YANGON (Reuters) - A U.N. human rights envoy said a 200-strong mob attacked his car in central Myanmar this week, kicking windows and doors and shouting abuse, as he arrived to investigate Buddhist-led violence against Muslims, but the government said he was mistaken.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, said the attack occurred on Monday at about 10.30 p.m. in Meikhtila, where a wave of anti-Muslim riots in March killed at least 43 people, destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands.
Ojea Quintana’s accusations of a mob attack underscore the challenges Myanmar’s reformist government faces in containing violence and pacifying long-simmering tensions in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries.
“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 violent mobs during the violence last March,” he told reporters late on Wednesday.
The Myanmar government denied the attack.
“I‘m so sorry that Mr. Quintana, as usual, seems to have said quite the opposite of what really happened on the ground,” said presidential spokesman Ye Htut.
“These people were waiting just to stage a peaceful protest and to give him a letter of protest. Some of them knocked on his car window to give him the letter but they didn’t open it and the police finally drove them away,” he said.
Ojea Quintana made the comments at the end of a 10-day visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in which he toured regions worst affected by repeated anti-Muslim violence in the Buddhist-majority country, where 49 years of military rule ended in March 2011.
In some regions, signs have emerged of ethnic cleansing, and of impunity for those inciting it, threatening the country’s historic democratic transition.
In Meikhtila, a city of 100,000, just 130 km (80 miles) north of the capital of Naypyitaw, nearly 13,000 people, mostly Muslims, were driven from their homes and businesses in March. Many now still live in crowded camps for internally displaced people (IDP).
After the attack on his car, Ojea Quintana abandoned a plan to visit an IDP camp housing about 1,600 Muslims and urged the government to do more to control violent mobs.
He praised Myanmar’s reformist government for making “positive changes to the human rights situation”, citing President Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political prisoners by year’s end.
But he painted a grim picture of Rakhine State, where clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims in June and October 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000, most of them Muslims. Afterwards, the authorities imposed apartheid-like policies segregating Rohingya Muslims from Buddhists.
The separation of the two communities “is becoming increasingly permanent, making the restoration of trust difficult”, he said. “This continues to have a particularly negative impact on the Muslim community.”
Severe restrictions on freedom of movement for Muslims had “serious consequences” for access to healthcare, education and livelihoods, he said. Access to healthcare was further hampered by local groups intimidating humanitarian workers trying to serve the camps, he said.
In Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, Ojea Quintana visited Aung Mingalar, the last Muslim-dominated quarter remaining after last year’s violence.
The quarter is locked down by police and soldiers who patrol all streets leading in and out. Muslims can’t leave without written permission from Buddhist local authorities, which Muslims told Reuters was almost impossible to secure.
Ojea Quintana said he heard many serious allegations of the use of “excessive force” in dealing with Muslim crowds, including a recent incident in which police in Sittwe opened fire with live ammunition to disperse Muslim protesters, killing two people.
He said prisons in Sittwe and the northern township of Buthidaung were filled with hundreds of Muslim men and women, many of whom “have been arbitrarily detained and tried in flawed trials”.
But he said he had received assurances that authorities in Rakhine state had dropped a controversial two-child limit on Rohingya families that sparked international outrage earlier this year.
Writing by Jason Szep. Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Nick Macfie