YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A United Nations human rights expert called Saturday for an urgent independent investigation into recent bloody sectarian violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state, which he said was one of many human rights challenges facing the country.
Tomas Ojea Quintana ended a weeklong visit to Myanmar saying that the country's much-touted democratic reforms will not take hold unless the government places human rights at the center of its agenda for change.
During a two-day tour of Rakhine state, Quintana said he witnessed "widespread suffering" from the June violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that left at least 78 dead and tens of thousands homeless. He said he recorded allegations of "serious human rights violations" by police and security forces including killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and excessive use of force.
"The human rights situation in Rakhine state is serious," he told reporters. He did not discuss the target of the alleged abuses.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused government forces of opening fire on crowds of ethnic Rohingya and committing other "atrocities" during attempts to restore order.
"It is of fundamental importance to clearly establish what has happened in Rakhine state and to ensure accountability," Quintana told reporters before leaving from Yangon's airport. "Reconciliation will not be possible without this. Exaggerations and distortion will fill the vacuum to further fuel distrust and tensions between communities."
He said it was a "matter of urgency" to set up an independent and credible investigation into the allegations of rights abuses.
Much remains unknown about what transpired in Rakhine state during nearly two weeks of sectarian fighting, rioting and arson attacks between the two groups because the area was virtually sealed off to the outside world.
Tensions between the Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya are longstanding, in part because many in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be illegal settlers from neighboring 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 also expressed "serious concern" about the treatment of six U.N. workers who were detained in Rakhine state. They were accused by Myanmar authorities of taking part in the violence and setting fire to villages — accusations Quintana said he believes are unfounded.
Quintana's visit to Myanmar also focused on making an overall assessment of the human rights situation as the country moves down a reformist path under President Thein Sein after decades of repressive military rule. He met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, government officials, lawmakers and others.
He is to present his findings to the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.
Quintana said there was reason to be encouraged by some recent changes but pointed out the issue of political prisoners as an enduring obstacle to true democratization.
"I must, therefore, once again call for the release of all prisoners of conscience without conditions or delay," he said. "National reconciliation and democratic transition cannot move forward without these necessary steps."