Buddhist Protests Continue as OIC Prepares for Arakan Visit

By Lawi Weng 14 November 2013

RANGOON — Protests against the visit of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) delegation continued on Thursday as about 200 Buddhists took to the streets in Meikthila, Mandalay Division, while Buddhists in Sittwe and Rangoon said they were planning further demonstrations.

On the second day of the visit, the OIC travelled to the capital Naypyidaw and on Friday the delegation will pay what is expected to be a tense visit to Sittwe, the capital of strife-torn Arakan State.

The delegation of the OIC, a grouping of 57 Islamic countries, comprises OIC Secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and senior officials from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti and Bangladesh.

The delegation reportedly met with top Burmese officials on Thursday, but President Office spokesman Ye Htut told VOA that the delegation would not meet with President Thein Sein. National League for Democracy officials reportedly said the OIC would neither meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Minutes from an OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission meeting on Oct. 31 indicate that the organization wanted to conduct “a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to assess the situation of Rohingya Muslims,” a stateless minority living in northern Arakan State.

The government has released few details about the OIC visit, but officials have said the trip would help the organization gain an understanding of the real situation on the ground in Burma.

An UN employee based in Sittwe said the OIC delegation was expected to arrive in the Arakan capital on Friday afternoon. The aid worker, who declined to be named, said the delegation would be accompanied by central government officials and US Ambassador Derrick Mitchell, adding that the delegation was expected to stay one night in Sittwe.

“They will visit the IDP camps, but I don’t know which camps they will go to,” the UN staffer said, adding that only senior UN officials had been informed about the details of the OIC visit. “This is all being arranged by the central government—they arranged the helicopters already,” the aid worker added.

During two waves of violence between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority last year 192 people were killed and 140,000 people were displaced, mostly Muslims. The displaced Rohingyas continue to languish in dirty, crowded camps, where they receive little support from the government, which refuses to recognize the persecuted group as Burmese citizens.

The international community has repeatedly criticized the government’s response to the Arakan crisis. Human rights groups have alleged that the Burmese government—which is dominated by Buddhist officials—gave tacit support to Buddhist mob attacks on Rohingya villages.

Indonesian delegation member Ark Hananto told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the OIC had received security guarantees of the government for their Arakan State visit. International aid workers and journalists have reportedly been temporarily barred from travelling to Sittwe during the visit.

In Meikthila, on Thursday, some 200 people protested against the OIC visit, after they heard rumors that the delegation would inspect the situation in the city, which was hit by deadly anti-Muslim violence in late March.

“We held a protest of about 200 people, half of them Buddhist monks. Because we heard that they [the OIC] were going to visit today, but we didn’t see them yet,” said a protest organizer, who declined to be named.

“We got government permission to protest this morning,” she added.

Arakanese Buddhists in Sittwe told The Irrawaddy that they would hold large protests against the OIC visit on Friday.

“We have government permit to protest already, so we’ll be at the airport to protest tomorrow morning,” said Tun Hlaing, an organizer of the protest. “We will all meet at airport at 9 am. We will protest at the airport. They [the OIC] will come with a Myanmar Airline flight, that’s what we heard,” he added.

Aung Win, a Rohingya activist from Sittwe Township, said the local Muslim community hoped they would have an opportunity to meet with OIC delegation to express their concerns about their dire situation in Arakan State.

“If I have a chance to talk to them [the OIC], I will speak about our problems because there are still problems, even though one year has passed” since violence broke out, he added.

Aung Win said, however, that Rohingya leaders had received no information from the Arakan State authorities about the delegation’s plan to meet with their community. “I am worried that the state government will not give them much freedom … and just give them little time to meet with the displaced,” he added.

Some 1,000 people took the streets in Burma’s biggest city Rangoon on Tuesday to protest against the visit, after they obtained a government permit for the demonstration.

Protests against the OIC are also being planned in Rangoon on Friday and Saturday, Wai Lin Aung, a Buddhist organizer, said. “We will have protest at Shwedagon Pagoda tomorrow. Then, we will have another one at the [Rangoon] airport the next day,” he said.

Local Muslim leaders in Rangoon said they did not yet have an opportunity to meet with the OIC. Asked about the anti-OIC protests, Haji Aye Lwin, a leader of the Yangon Islamic Center, said, “They have the right to protest, but it is important to understand the reasons of the OIC visit to the country.”

Last year, a plan to open an OIC office in Burma led to nationwide protests. The plan was cancelled and earlier this year, the Burmese government rebuffed calls from the OIC to allow a delegation to visit and discuss the Rohingya issue.