A U.N. human rights envoy on Monday visited refugee camps in Burma’s restive Rakhine state, where nearly 200 people were killed in communal violence last year, as part of a fact-finding mission on ethnic conflict in the country.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, who is on his seventh trip to Burma as the U.N. Special Rapporteur monitoring the rights situation in Burma, spent time speaking with refugees at camps in Myay Pone township near the state capital Sittwe.
He was accompanied by U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Burma Ashok Nigam.
Thousands remain homeless in the region following clashes between ethnic Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya communities in June and October last year which left 180 people dead. Refugees are now living in makeshift camps, many of which lack access to adequate health care, clean water, and basic provisions.
Quintana and Nigam held talks with Rakhine State Chief Minister Maung Tin early on Monday before meeting with several families in camps occupied by both Rakhine and Rohingya refugees.
Aung Win, a member of parliament from Myay Pone township, said Quintana interviewed the refugees about their situation in the camps and whether they felt that the two ethnic groups could live together peacefully as they had done before last year’s violence.
“He questioned three to four refugee families about whether they believed refugees from both sides could coexist peacefully if the government arranged for them to live together in the same area,” the Rakhine lawmaker told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“We ethnic Rakhines replied, ‘We don’t want to live together with [the Rohingyas]. If we lived together in the same area, we would constantly worry about the possibility of another conflict’,” he said.
“We don’t think they want to live together either.”
Quintana and Nigam later traveled to Pauktaw township to meet with additional refugees there.
They also planned to meet with Tun Aung, a former U.N. staffer who was imprisoned in Sittwe for his alleged involvement in the ethnic conflict last year.
Quintana’s six-day trip to Burma is his first visit since August last year, when he highlighted June violence in Rakhine state and called on the Burmese government to review its 1982 Citizenship Law, which limits citizenship to those who can prove their ancestors lived in the country.
The law bars citizenship rights to many of Burma’s 800,000 Rohingyas, who have been long viewed by the authorities and by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh even though many have lived in the country for generations.
The U.N. considers the Rohingyas to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Ahead of a landmark visit by U.S. President to Burma at the end of last year, Burmese President Thein Sein assured the international community that his government will consider resolving contentious rights issues facing the Rohingya, including the possibility of providing them citizenship.
During his visit, Quintana will also gather data on the conflicts in northern Burma’s Kachin state, where tens of thousands of people have fled fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military since June 2011 when a 17-year cease-fire agreement was shattered.
Last week, after more than a month of particularly fierce fighting, officials from the Burmese government and the KIA met for talks brokered by Beijing and agreed to hold another round of talks by the third week of February with the aim of reaching a "strong cease-fire."
Shortly after last week’s talks, the U.N.’s special adviser on Burma Vijay Nambiar visited refugee camps in Kachin state that had previously been closed to international aid groups, pledging to work with the Burmese government to deliver aid to those displaced by the recent clashes.
In addition to investigating Burma’s ongoing ethnic conflicts, Quintana will meet with government officials to discuss the release of the country’s remaining political prisoners, estimated to number in the hundreds.
Burma announced last week that it would establish a presidential steering committee to “grant liberty” to those imprisoned for voicing political dissent, in the government’s first public acknowledgement that it is holding political prisoners in the country’s jails.
Quintana is expected to meet with members of parliament, the judiciary, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and civil society organizations in Naypyitaw and Rangoon.
The special rapporteur will present his report on the human rights situation in Burma to the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council on March 11.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.