YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's government on Saturday rejected remarks by a U.N. human rights official suggesting that the authorities bear some blame for recent mob attacks by Buddhists on minority Muslims that killed dozens of people.
The U.N. official, Tomas Ojea Quintana, urged Myanmar's government on Friday to investigate allegations that security forces watched as Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims. He also said the government needed to do more to protect the country's Muslims.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said on his Facebook page Saturday that he "strongly rejected" the comments by Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar.
Ye Htut, who is also the presidential spokesman, wrote that it was "saddening that Mr. Quintana made his comments based on hearsay without assessing the situation on the ground."
He added that such remarks amounted to ignoring efforts by the government, security personnel, religious leaders and civil society organizations trying to restore order.
The state-run Kyemon newspaper said Saturday that 43 people had died and 86 were injured since rioting first flared on March 20 in the central town of Meikhtila. It said there were 163 incidents of violence in 15 townships in the country, with 1,355 buildings damaged or destroyed.
It reported that a few attacks against "religious buildings," shops and houses continued Friday, a day after President Thein Sein declared that his government would use force if necessary to quell the rioting, which was sparked by a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
The report said soldiers and police had to shoot into the air to disperse the mobs Friday, though no casualties were reported.
Thein Sein warned in a televised address Thursday that efforts by "political opportunists" and "religious extremists" who tried to sow hatred would not be tolerated.
Quintana welcomed Thein Sein's public call for the violence to stop, but said authorities "need to do much more" to keep the violence from spreading and undermining the reform process.
"The government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim communities," Ojea Quintana said in his statement. He also called on the government to look into allegations that soldiers and police stood by "while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs."
Police in Meikhtila had been criticized for failing to act quickly and decisively against the rioting, in which mostly Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques were burned down.
Occasional isolated violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred in the country for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011. But tensions have heightened since last year when hundreds of people were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.
Thein Sein took office in 2011 as part of an elected civilian government after almost five decades of repressive military rule. By instituting democratic changes and economic liberalization, he has built a reputation as a reformer and restored relations with Western nations that had shunned the previous military regime for its poor human rights record.