More than 500 Arakanese Buddhist women took to the streets of Sittwe on Wednesday to protest the government decision to allow the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to open an aid office in Arakan State.
A spokesperson for the OIC, however, told The Irrawaddy that the office was not intended as a flagship for the Rohingya cause, and that it would provide humanitarian aid to both Buddhist and Muslim communities in the form of food and shelter.
Dr. Aye Maung, the chairman of Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said that his party would accept all the help and humanitarian aid that was provided to those affected by the sectarian violence in the region. He stressed, however, that the RNDP objected to an OIC office in Arakan State capital Sittwe, and suggested that the group base its operations out of either Rangoon or Naypyidaw.
The 57-member OIC is a mostly Muslim bloc of nations which 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.
The OIC signed an MoU with the Burmese government on Aug. 11 to permit the group to open an office for humanitarian purposes in Rangoon and Sittwe. A delegation from the OIC then traveled to Arakan State in September to inspect the aftermath of communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in the strife-torn region.
Approximately 200 women began demonstrating on Wednesday afternoon in central Sittwe wearing t-shirts with slogans reading “No OIC.” As the protest gained momentum, an estimated 300 more women joined in.
“We are protesting because we heard that the OIC is coming to our country. We do not want them based here,” said protester Nyo Aye.
She told The Irrawaddy that the Buddhist women demonstrators supported the 1982 Citizenship Law, which fails to recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group of Burma.
“The Bengali Muslims [Rohingyas] are illegal immigrants,” she said. “They should be sent to other countries.”
The demonstration took place just a day after some 500 Buddhist monks held a similar protest in Sittwe in front of the Bangladeshi consulate. A spokesman for the monks said they were demanding that the Burmese government rescind its offer to the OIC to open an office in Arakan State, because it would be used only to support Muslim people.
The Buddhist monks also delivered a letter to the Bangladeshi consulate calling for Dhaka to investigate and take action against those who destroyed Buddhist temples and pagodas in southern Bangladesh recently.
On Monday, Buddhist monks held a demonstration outside the US embassy in Rangoon where they voiced similar sentiments and offered their condolences to the US for the death of its ambassador in Libya last month.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, prominent Buddhist monk Ashin Ottama, who led the protest in Sittwe, said, “We will not let the OIC open an office in Arakan State even if the government has already agreed it.”
A delegation from the OIC met with representatives of Burma’s Ministry of Border Affairs in Rangoon during the second week of September. According to Dina Madani of the Muslim Minorities and Communities Department at the OIC in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Burmese ministry agreed to cooperate with the OIC in its humanitarian role and in establishing offices in the country.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday from OIC headquarters in Jeddah, Ms. Madani said, “We are laying the groundwork to open our offices in Burma by cooperating with non-government organizations that deal with humanitarian affairs. We will hopefully open our offices soon.”
In response to a question about the protests by Rakhine women and Buddhist monks, Ms. Madani said, “That’s unfortunate. But it’s certain people’s opinion, not the Burmese government’s.
“The OIC is only coming [to Burma] for humanitarian affairs,” she said. “We will help both sides—Buddhist and Muslim. There should be no discrimination when it comes to humanitarian affairs.
“I wanted to tell them [the protesters] that we are reaching out to both societies. We want to be partners in peace-building and trust-building. We are not there to discriminate on whether they [partners] are Buddhist or Muslim.
“Without dialogue, there will be more conflict. I do not think the people want this,” she said.
In the meantime, RNDP Chairman Aye Maung said that his party would raise an objection in Parliament to the OIC offices.
He said that the Arakanese people would accept help and humanitarian aid “from any organization and from any country,” but that it was unnecessary for the OIC to open an office in the region.
“We are afraid that the OIC will influence religion and politics in Arakan State,” he said. “It could even threaten the rule of law in our country.”
He reiterated that his party and the majority of Rakhine Buddhists at large would not object if the OIC opened offices in Rangoon or Naypyidaw in coordination with other members of the international community.