Updated: Mon, 11 Mar 2013 19:24:17 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

UN monitor urges Myanmar to tackle sectarian unrest

A UN human rights investigator on Monday urged Myanmar to reveal the truth about a wave of sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims thousands of whom have sought refuge in neighbouring countries as boat people.

UN monitor urges Myanmar to tackle sectarian unrest

UN monitor urges Myanmar to tackle sectarian unrest

Presenting a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council -- the world body's top rights forum -- Tomas Ojea Quintana said the issue was a crucial test as Myanmar moves along the road to democracy after its military junta bowed out.

"The government must establish the truth about what happened in Rakhine State during the two waves of communal violence last June and October, and hold those responsible for human rights violations to account," he told the Council, pointing to the actions of security forces.

Rakhine, on the Western border with Bangladesh, is the main home of the Rohingya, described by the UN as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world.

Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

Buddhist-Muslim unrest has left at least 180 people dead and some 120,000 displaced in Rakhine since June 2012, and many have risked their lives by taking to the sea to escape.

Quintana urged the government to ease restrictions on freedom of movement in the area, notably in the camps for displaced Rohingya, as the rainy season looms.

"The situation in this area is extreme," he warned.

Myanmar's UN ambassador, Maung Wai, insisted the government was tackling the issue.

"The communal violence that broke out in Rakhine state last year has caused suffering in both the communities there," he told the Council.

"The government has established an independent investigative commission to probe the causes of the violence and seek short-term, long-term and medium-term solutions to the issue," he said.

"Almost 95 percent of the total population of the country are Buddhists. However, the majority do not discriminate against the minority," he added.

-- Other concerns --

In addition to the Rohingya crisis, Quintana underlined other concerns in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Appointed as the UN's monitor in 2008, he has conducted regular visits to assess Myanmar's transition, marked by the 2010 release of democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after two decades under house arrest.

The junta's four-decade rule ended formally in 2011 when reformist Thein Sein -- a former military commander -- became president.

Currently, however, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are set aside for the military, and the constitution offers a bulwark against prosecution for past abuses.

Fresh parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015, with Suu Kyi's party expected to win power.

"While the process of reform is continuing in the right direction, there are significant human rights shortcomings that remain unaddressed," said Quintana, a rights lawyer who saw his homeland Argentina move from junta rule to democracy in the 1980s.

He welcomed greater press freedom, but warned that looming legislation could claw it back, and flagged up concerns about arrests during peaceful demonstrations, plus excessive force by police.

Welcoming the release of over 800 political prisoners since May 2011, he said over 250 remain behind bars and should be set free immediately.

"Now is the time to address these shortcomings before they become further entrenched and destabilise the reform process," he said.

While the government has struck ceasefires in long-running armed conflicts with almost a dozen ethnic groups, Quintana raised the alarm about Kachin state, where 75,000 people remained displaced.

Ambassador Wai complained that Quintana's comments on conflict zones intruded on Myanmar's sovereignty, and denied claims of military abuses.

"The armed forces exercise zero tolerance against human rights violations," he said.

Quintana said foreign nations eyeing business in the former pariah state must keep human rights in the foreground.

Wai also looked to the international community.

"A new political culture is now taking shape in the country," he said.

"In this new era, we would like to call upon our friends and partners to avoid their stereotypical views and see Myanmar from a totally new perspective."

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