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By Aung Hla Tun and Jared Ferrie
YANGON (Reuters) - A Muslim businessman, his wife and an employee have been sentenced to prison after an altercation at their gold shop led to anti-Muslim riots in which at least 43 people were killed in Myanmar last month.
Shop owner Tun Tun Oo, his wife Myint Myint Aye and an employee, Nyi Nyi, were each jailed for 14 years on Thursday for assault and theft after an argument with a customer turned violent, according to the state-run Kyemon newspaper.
"That incident led to the outbreak of riots in Meikhtila," the newspaper said on Friday.
Sectarian violence threatens to derail political and economic reforms in Myanmar, which was ruled for decades by military regimes that brutally suppressed dissent.
Lifting restrictions on freedom of speech has allowed political dialogue but has also unleashed anti-Muslim rhetoric by radical Buddhist monks, delivered in speeches and then distributed through DVDs.
Witnesses said monks led some of the mobs and took part in the killings in the central Myanmar town of Meikhtila.
Witnesses told Reuters that on March 21, Tun Tun Oo slapped a Buddhist woman who had accused employees of damaging a gold hair clip she wanted to sell. The woman's husband was pulled outside, held down and beaten by three of the shop's staff, according to the couple and two witnesses.
A mostly Buddhist crowd gathered, hurling stones and shouting anti-Muslim insults, eventually destroying the shop and neighbouring businesses. Later that day, four Muslim men killed a Buddhist monk and Buddhist mobs went on the rampage.
By the time the government declared a state of emergency three days later, at least 43 people were dead, 86 injured and almost 13,000 Muslims were homeless, their houses and businesses burned to the ground. The rioting spread to towns and villages near the capital, Naypyitaw, and eventually reached areas just two hours' drive from Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon.
Police arrested more than 60 people after the riots in Meikhtila, state media reported. Thursday's convictions were the first in cases related to the trouble. Calls to the court in Meikhtila were not answered on Friday, a public holiday.
Some of those arrested were released after questioning, according to a lawyer from Mandalay, the regional capital.
The lawyer, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the trials, said about 50 people were still being detained, including two or three monks. Charges including murder, arson and robbery had been filed in 21 cases.
Kyaw Lin Htet, a Buddhist doctor in Meikhtila who treated victims of the riots, said a night-time curfew remained in force in the town.
"There are many rumours that some Muslims may try to take revenge," he said.
In an April 10 report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 8,441 people displaced by the violence remained in seven camps.
It said displaced people had been allowed to return to their damaged houses since April 6 to search through debris before the land is cleared to make way for rebuilding.
The government said 1,594 houses in and around Meikhtila were destroyed or damaged by arson.
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)