YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar said a U.N. human rights envoy was well-protected during a visit to a city wracked by religious violence, brushing off his claims that police did nothing as a 200-strong Buddhist mob descended on his car, kicking the windows and doors and shouting abuses.
President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, said Thursday that U.N. rights rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana was never in any danger.
Members of the crowd, he said, approached the convoy 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 victims were Muslims.
Quintana's 10-day visit, which wrapped up Wednesday, was in part aimed at investigating ongoing tensions and the response of the government.
He told reporters that on arriving in the central city of Meikhtila to visit a camp for 1,600 displaced Muslims earlier this week, security forces did nothing as a Buddhist crowd descended on his convoy.
He said the incident hammered home the feeling of vulnerability victims of bloody attacks must have felt as they were chased down, beaten and killed — often as police looked on.
"I felt during this incident, being totally unprotected," said Quintana. "The state had a responsibility... and it failed."
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. Thirty 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."
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.
The violence, on a smaller scale but still deadly, spread earlier this year to other parts of Myanmar — including Meikhtila, where 43 people were killed — and has stirred up prejudice.
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.
Quintana's ordeal recalled the difficulties previous U.N. envoys had in dealing with Myanmar before military rule ended in 2011, when they sometimes were barred from meeting people, snubbed by officials and even denied entry to the country.
He met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars two years after the country's military junta handed over power. He also traveled to several states plagued by decades-long insurgencies.
After visiting Kachin state, he said, he was very distressed to hear that U.N. humanitarian organizations have been allowed access to non-government-controlled areas only once in the last year.
But added that he was pleased to see during a visit to Chin state that restrictions on Christians have eased notably in the last year.
It as 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.