SITTWE (Myanmar) • A Myanmar court yesterday sentenced a prominent ethnic Rakhine leader to 20 years in jail for treason, in 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 Sittwe, state capital of Rakhine, as Aye Maung was escorted to a police van following the verdict.
Aye Maung, former chairman of the Arakan National Party - which is renowned for its hardline views against the Rohingya Muslim minority - was sentenced for treason and defamation over an inflammatory speech he made at a rally in January last year, a day before deadly riots.
State-backed media at the time reported he had railed against the central government for treating ethnic Rakhine people 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 defence lawyer Aye Nu Sein told Agence France-Presse.
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 feel marginalised by the state.
The lawyer said they were discussing whether to appeal. Treason can carry the death sentence.
Supporters were enraged by the perceived persecution of two prominent Rakhine figures.
"This is not fair. This is oppression and bullying of ethnic Rakhine people," a woman shouted in front of the court, as the protesters spread to the centre of the town.
In recent weeks, the military has waged war on the Arakan Army, an armed group claiming to represent the ethnic Rakhine people.
The group launched a brazen attack on police posts in early January that killed 13 officers and earlier this month killed nine more policemen.
The violence has spread to the ancient temple city of Mrauk U, former capital of the Rakhine kingdom and a popular tourist site - and the same town where Aye Maung gave his controversial speech last year.
Support for the Arakan Army has grown with the fighting, even though several thousand Rakhine people 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.