The Burmese government said Monday that it will not allow the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to establish a permanent office in the country following fresh protests by Buddhists demanding details of an official agreement brokered with the group.
Reacting to the move, the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based OIC threatened to take “appropriate” action.
In successive tweets on Monday, the OIC first said it “has not received official statement from Myanmar (Burma) that it will not allow OIC to open humanitarian office in Rakhine” state, where tensions have run high since deadly violence erupted in June between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in the western state.
Then, the OIC said it "will take appropriate measures if Myanmar backs off from the agreement it signed to allow OIC to open humanitarian office.” It did not elaborate.
Last month, Burma and the OIC agreed to open an office to provide aid for Muslims displaced by the fighting, but Aung Min, Minister in President Thein Sein’s office, on Monday sought to assure thousands of protesting monks and Buddhist laypeople that the office would only be temporary.
"Our government will not do anything against the will of the people. So there is no need to worry,” Aung Min told RFA’s Burmese service in an interview Monday.
“We are proud of what the monks are doing for the nation and the region," he said of the thousands of protesters, who continued to hold demonstrations across the country demanding that the government release an official statement confirming the decision.
Maj. Zaw Htay, director of Thein Sein’s office, told RFA on Sunday that the OIC office would only be open for a “limited period of time” to help distribute assistance to people displaced by the June violence.
"We have not given permission for the OIC to open an office in Burma,” he said.
“It will only be a temporary office to manage OIC's humanitarian assistance and delivery—for a limited period of time—but the people have expressed outrage over it."
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 Burmese government has set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the violence, which left more than 80 dead and about 75,000 others, mostly Rohingyas, displaced.
Burmese newspaper The Voice Weekly quoted Htay Hla, director of Burma’s Border and Ethnic Development Affairs Office, as saying that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the government and the OIC had never included plans for the establishment of an office in the country.
“The Burmese government has signed a MoU with the OIC on humanitarian assistance, but the opening of an OIC office in Burma was not part of the agreement,” said Htay Hla, who had taken part in the signing of the MoU in September.
Meanwhile, protests by monks and Buddhist laymen against the opening of an OIC office have spread across the country, including in Rangoon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Myingyan, as well as in towns throughout Rakhine state.
On Monday, as many as 3,000 monks and 1,000 supporters gathered in protest in front of city hall in Rangoon, while demonstrations in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe included around 1,000 monks and some 10,000 local supporters, according to estimates.
The protesters called for an official announcement of the government’s refusal of the OIC request through the state-run media and for the government to release the details of the MoU it signed with the Islamic grouping.
Ashin Pamauka, a monk from Magwe Priyatti monastery that helped to lead the demonstration in Rangoon, told RFA that protesters were demanding a “clear message” from the government on the OIC office.
"We are protesting because the government did not make an official announcement on the OIC office," he said.
The protesters said they were not satisfied by reports of officials from Thein Sein’s office saying on Sunday that the OIC office would not open if it was against the will of the people.
“That is why we are continuing with our protest. We will only accept this announcement if it is made officially through government media, such as the Myanmar Alin or Kyaymon newspapers, or on government TV,” he said.
“So as long as there is no transparency on this issue, we will keep protesting.”
The monk said that the group would avoid any confrontation or violence with authorities, adding that protesters were marching “in peace, with loving kindness.”
He said demonstration leaders had taken steps in anticipation that certain individuals in the crowd might try to make trouble.
“We anticipated that might happen, and so we have screened those who came with us. We also will not accept any political chanting during our march, so as to avoid unwanted problems,” he said.
“I am very satisfied with our protest today—with our monks and supporters. I want to urge the rest of the country to maintain the national spirit."
President Thein Sein is in a dilemma over the stateless Rohingya issue—concessions to them could make him unpopular among the largely Buddhist population, but ill-treatment of the Muslim group, regarded by the U.N. as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, would anger Western countries that have eased sanctions in response to human rights reforms.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon Ban met Thein Sein and the OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu separately to discuss the issue on the sidelines of the September U.N. General Assembly.
During his meeting with Ihsanoglu, Ban "indicated the importance of the situation in Rakhine being treated carefully because of the potential wider implications of the Rakhine issue on the overall reform process in Burma," his spokesman said.
Thein Sein “confirmed the country would address the long-term ramifications of this question," the spokesman said.
Reported by Ingjin Naing, Tin Aung Khine and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.