Hundreds of Buddhist monks gathered in the capital of western Burma’s religiously-divided Rakhine state Tuesday to demonstrate against Muslim Rohingyas and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s plans to open a branch office in Rangoon.
Participants said that the 500 monks were joined by some 1,000 supporters outside the Bangladesh Consulate in the Rakhine capital Sittwe, where they also demanded better protection for Buddhists living inside the neighboring Muslim majority country.
The group chanted slogans including “Stop insulting Buddhism” and “Refrain from violence,” and carried banners demanding that Muslims “get out,” referring to the Rohingyas who have been under pressure in Rakhine since deadly violence with ethnic Buddhist Rakhines in June.
Authorities looked on, but did not prevent the monks from protesting.
Einda, a monk leading the protest, said that the group also wanted to show support for Burmese President Thein Sein’s policy on regulating the Rakhine state’s Rohingyas, who he labeled “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.
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 that left more than 80 people dead and 75,000 displaced, are regarded by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
"We are protesting peacefully to express our disapproval on the opening of an Organization of Islamic Cooperation office here, to express our support for the president's stance on illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and to demand that the Bangladesh government protect those Buddhist monks and laymen attacked in Bangladesh,” he said.
Bangladesh police said last week 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.
Einda said that the OIC is not welcome in Burma and that international nongovernmental organizations are fanning the flames of conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhine region.
“There are a lot of NGOs here, but they are making trouble for the Rakhine people. We found that these international NGOs' had fueled past conflicts in Rakhine,” he said, without providing details.
“The help they are giving in Rakhine state is also unequal. We [Buddhists] got maybe about 30 percent, but 70 percent went to [the Rohingyas]. We don't want to accept that help anymore because we don't benefit from it, and their assistance is making things unsafe for us.”
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.
President Thein Sein has said that he would allow OIC to provide assistance if it was provided to all groups fairly in Rakhine state.
But Einda maintained that the group has not represented both sides equally and that the outside world remains ignorant of Rakhine “suffering” in the aftermath of the June violence.
“It is our duty to demand, and it is the government's responsibility to decide. We are demanding only because we are facing a lot of trouble and because we do not feel safe at all under these circumstances,” he said.
“Some people outside the country say that we, the majority, are oppressing the minority. Please come to our region and see for yourselves. Please come and investigate what is happening—why and how—and study both sides fairly. Come and see how we Rakhine are suffering.”
Four months after the violence, people are still fleeing their homes in Rakhine state amid continuing tensions, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) on Friday.
Some 75,000 "internally displaced people" are living in temporary camps in three areas in the state, up from 50,000 shortly after the June violence, the UNHCR said.
Most of those in the temporary shelters are Rohingya, according to a separate report. As of Sept. 25, the Burmese government estimated that some 72,000 Rohingyas and almost 3,000 Rakhines are displaced, the report said.
Those living in the temporary shelters are facing deteriorating living conditions, say local aid workers and residents, according to IRIN—the humanitarian news and analysis service of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Right now [the displaced] are facing health problems from diarrhea, fevers and colds. A lot of [them] are living together in small spaces,” Mohammad Nawsim, secretary of the Rohingya Human Rights Association (RHRA) based in Bangkok, was quoted as saying by IRIN.
“Their condition is worse than animals,” he said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.