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The UN’s rights envoy on Burma Wednesday slammed the nation’s government for failing to protect him when his convoy came under attack in a town reeling from religious unrest.
“The state has to protect me as a responsibility… This did not happen. The state failed to protect me,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, told reporters at the end of his 10 day visit to the country.
No one is thought to have been injured in the incident, which occurred on August 19 in the town of Meikhtila, central Burma, where anti-Muslim violence in March left at least 44 dead.
In a statement the UN envoy said his vehicle “was descended upon by a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of the car while shouting abuse”.
He said the incident forced him to abandon plans to visit a local camp, where some 1,600 displaced Muslims are sheltering.
“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 said.
He reiterated reports of security forces failing to stop the March unrest, saying “police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned” their victims to death.
Attacks against Muslims — who make up an estimated four percent of Burma’s population — have exposed deep fractures in the Buddhist-majority nation and cast a shadow over its emergence from army rule.
The watchdog Physicians for Human Rights on Tuesday warned that Burma risked “catastrophic” levels of conflict, including “potential crimes against humanity and/or genocide” if authorities failed to stem anti-Muslim hate speech and a culture of impunity around the clashes.
Riots in Meiktila, sparked by an argument in a gold shop and the brutal murder of a Buddhist monk, saw Buddhist mobs torch whole Muslim areas in violence that spread to other parts of the country.
The victims included more than 20 students and teachers of a Muslim school on the outskirts of Meiktila, who were set upon by armed men and beaten and burned to death, according to witnesses interviewed by AFP.
Graphic video footage given to AFP by activists shows an embankment next to the school turned into a killing ground, watched over by uniformed police.
After the March violence, Quintana said the reluctance of security forces to crack down on the unrest suggested a possible state link to the fighting — a claim rejected by the government.
The unrest followed two outbreaks of conflict in western Rakhine state in June and October last year that left around 200 people dead, mainly Rohingya Muslims who are seen by many in Burma as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
A sense of deep distrust between Muslims, Buddhists and the security forces pervades the state, which Quintana visited at the start of his trip.
At least one person was killed and around 10 injured earlier this month in a violent clash in a camp for dispossessed Rohingya Muslims in Arakan that broke out just days before Quintana toured the area.
In June, five Muslims including three Rohingya women were killed by security forces who opened fire during disputes in two separate incidents in camps in Arakan.