SITTWE, Myanmar – A Myanmar court sentenced on Tuesday a prominent politician in restive Rakhine state to 22 years in prison on treason charges.
Aye Maung, 61, a member of parliament from Ann Township in Rakhine and co-founder of the Arakan National Party, was sentenced for a January 2018 speech in which he had accused the central government of treating “Rakhine people as slaves.”
The politician had also allegedly favored armed struggle during his speech at the event to mark to mark the 233rd anniversary of the fall of the Arakan Kingdom to the Burmese in 1785.
His lawyer San Shwe Maung told EFE that they intended to appeal the sentencing.
The court also sentenced writer Wai Hin Aung to 22 years in prison for his similar comments during the same event in Rathedaung on Jan. 15, 2018.
The two were arrested days after the event last year. On Sept. 10, the Rakhine district court accepted charges of high treason and public mischief against them.
Rakhine state – earlier known as Arakan – for the larger part of its history was an independent kingdom until it was taken over by Myanmar.
It has seen several conflicts between the Buddhist Bamar-dominated government and nationalists of Rakhine Buddhist ethnicity who seek autonomy.
In the past few years, tensions have evolved into an armed conflict between the Myanmar armed forces and fighters of the Arakan Army that was formed in 2009.
Since December 2018, more than 5,000 people have been displaced due to increasing hostilities between government forces and the rebels.
Within the complex web of conflicts, Rakhine nationalists are also against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community considered to be Bengali immigrants as Myanmar does not recognize their citizenship rights.
Aye Maung’s Arakan National Party is known for its hardline views against the Rohingya Muslim minority which has faced deadly persecution at the hands of the Myanmar security forces.
More than 723,000 Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 due to a military campaign that, according to the UN, carried genocidal intent and ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar authorities have denied the allegations and said the operations were a response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a rebel group which had attacked a number of police posts on Aug. 25, 2017.
Rakhine, situated in a coastal area along the western border of the country, is rich in natural resources and occupies a key geostrategic position, although it also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.