The Myanmar government and police on Friday rejected a U.N. human rights envoy’s claims that a mob attacked his car and that he was not given protection while he visited a town reeling from sectarian violence.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana said in a press statement before leaving the country on Wednesday that he was forced to abandon his visit to a Muslim refugee camp in Meikhtila after about 200 protesters punched and kicked the windows and doors of his car while shouting abuse.
He blamed the authorities for leaving him "totally unprotected" from a "serious" security threat.
Ye Htut, deputy minister of information and a spokesman for President Thein Sein, said at a press conference Friday that the crowd had gathered to “protest peacefully” and that police had performed their duties appropriately by dispersing protesters.
“They tried to give him a letter and a t-shirt. That is true, but it is not true that people kicked his car as he said,” Ye Htut said, speaking at the Ministry of Industry in Naypyidaw, the capital.
Although the crowd waiting for Quintana had started out with some 300 or 400 people, only about 100 remained by the time the envoy arrived, he said.
Ye Htut said he believed Quintana had made a personal statement and that if he wanted to make a formal complaint as a U.N. representative he should do it through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
If the incident had been as violent as Quintana claimed, journalists on the scene would have reported it immediately, he said.
Quintana was visiting the town to investigate deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes in March and visit an internally displaced persons camp housing some 1,600 Muslims displaced by the violence.
The violence, which followed deadly clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and ethnic minority Rohingyas in western Myanmar last year, exposed deep fractures in the Buddhist-majority country.
In his statement Quintana had likened the fear he felt in Meikhtila to that experienced by residents amid the failure of security forces to protect them from the March mob violence.
A senior Meikhtila police officer, Htun Naing, said that police had tried to control the situation at the scene and that he did not consider the incident an attack.
“We protected him,” Htun Naing told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We did what we had to do and what we always do.”
He said there were fewer than 100 protesters on the scene after Quintana’s delayed arrival had led most of them to return home.
Police had asked protesters to leave in time for the 10:00 curfew before Quintana’s convoy arrived around 10:30 p.m., he said, adding that he believed Quintana had intentionally delayed his visit until after the curfew.
“We thought his group was not coming as it was late, and when they arrived in town we were already preparing to go home.”
One protester said that the crowd had waited for Quintana since 1:30 p.m. to hand him a letter saying they rejected Quintana’s most recent report to the U.N. on human rights in Myanmar and recommendations to give Rohingya Muslims full citizenship.
He said there had been several trucks of armed police nearby ready to protect Quintana and that he believed the envoy had not been in any danger.
“What he said was not true. There were enough security forces for him,” he told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“How could the people attack his car surrounded by security that extensive?”
Protesters, who had applied to local authorities for permission to gather, had knocked on the window of Quintana’s car in order to ask him to roll it down so that they could hand him the letter, he said.
Since the car did not stop, in the end district officials took the letter and promised to deliver it to Quintana, the protester said.
The letter contained complaints against Quintana’s recent report to the U.N. on human rights in Myanmar and against U.N. recommendations to give minority Rohingyas full citizenship, according to the protester.
Quintana faced several smaller protests during his 10-day visit to Myanmar, most of them by Buddhists who feel the U.N. and other international agencies are tilting relief and reconstruction efforts in favor of Muslim communities.
In his statement Quintana did not identify those who attacked his car, but the Associated Press quoted him as saying that they were Buddhists.
Win Htein, Meikhtila lawmaker for the opposition National League for Democracy, said the protesters included supporters of the “969 movement,” a nationalist anti-Muslim group led by prominent Buddhist monk Wirathu.
Police had had trouble controlling the situation because the chaos had not been expected, he added.
“Police didn’t expect this to happen,” he told RFA.
Prominent Myanmar civil society organization the 88 Generation Students group said members of their local chapter were among those at the protest against Quintana—a protest that the central group does not support.
“Holding a protest against Quintana is not in accordance with the 88 Generation Student Groups’ policy, and the 88 Generation leaders did not ask them [the Meikhtila local branch] to do so,” Zin Maw, one of the group’s leaders, told RFA.
“Mr. Quintana has been working to promote human rights in Myanmar. People are entitled to have different opinions from Mr. Quintana, but displaying their attitudes in this way is not good and could destroy the country’s image.”
During his own visit to Meikhtila shortly after the clashes erupted, Zin Maw and other 88 Generation Students Group leaders including Min Ko Naing had observed that police responses had been inadequate, with security forces “standing around” instead of taking action to control the clashes.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.