having terrorist links and arrested under Article 505 of Burma’s penal code.
“An hour or two before I was arrested, my home was raided. I don’t know by whom. All my papers and documents were scattered outside my house,” he said. “They said I had links to Al Qaeda.”
The Burmese government has come under heavy criticism for their handling of the Arakan crisis, including accusations of targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and widely discriminated against by the government.
Several Muslim governments have pressured President Thein Sein to act after rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, accused the military-backed regime of state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya.
On Friday, Thein Sein – who has previously talked of expelling the minority from Burma — angered nationalists by accusing Arakanese politicians and Buddhist monks of fuelling anti-Rohingya bigotry.
Although the move has been seen as diplomatically reconciliatory, his persistent use of the term “Bengali Muslims” for the Rohingya suggests the group cannot expect citizenship in the near future.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently raised eyebrows for welcoming a controversial commission set up to investigate the violence, which has no Rohingya representatives, without acknowledging the missing UN staff. The global body has yet to release a formal statement on their continued detention.
“We are continuing to press for access at different levels in Yangon [Rangoon], locally and [internationally],” said Vivian Tan. “We are hoping that talking to the authorities at all levels is going to make a difference.”
Tensions flared in Arakan state after the rape and murder of an Arakanese girl in late May, allegedly by three Muslims, led to a brutal revenge attack on ten Muslim pilgrims. It brought to the fore long-standing tensions between ethnic Arakanese and the Rohingya minority, considered “illegal Bengali immigrants” by the government and widely distrusted in Burmese society.