Arakanese Protesters Greet UN Envoy in West Burma

By Lawi Weng 13 August 2013

RANGOON—The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, was greeted by a group of Arakanese protesters when he landed at the airport in Sittwe, the Arakan State capital, on Monday.

About 90 ethnic Arakanese people came out to the demonstration, with some holding a banner that described the UN envoy as a “one-sided Bengali lobbyist” and urged him to leave the west Burma state, which is his first stop on an 11-day visit to assess the human rights situation in several areas of the country.

Ahead of the visit, deadly clashes broke out in Arakan State on Friday, with local authorities reportedly firing on a crowd of Rohingya Muslims, a minority group who have faced persecution in the country and who are widely viewed by Arakanese Buddhists as illegal Bengali immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Last year, the UN rapporteur drew criticism from Arakanese activists and some 24 political parties after submitting a report to the United Nations about communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the state. Critics said the report was biased, favoring the Rohingya, and they called on the United Nations to remove Quintana from his post.

“We were not satisfied with the report he issued to the UN,” said Nyo Aye, an Arakanese woman who organized the protest in Sittwe on Monday. “This is why our people protested.”

“If he understands human rights, he will also talk to the Arakanese people before submitting reports to the UN next time,” she added. “I told him the report hurt our Arakanese dignity and was biased, because he did not talk to both sides.”

Two rounds of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State last year—in June and October—left about 170 people dead and an additional 140,000 people displaced, according to the United Nations. Most of the displaced were Rohingya.

International activists have criticized the government’s handling of the conflict, and Human Rights Watch has accused security forces of complicity in the violence.

Nyo Aye told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that Quintana hosted talks with the protesters in Sittwe and promised to listen to both sides as he continues to assess the rights situation.

The protesters gave Quintana a written letter from an Arakanese Buddhist leader, Tha Pwint, who criticized the UN envoy for inflaming tensions.

“We do not seem to get any justice by meeting with you and talking together,” Tha Pwint wrote, according to a copy of the letter sent to The Irrawaddy. “We feel like victims.”

Some Arakanese blamed Muslims for the violence last year and continue to allege that Rohingya are instigating problems.

Nyo Aye said she told Quintana that Muslims had cut down trees and destroyed bridges to block local authorities from visiting the Buduwa IDP camp in Sittwe, where police reportedly clashed with a crowd of people on Friday.

Gunfire rang out in two separate incidents that day in Sittwe, starting after an angry mob gathered outside a police outpost in the morning demanding that the body of a fellow Rohingya who had drowned Thursday be handed over. Police reportedly refused to provide the body, provoking a skirmish between the two sides.

Local sources said later that evening another clash took place at the Buduwa camp. Police there reportedly fired into a crowd that had gathered in relation to the drowning victim.

At least two Rohingya Muslims were killed by police and seven others were injured in the incidents, according to the regional government. Citing a “Rohingya spokesman,” the Rangoon-based Myanmar Times newspaper reported that at least five people were killed.

Quintana has visited Burma eight times since being appointed as a UN special rapporteur on human rights in 2008, when the country was still ruled by a military regime. During his current visit, he will also travel to Kachin, Shan and Chin states, as well as the town of Meikhtila in Mandalay Division, where anti-Muslim riots erupted in March this year.

The United Nations has assisted with efforts to aid the 140,000 people displaced in Arakan State. The IDPs are currently staying in 76 camps and other temporary shelters, with government restrictions imposed on their movements.

Movement restrictions on Rohingya Muslims have also left as any as 36,000 people isolated in communities in several townships, including Minbya, Myebon, Pauktaw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Sittwe, according to the United Nations. These communities have been affected socially and economically, with limited or no access to basic services including markets, education and health care.