Burma’s President Thein Sein announced on Monday that he will not allow the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to open an office in the country, following a week of protests against the move by Buddhist monks and their supporters.
More than ten thousand people filled the streets of several cities across the country on Monday, as protesters vowed to continue the mass demonstrations until their demands were met.
Protests were held in Rangoon, Mandalay, Pakokku, Sittwe and Rathetaung to denounce the government’s decision to allow the OIC to operate a humanitarian aid office in the country in the wake of communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims earlier this year.
The largest protests were held in Sittwe, capital of Arakan State, where ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims attacked each other in deadly riots in June. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the violence.
Witnesses in Sittwe said that today’s protest drew more than 8,000 people. A rally in Rathetaung, also in Arakan State, attracted a crowd of around 1,000.
“We came out to show that we are against the opening of an OIC office in Burma,” said U Latkhana, a leading monk from the Bawdimandai Monastery in Pakokku, Sagaing Division. “We don’t accept the opening of an OIC office in Burma, either in Rangoon or in Sittwe.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Maj Zaw Htay, the director of the President’s Office, said that the government’s memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the OIC only allowed the organization to open a temporary office to deal with humanitarian affairs.
“People all over the country think this temporary office is an OIC branch office, but we can negotiate to make changes to the MoU,” said Zaw Htay.
Speaking before Thein Sein’s decision was announced, he added that the president would respect the people’s concerns and act accordingly.
The decision to suspend the agreement was first broken on the Facebook page of Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut, who said that “the full announcement will be broadcast in the late evening news.”
As promised, the state-run broadcaster MRTV4 announced the news on Monday evening.
Demonstrations have been held since last week in Mandalay, Rangoon and Sittwe to oppose the opening of an OIC office in Sittwe. Several thousand monks also protested against the destruction of Buddhist monasteries in Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.
Burma’s Ministry of Border Affairs and a delegation led by OIC ambassador Ufuk Gokcen signed an MoU on Sept. 9 allowing the organization to provide humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected persons in Arakan State.
The 57-member OIC includes all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. It encompasses some 1.6 billion people worldwide.