A United Nations human rights envoy traveled Tuesday to western Myanmar to investigate communal violence that left at least 78 dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Tomas Ojea Quintana’s evaluation is likely to be regarded as a yardstick for measuring the reforms undertaken by elected President Thein Sein after decades of repressive military rule.
The envoy flew to Rakhine state for a firsthand look at the cities and towns where mass rioting and ferocious violence erupted last month between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas.
The violence has subsided but human rights groups and Islamic groups have called for the protection of the Rohingya community, saying it faces ongoing abuse.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of its ethnic groups and many in the country consider them to be illegal immigrants from 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 has made clear that investigating the conflict is a priority of his weeklong trip, which started Sunday. In a pre-arrival statement, he mentioned the violence in Rakhine -- which rights groups say mostly targeted the Rohingya -- as one of the “challenges” facing Myanmar despite recent political reforms.
On Tuesday, Quintana planned to tour the Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung near Bangladesh’s border and on Wednesday visit refugee camps in the state capital, Sittwe.
The U.N. has a direct interest in the Rakhine issue because five workers for the world body’s refugee agency are among 858 people still detained by authorities in connection with the unrest. Five other workers for international aid agencies are also in detention.
The aid workers have been accused of taking part in the violence and “setting fire to villages,” Border Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Htay told reporters.