A UN human rights envoy on Wednesday said he had gained personal insight into the terror experienced by victims of communal violence in Burma over the last 14 months after a mob of 200 people attacked his convoy in Meikhtila while he toured the country this week.
Wrapping up an 11-day tour that included visits to four states and the country’s three biggest cities, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, acknowledged progress on several fronts since his last visit to the country in February, but said “critical challenges” remained.
“I believe that Myanmar is moving forward in a significant number of areas, which has brought positive changes to the human rights situation and have the potential to bring further improvements,” he said during a press conference at Rangoon International Airport to discuss his eighth trip to Burma since taking up the UN post in 2008. “However, there are still critical challenges, including the historical need for reconciliation with ethnic groups.”
In a wide-ranging assessment of the state of human rights in the country, covering everything from political prisoners and the Constitution to legislation under deliberation in Parliament and LGBT rights, Quintana spoke personally about the incident on Monday in the central Burma town of Meikhtila, where dozens of people were killed and thousands displaced earlier this year.
“My car was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of my car while shouting abuse. Due to this serious security concern, I had to abandon my proposed visit to an IDP [internally displaced persons] camp containing around 1,600 Muslims who had been displaced; a visit which I had planned well in advance.
“I want to tell you that the fear that I felt during this incident—being left totally unprotected by the nearby police—gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by the violent mob during the violence last March as police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death some 43 people.”
Quintana used the attack on his convoy in Meikhtila to emphasize the need to work toward eliminating a culture of impunity in Burma.
“I must highlight the obligation of the government of Myanmar to act immediately to control violent mobs running wild in communities and protect all people, regardless of religion or ethnicity.”
The March violence in central Burma was preceded by inter-communal clashes last year in western Arakan State that, as was the case in Meikhtila, pitted Buddhists against Muslims.
Quintana’s visit to Burma got off to a bumpy start last week when he was greeted in Arakan State by about 90 Arakanese Buddhist protesters, some of whom carried signs urging the “one-sided Bengali lobbyist” to “get out,” reflecting perceptions among some that the UN envoy is biased in favor of the state’s Rohingya Muslims. Many in Burma—including the government—refer to the Rohingya as Bengalis.
The human rights situation in Arakan State has drawn international attention and condemnation, with rights groups and foreign leaders alike expressing concern over the humanitarian conditions of some 140,000 IDPs who live in 76 squalid camps outside of the state’s townships. The IDPs, most of whom are Rohingyas, were driven from their homes in two bouts of inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims last year. The Rohingyas have faced systemic discrimination for decades and are denied citizenship by the government, which contends that they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Just days before Quintana’s arrival, police opened fire on crowds of Rohingya Muslims in IDP camps outside of Sittwe, the state capital, in the latest instance of violence to hit the troubled region. At least one Rohingya was reportedly killed by police bullets and several others were wounded by the gunfire.
Despite the violence on Aug. 9, Quintana on Wednesday insisted that “the state and central government are working well with the international community to address urgent humanitarian needs of both Rakhine [Arakan] Buddhists and the Muslim community.”
The independent UN investigator met with religious leaders from Arakan State’s Buddhist and Muslim communities last week, in the process taking flak from local media and Arakanese residents for allegedly showing greater deference to the Muslim leaders he spoke to than he did for their Buddhist counterparts.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Quintana pushed back against accusations of bias.
“Let me reaffirm that I have a willingness to work for the human rights of all the people of Myanmar. … I am ready also to talk to those who disagree with my approach and with my opinions. I did it in Rakhine State, I stepped off my car and I talked to the protesters,” he said. “The condition is that it has to be a peaceful dialogue and that’s the challenge in Myanmar with respect to this issue.”
In Kachin State, Quintana met last week with government officials and representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), but was denied access to the KIO stronghold of Laiza on the Sino-Burmese border, with the government citing security concerns.
“This pattern of denying access, not only to address humanitarian shortcomings but also serious human rights concerns, needs to change immediately,” Quintana said on Wednesday.
The UN estimates that about 100,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan State have been displaced since fighting between government troops and the KIO’s militant wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), began in June 2011. Only one UN aid convoy has reached IDPs in KIA-controlled areas in more than a year due to the government’s ostensible inability to assure the safety of humanitarian workers seeking to make the aid deliveries.
Quintana will submit a final report on his visit this month to the UN General Assembly in October.