The Burmese government has dismissed allegations made by a senior UN envoy, suggesting that police failed to protect his vehicle when it came under attack by an angry mob in the town of Meikhtila, as “totally wrong”.
A spokesperson for President Thein Sein told DVB that Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s human rights rapporteur for Burma, was protected by “nearly 3,000” police officers during his recent visit to the conflict-torn town and expressed surprise at the accusations.
“It is not true, it is totally wrong,” Ye Htut said on Thursday. “Maybe some people shouted at the side of the streets and maybe some people approached the vehicle when they tried to give him an open letter and t-shirt. [But] the police intervened and allowed the vehicle to proceed.”
Quintana told a press conference at Rangoon airport on Wednesday that the police stood by as his car was besieged by “a crowd of around 200 people who proceeded to punch and kick the windows and doors of the car while shouting abuse”.
The rapporteur was on a 10-day visit to the Buddhist-majority country, in part to investigate a series of violent incidents between Muslims and Buddhists which have spread across Burma over the last year, and which have increasingly targeted the Muslim minority.
He said he got “an insight” into the fear that Muslim residents would have felt when they were attacked by angry Buddhist mobs in Meikhtila in March and police failed to intervene. Quintana was subsequently forced to cancel a trip to a Muslim displacement camp in the town, which had been planned months in advance.
Quintana has been met with angry Buddhist protestors across Burma, who say he has been “biased” towards Muslims in his assessment of the clashes.
But Ye Htut insisted that police had ensured his safety and begun to disperse protestors in Meikhtila at 10pm, when a local curfew came into force.
“When Quintana arrived nearly 100 people were still in the area, but most of the people had already left,” he said.
But speaking to DVB on Thursday, Quintana insisted that he feared for his “personal integrity” and saw how police “stood by as these 200 people were all over my car”. He added that Burma’s chief of police had later “expressed his regret” over the incident and agreed to bolster security for his Wednesday press conference.
Asked why the UN envoy had cancelled his visit to the Meikhtila displacement camp, Ye Htut responded: “Maybe he didn’t want to face another protest like this.” But he said that police would hold a full investigation into the incident.
Over 140,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been displaced since the bloody ethno-religious clashes erupted in June last year. The violence corresponds with a rise in anti-Muslim propaganda led by the ultra-nationalist “969” movement, which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses and avoid interfaith marriages.
The government has drawn criticism for defending 969 as “peaceful” and describing its most vocal advocate, monk Wirathu, as a “son of Buddha” even though he has compared Muslims to “mad dogs”.
Quintana also accused the Arakan police of using “systematic” torture against incarcerated Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship and heavily persecuted in western Burma. Hundreds have been prosecuted and jailed for their role in last year’s unrest, after what he described as “flawed” trials.
He also cautioned that the government’s ongoing policy of segregation in Arakan state seems to have “become permanent” even though it was meant to have been transitory. “This policy of separation is mainly affecting Muslim communities because they have no freedom of movement.”
Quintana’s visit this week coincides with the launch of a report by Physicians for Human Rights, which warned that Burma’s Muslims are at “great risk” of mass atrocities, including genocide, unless the government moves swiftly to stem hate speech and a culture of impunity.