YANGON — Hundreds of Buddhists took to the streets in Rakhine State on Sunday to protest against aid organizations they accuse of giving support to Muslim Rohingya militants, police and a protest leader said.
Buddhist monks and members of the Rakhine ethnic group held demonstrations in 15 towns, including the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, demanding that aid agencies leave the western state immediately, Htay Aung, a self-described leader of the protests, told Reuters by phone.
“We will protest again and again until we get our demands. If the government fails to act, that is their responsibility,” he said.
Tensions have risen once again in Rakhine since seven Buddhists were found hacked to death in the mountains in the north of the state in July.
The government said it had discovered forest encampments that proved Muslim “extremists” were responsible for the killings, and the military sent additional forces to the area this week.
At one suspected militant camp last month, biscuits originating from the United Nations’ World Food Programme were discovered. Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have long accused U.N. and other aid organisations of favouring the Rohingya with aid.
The state was plunged into violence in October, when Rohingya insurgents killed nine border police, sparking a crackdown in which government security forces were accused of raping, killing and torturing Rohingya civilians.
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine, but are denied citizenship and face restrictions on their movements and access to basic services. About 120,000 remain in camps set up after deadly violence swept the state in 2012, where they rely on aid agencies for basic provisions.
Pictures shared online of Sunday’s protests showed saffron-robed monks holdings signs reading, “We don’t need terrorist supporter group,” and calling for the U.N. and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to “get out.”
Htay Aung said the protesters demanded that the government rid the state of Muslim militants, quickly verify the citizenship credentials of Muslims and allow Rakhine Buddhists to form armed militias.
Police Major Cho Lwin estimated that about 600 people protested in Sittwe.
“The protest went ahead today peacefully,” he said, adding that police had stepped up security and blocked roads leading to aid offices.
Reuters obtained the text of note sent by the UN on Wednesday to the 300 or so UN staff in Rakhine, as well as INGOs, warning of rising hostility to international agencies in the state.