Demonstrations against the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation spread to the country’s second-largest city on Friday, as thousands of Buddhist monks and laypeople in Mandalay marched to protest the group’s plans to open an office in the former capital Rangoon.
The demonstration came as monks in Sittwe, the capital of western Burma’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state, renewed anti-OIC protests following communal violence in neighboring Bangladesh.
The protesters in Mandalay, who demonstrated peacefully for two hours in an unauthorized march and then dispersed, condemned the OIC plan to open an office in the former capital of Rangoon as an effort to create a foothold in Burma for a religion “under the influence of a foreign power” and pleaded for greater unity among Burma’s ethnic groups.
Friday's march marked the second anti-Muslim protest by Buddhist monks in Mandalay in recent weeks.
"We already have a problem with unity,” said Ashin Wiriya Biwunntha, a monk belonging to the Myawaddy monastery who took part in the Mandalay protest.
“And if the OIC opens its office here, the disunity among us will get worse,” he said.
Noting that the Burmese government and parliament have said they are “listening to the people’s voices,” Ashin Wiriya said, “We have to express our will so that the government can take action.”
Burmese authorities did not grant permission for the protest, but stood by without incident while the number of participants swelled from 500 to about 2,000 as more monks and laypeople joined the march.
Tensions in the region have run high since communal violence erupted in June between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists living in Burma’s northwestern state of Rakhine, leaving more than 80 dead and tens of thousands displaced.
A delegation from the OIC toured Rakhine state in September, after accusations from rights groups that security forces had opened fire on Rohingyas during the June clashes drew condemnation from Muslim communities around the world.
The OIC said on its website last month that it was considering opening a humanitarian assistance office in Rangoon.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 Burmese of different ethnic groups also protested on Friday outside the Bangladesh consulate in the Rakhine capital Sittwe to demand protection for Buddhists living inside the neighboring Muslim-majority country.
Bangladesh police said last week that they had arrested nearly 300 people in connection with a wave of violence in the southeast of the country in which Buddhist temples and homes were damaged and set on fire.
“It is a very ugly thing that Buddhist religious statues and buildings have been destroyed,” Maung Oo, chairman of the ethnic Maramagyi Social Association, said.
“Because the Bangladesh government doesn’t take care of minority groups there, the Buddhist community has faced a lot of hardship.”
“There are ethnic people from Burma living in Bangladesh, too, and we are protesting for their rights,” he said.
Friday’s protest followed a similar demonstration in Sittwe earlier this week when 500 monks were joined by some 1,000 supporters outside the Bangladesh consulate.
Many of Burma’s 800,000 Rohingyas are denied citizenship even though their families have lived there for generations. They are also not considered among Burma’s ethnic groups.
Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the June violence, are regarded by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Burmese President Thein Sein has said that he would allow OIC to provide assistance if it was provided to all groups fairly in Rakhine state.
Reported by Nyan Winn Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Richard Finney.