The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim nations, has offered to build a hospital and set up other facilities in Myanmar’s strife-torn Rakhine state, but the local government says the projects cannot be implemented until stability is restored following communal violence.
An OIC delegation led by former Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar met with Buddhist elders and government officials Wednesday in the Rakhine capital Sittwe and offered the projects, saying they would benefit both ethnic majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Muslim Rohingyas recovering from violence in the region since 2012.
Rakhine Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told the delegation “that it is still difficult for local Rakhine people to accept help from OIC right now,” Hla Thein, a Rakhine state government official, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“There is still a need to educate local people about the OIC’s wish to help the people in Rakhine state,” he said. “If OIC pursued a step-by-step approach to help Rakhine State until the local people understand its objectives, there is a possibility that the Rakhine people would accept OIC’s help one day.”
Hla Thein said Rakhine Buddhist community leaders told the OIC team “that there is no reason for not accepting their help if they gave it to us under the name of humanitarian assistance and for the development of Rakhine State.”
But the leaders told the visitors that “Rakhine people are concerned that the assistance would interfere with the process of regaining stability in the state,” where bloody communal violence has left more than 280 people dead and tens of thousands displaced over the past two years.
Human rights groups have accused the Myanmar authorities of discriminating against the Muslim Rohingya community, who they say bore the brunt of the violence. Rakhine Buddhists accuse aid groups of favoring the Rohingyas, most of whom are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in Myanmar for decades.
Rakhine Buddhist leader Than Htun told RFA Thursday that he and other Buddhist elders could not accept the OIC offer because the government is currently determining which Rohingyas qualify as citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Act, and the OIC could disrupt the process.
“The OIC delegation has visited while the government is working on the citizenship verification process for Bengalis in Rakhine state,” he said, using the term most people in Myanmar refer to Rohingyas with, indicating that they have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.
“I think it would harm the citizenship verification process. And the timing of their visit is not good. That is why we Rakhine leaders have refused their offer.”
The Mizzima news agency quoted him as saying that Syed Hamid Albar had listened during the meeting, but had not made any comments.
In November last year, an OIC delegation visiting Rakhine state was met with mass protests by Buddhists incensed over reports that the group had wanted to establish a wing in Myanmar to channel humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas.
Hla Thein said that the Rakhine government had accepted the OIC delegation this time because it had come on a fact-finding mission and to “listen to the people’s attitudes and opinions” about the group, without pushing its own agenda.
The delegation, which was due to leave Sittwe on Thursday, also met with a group of Muslim community leaders, who told the OIC that the government needs to provide better health care in Rakhine state.
The OIC group had also visited the region’s Thatkepyin and Satyonesu camps for displaced Muslims and Buddhists.
Last week, OIC Secretary General Iyad Ameen Madani met with the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon in Bali on the sidelines of the Sixth Global Forum of UN Alliance of Civilization and discussed the conditions Rohingya face in Myanmar, including the denial of their right to citizenship.
According to a statement by the OIC, Madani said that the suffering of the Rohingyas should be a concern of the international community, and outlined the efforts being made by his organization to open up dialogue with Myanmar’s government.
The two leaders agreed that their special envoys for Myanmar should hold talks on the matter, the statement said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Yadanar Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.