Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights visited Burma last week on a 10-day mission to areas hit by waves of ethnic and sectarian violence over the past year. In Meikhtila, where thousands of mostly Muslim people were displaced by fighting in March, Quintana said his vehicle was overrun by a mob of some 200 people who kicked and shouted abuse. The comments drew international attention, and a rejection from the Burmese government which insisted he was well protected and the group only wanted to give him a letter and a T-shirt.
Quintana also visited the previously inaccessible Chin state and Burmese political prisoners. He spoke with VOA in Bangkok late Friday.
What is your overall assessment of Burma's human rights situation and how the international community should respond to the events of the past year?
“Myanmar has moved forward in many different areas, and this has brought an improvement of the human rights situation in general. It has also the potential to improve more for human rights in the future so there is a challenge for the government to really continue in this right direction. The international community has also responsibility to support the government in this regard. But also, and most importantly according to my views, is to keep on the agenda of the reform process the human rights. That's my message to the international community.”
“Myanmar has changed dramatically as I say the situation has improved, also dramatically in many many different areas but there are still serious shortcomings and that's why the general assembly the country member states of the United Nations had the responsibility to help Myanmar in keeping the human rights as one of the priorities in the process of reform.”
You were in the very remote and isolated Chin state for the first time. What was your impression?
“This was my first time in five years in the mandate to visit Chin state. I need first to express my appreciation to the government for arranging this visit. Logistically speaking it was very difficult, and the government put all their efforts in this regard. Chin state, it's a very important state in Myanmar framework. It's a state which is totally underdeveloped this is my first judgment in respect to Chin state. It's a lack of electricity, it's a lack of drinking water. There's no roads. And Chin state has somehow been abandoned by the previous government, the military government throughout the years, and it's the time for this new government who is going through this transition to really also pay attention of the people living in Chin state. Another issue in Chin state is a question of freedom of religion. You may know that most of the people living in Chin state are Christians, and [there] have been some allegations that for example students going to Na Ta La schools, these are schools on the border areas, have been converted from Christian to Buddhism and there are concerns in this respect. And from my point of view being on mission in Chin state I couldn't find specific evidence in this respect but we need to pay attention on how the freedom of religions of the people of the community living in Chin state are respected. Because in the past there have been serious incidents where crosses were destroyed and these kind of incidents. This happened in the past. Now the situation has improved in this respect but we need to pay attention on that.”
You raised concerns about the possibility for the communities of Rakhine state to reconcile after the violence. Please elaborate.
“After this mission just some days ago, I found that this policy of separating communities and segregation which was meant to be transitory at the beginning just to avoid more violence, it seems that this policy is becoming permanent. And the problem there is that this is affecting mostly the Muslim community. Because in the IDP camps where the Muslim community are, or in the villages in Sittwe, which are all blocked with armed guards around, they are not being allowed to move from there. There is a problem with the freedom of movement with these communities, with the Muslim communities they could not make up their livelihood and this is bringing a lot of concerns from the humanitarian point of view. So I think that the challenge is how to move forward from this policy of separating communities which is quite difficult, because as you just said, there is a lack of trust among communities, clear lack of trust, which was evident during the violent incidents last year. The government of Myanmar has a challenge on how to overcome that, on how to get these communities together to start finding solutions.”
Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut claimed you were mistaken to believe the police failed to protect you from the crowd you encountered in Meikhtila, and you mistakenly understood them to be a violent mob. Would you like to amend your account of the events?
“I would like to refer to my statement. My statement describes the facts of what happened the description of what happened is quite clear. Let me just maybe make two or three points. First I never said it was an attack just described the facts and I never also said that these 200 mob who descended on my car were Buddhists I cannot say that and I want to make a clarification on that and I want to say that it was not only me in that incident violent incident it was also the resident coordinator of the United Nations in Myanmar who also faced that same violent approach and also three people working for the United Nations.”
What was it that you saw that lead you to believe the police were unable to protect you? Were they standing by without acting?
“That's correct, you said it, I saw the police nearby just stood by, without really interfering what this mob was actually doing, which was very violent reaction against this rapporteur. And immediately came to my mind, that the people who suffered the violence in Meikhtila were under the same situation, where the police was not intervening. They were subject for hours to people totally exacerbated with the violence, for hours, so that's why I thought that the best way to make everybody know about what happened is to just let them know what I felt at that moment was the same inside of this Muslim community from Meikhtila might have suffered which caused the death of more than 43 people who were killed by kicks, stabbed and fire. So this is the main point.”
Do you believe the ongoing peace process in Kachin state is credible?
“Absolutely. There is a genuine willingness from President Thein Sein and those working with him towards stopping the fighting in Myanmar and this has to be supported from this special rapporteur. Many cease-fire agreements have been reached, there are some others that are still under negotiations we need to support this because Myanmar has suffered for decades the consequences of the internal armed conflict between the government the armed forces from Myanmar the Tatmadaw, and armed groups. This is the time we should start solving this problem now. What I can say is this: that in parallel to this process that the president is leading, what is needed is that the ordinary people the communities at the grass root level are included in this process so they can feel they can trust that this process is genuine and they can feel that this process can bring a change for their future. I travel around Myanmar and it's difficult to see that these communities are really seeing this cease-fire process, which I commend, but the communities are seeing this process as a step forward with respect to their livelihoods.”
You visited Mae Sot, and spoke with people in the refugee camps. What is your estimation of how viable it is for them to return to their homes after the conflict?
“There is a lot of expectations, but also a lot of fears. When memories came from what happened to them from what made them flee the country so what is actually needed at this moment, together with the process of reaching cease-fire agreements from the government side, what is needed is a clear plan on how the returning will be. Because there are issues of land mines, there are issues of people have lost their land, there is still a lot of fear, although many years has passed from the conflict, there is still a lot of fear from the refugees to return to Myanmar. So there is a challenge. Also for the government, they should start working on a very specific plan for the returning together with the U.N., the help of the U.N. and other international agencies.”