A key United Nations human rights expert arrived in Rangoon Sunday to assess the recent violence in Burma's Rakhine state as the global body called for a "prompt, independent investigation" into alleged rights violations following clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim communities there.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana, an independent expert designated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Burma, is on a six-day visit at the invitation of the Burmese government.
His arrival followed concerns expressed at the weekend by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay over reports that she said indicated that the initial government response to the violence may have turned into a crackdown targeting Muslims, particularly the Rohingya minority.
The U.N. considers the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Pillay welcomed the government of President Thein Sein's decision to allow Quintana's access to Rakhine state during his mission to Burma, saying it was "important that those affected from all communities in Rakhine are able to speak freely" to him.
"But while he will be able to make an initial assessment during his one-day visit [to Rakhine state], this is no substitute for a fully-fledged independent investigation," she said in a statement in Geneva
The latest crisis in Rakhine state was triggered on May 28, when an ethnic Rakhine woman was raped and murdered, followed by the killing of 10 Muslims by an unidentified mob on June 3. Official figures showed more than 70,000 people were displaced in the ensuing violence and that at least 78 died, but unofficial estimates have been higher.
“We have been receiving a stream of reports from independent sources alleging discriminatory and arbitrary responses by security forces, and even their instigation of and involvement in clashes,” Pillay said.
The High Commissioner said the crisis highlights "the long-standing and systemic discrimination" against the Rohingya, who are not recognised by the state and remain stateless.
“The Government has a responsibility to prevent and punish violent acts, irrespective of which ethnic or religious group is responsible, without discrimination and in accordance with the rule of law,” Pillay said.
She expressed dismay at what she called derogatory language used against the Rohingya by state media, some independent media, and by some users of social networking websites.
She noted earlier government commitments to conduct an investigation, and a recent fact-finding mission to Rakhine state by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission—Burma's independent national human rights body, consisting of 15 retired bureaucrats and academics.
Pillay called on all Burmese leaders to speak out against discrimination, the exclusion of minorities and racist attitudes, and in support of equal rights for all in the country, and stressed that the United Nations was making an effort to protect and assist all communities in Rakhine State.
“Prejudice and violence against members of ethnic and religious minorities run the risk of dividing the country in its commendable national reconciliation efforts, undermine national solidarity, and upset prospects of peace-building," she said.
Earlier this month, President Thein Sein caused a stir when he requested the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR to place Rohingyas in refugee camps or send them out of the country, saying the ethnic minority is made up of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and that Burma “cannot accept them.”
His request was immediately refused by the U.N. agency.
The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference said it was "shocked by the unfortunate remarks" of Thien Sein "disowning Rohingya Muslims as citizens of Myanmar."
OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said that Burma, as a U.N. member, "must adhere to the international human rights instruments including the relevant conventions and declarations, in treatment of their citizens."
Bangladesh, where an estimated 300,000 Rohingyas live, has turned back boatloads of the oppressed group arriving on its shores since the outbreak of the unrest.
Quintana is expected to meet President Thein Sein on Friday following his trip to Rakhine state.
"We do not know what they will discuss. But of course the Rakhine state situation will be the main issue," a Burmese government official told Agence France-Presse, asking to remain anonymous.
Quintana, in a separate statement issued in Geneva, hoped that "significant progress" on reforms in Burma under Thein Sein's government "will culminate in the creation of a peaceful and vibrant democracy that respects human rights and upholds the rule of law.”
“At the same time, Myanmar [Burma] is confronted with ongoing human rights challenges, including in relation to the recent violence in Rakhine state, as well as continuing armed conflict, particularly in Kachin state," he said.
Fighting between government troops and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has forced tens of thousands from their homes in northern Kachin state.
"My visit to the country will help me to assess these developments and challenges for the purpose of my upcoming report to the General Assembly,” Quintana said
He is also scheduled to meet with government officials, members of parliament, the National Human Rights Commission, and civil society in the capital Naypyitaw and Rangoon.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.