YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A United Nations human rights expert began a weeklong visit to Myanmar on Monday by focusing on deadly strife between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that shook a western area in June.
Tomas Ojea Quintana met with the minister of border affairs for a briefing on the situation in northwestern Rakhine state. At least 78 people were killed and tens of thousands made homeless when their dwellings were burned.
Although the violence apparently crested in June, human rights groups and several Islamic nations have recently called for an outside investigation and protection for the Rohingya community, saying it faces continuing abuse.
Senior Myanmar officials issued a strong defense of their handling of the issue Monday, with Foreign Minister Wunnna Maung Lwin insisting that the government had "exercised maximum restraint in order to restore law and order."
Quintana plans to visit the area on Tuesday and told reporters he would reserve comment until after his trip.
In a pre-arrival statement, he mentioned the violence in Rakhine — which rights groups say mostly targeted the Rohingya — as one of the "challenges" facing Myanmar despite recent political reforms.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups and many in the country consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The United Nations says there are about 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and considers them to be among the most persecuted people in the world.
Quintana's evaluation is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein after decades of repressive military rule.
The human right groups Amnesty International recently said the Rohingya are increasingly being hit with targeted attacks that have included killings, rape and physical abuse. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been asked by member states including Tunisia and Iran to press for measures to help the Rohingya, whom they say face systematic repression.
At a news conference, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunnna Maung Lwin said his country "totally rejects the attempts by some quarters to politicize and internationalize this situation as a religious issue."
"The Myanmar government strongly rejects the accusations by some quarters that abuses and excessive use of force were made by the authorities in dealing with the situation," he said, adding that "The situation is now returning to normal."
The U.N. has a direct interest in the Rakhine issue because five workers for the world body's refugee agency are among 858 people still detained by authorities in connection with the unrest. Five other workers for international aid agencies are also in detention.
Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay, also at the news conference, insisted the aid workers "were involved with violence."
"They were not concerned with U.N. responsibilities," he said. "They themselves were involved in setting fire to villages. We have the evidence and we have witnesses and they are being put on trial."
He said many Muslim clerics had "closely monitored and ordered and persuaded people to carry out assaults and burn houses."
Thein Htay also blamed the political plans of "some external elements" — whom he didn't name — for the trouble. It appeared to be a reference to Bangladesh, from where Myanmar claims the Rohingya sneak into Myanmar.
Earlier Monday, Quintana visited Yangon's infamous Insein Prison, where he said he interviewed prisoners of conscience. His trip will also include meetings with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and government officials.