U.N. Human Right Rapporteur on Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana addresses journalists during a press conference prior to his departure from the Yangon airport on August 21, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Soe Than WIN
YANGON: A U.N. human rights envoy visiting Myanmar said Wednesday that a confrontation he had with an angry mob made him empathize with victims of the country's deadly sectarian violence.
Tomas Ojea Quintana said 200 angry Buddhists mobbed his car after he landed this week in the central town of Meikhtila to study reconciliation efforts between Buddhists and Muslims. He said it was a terrifying experience that hammered home the level of tension in the region. "I felt during this incident, being totally unprotected," he told a news conference wrapping up his 10-day visit to the country.
"It gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt" when they were chased, beaten and killed by Buddhist mobs in the town in March, he said. About 40 people were killed. The unrest began last year in the western state of Rakhine, where Buddhists accuse the Rohingya Muslim community of illegally entering the country to steal their land.
The violence, on a smaller scale but still deadly, spread earlier this year to other parts of Myanmar - including Meikhtila - and has stirred up prejudice against Muslims. Nationwide, more than 250 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes. Most of the victims have been Muslims. Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist.
Buddhists feel that the U.N. and other international agencies are ignoring their complaints, and tilting relief and reconstruction efforts in favor of the Muslim community. Visitors to Rakhine note that Muslims make up the majority of the homeless and live in refugee camps in miserable conditions, without adequate sanitation or medical and educational facilities.
The attacks and the government's inability to contain the sectarian tensions are proving a major challenge for President Thein Sein's administration as it attempts to move toward democracy and greater freedom. The U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights, in a report released Tuesday, blamed the government for failing "to protect vulnerable groups" and allowing "a culture of impunity for the violators," and called on the government to conduct thorough investigations and prosecute those responsible.
Quintana's ordeal recalled the difficulties previous U.N. envoys had in dealing with Myanmar before military rule ended in 2011, when they sometimes were barred from meeting people, snubbed by officials and even denied entry to the country. Quintana said mobs surrounded his convoy during a stopover in Meikhtila on Monday, forcing him to cut short his planned visit to a camp for displaced Muslims.
"On my way to the township administrative office . my car was surrounded by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the window and doors of the car while shouting abuse," he said. "Due to these serious security concerns, I had to abandon my proposed visit to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp containing around 1,600 Muslims who had been displaced following the March violence."
"The state has the responsibility to protect a special rapporteur like me coming from the United Nations," he said in response to a question. "The state has failed to protect me." He faced more peaceful protests on other stops.
During his visit, Quintana also met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars two years after the country's military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government.
He also went to Kachin state, scene of a decades-long insurgency. He said he was very distressed to hear that U.N. humanitarian organizations have only been allowed access to non-government-controlled areas there once in the last year.
Quintana thanked the government for organizing the wide-ranging visit and the access granted to him, and said during his visit to Chin state, he found that restrictions on Christians have eased notably this year.
It was Quintana's eighth trip to Myanmar since being named U.N. rights rapporteur. He will present his findings to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 24.