YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's government on Thursday disputed accusations that it failed to protect a top U.N. human rights envoy who said his vehicle was attacked by a 200-strong Buddhist mob during a visit to a city where religious violence flared earlier this year.
President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, said U.N. rights rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana was never in any danger during his visit this week.
He said members of the crowd approached Quintana's convoy in the central city of Meikhtila only to give him a letter and a T-shirt, "so what Quintana said is very different from the true situation."
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been gripped by sectarian violence in the last year that has left more than 250 people dead and sent another 140,000 fleeing their homes. Most of the victims – including at least 43 from a March attack in Meikhtila – were Muslims.
Quintana's 10-day visit to Myanmar, which ended Wednesday, was in part aimed at investigating ongoing tensions and the response of the government.
Quintana said his convoy was mobbed Monday night as security forces looked on.
"The fear that I felt during this incident, being totally unprotected by the nearby police, gave me an insight into the fear residents would have felt when being chased down by violent mobs during violence last March ... when police allegedly stood by as angry mobs beat, stabbed and burned to death 43 people," he said.
Quintana slammed the government for failing to do its job. "The state has failed to protect me," he said.
Ye Htut had another version of events.
In addition to helping to disperse hundreds of people before Quintana's arrival – he said 100 were left by the time the convoy arrived – one police car was escorting the U.N. rights envoy and 30 other officers were controlling the crowd, he said.
"Police gave protection to him and people had no intention to hurt him," Ye Htut said, adding that police successfully cleared a path and the convoy passed without incident.
Myanmar only recently emerged from decades of isolation and military rule. One of the biggest challenges of the new, quasi-civilian government has been the rising anti-Muslim sentiment.
Quintana said his own experience "highlighted for me the dangers of the spread of religious incitement in Myanmar and the deadly environment that this can create."
"Although the chief minister declared that the trust had been restored, this does not reflect reality," he said.
The unrest began last year in the western state of Rakhine, where Buddhists accuse the Rohingya Muslim community of illegally entering the country to encroach on their land.
Quintana faced several smaller protests during his visit, most of them peaceful. Almost all were by Buddhists, who feel that the U.N. and other international agencies are ignoring their complaints and tilting relief and reconstruction efforts in favor of the Muslim community.
It was Quintana's eighth trip to Myanmar since being named U.N. rights rapporteur. He will present his findings to the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 24.