The head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and foreign ministers from the group’s member states arrived in Myanmar Wednesday to probe alleged human rights abuses against minority Rohingyas in a mission that has angered the country’s majority Buddhists.
The delegation, headed by OIC General Secretary Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, will meet with Vice President Sai Mauk Kam and visit western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas displaced by deadly sectarian violence last year are living in refugee camps.
The visit prompted protests in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon on Tuesday by hundreds of monks and Buddhist laymen holding banners urging the OIC to “get out” and not interfere with the country’s internal affairs.
Further protests are planned in Yangon and the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, where police prevented demonstrators from gathering on Tuesday.
The 57-nation OIC, which has accused Myanmar of failing to protect the rights of Muslims, said that it hopes the fact-finding mission will “contribute to the realization of the rights of the Rohingya.”
'They will see the truth'
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the OIC visit was an opportunity to “clear doubts” about Myanmar’s commitment to protecting the rights of Muslims.
“If they visit … they will see the truth with their own eyes—they will see that the Myanmar government hasn’t discriminated against any religion or any nationality,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said protesters were concerned the OIC was trying to open an office in Myanmar and that the organization was only interested in providing aid for Muslims.
Officials have no plans to discuss plans for an OIC office during the trip and Myanmar has made it clear that any aid in Rakhine state must be provided through government channels, he said.
“We won’t accept it if anybody helps only one side,” he said.
The delegation will meet with Sai Mauk Kham, who is also chair of the Central Committee for Rakhine State Peace, Stability and Development Implementation, on Thursday before heading to the region to meet with lawmakers and local Muslim and Rakhine community leaders.
Clashes in Rakhine last year left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, many of them Rohingya Muslims who were attacked by Buddhist mobs, occasionally as security forces looked on, rights groups say.
At least another 45 people, including non-Rohingya Muslims, have died this year in sporadic outbreaks of sectarian violence both in Rakhine and across the country.
The Myanmar government has urged harmony between Muslims and Buddhists and has rejected claims that it discriminates against Rohingyas or other Muslims.
The OIC has appealed to the U.N. to put greater pressure on Myanmar to protect the rights of Muslims in the country, condemning “ongoing atrocities” against Rohingyas and accusing authorities of “failing to take appropriate measures” to stem anti-Muslim violence.
Wednesday’s visit comes after Myanmar rebuffed an OIC request to allow a delegation to visit the country earlier this year. The refusal followed protests last October over the organization’s attempt by to set up a local office in the country.
The delegation includes foreign ministers and senior officials from OIC member countries Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti, and Bangladesh.
Ashin Dammika, a monk from riot-hit Meikhtila who is planning to participate in protests against the delegation later this week, said the visit would do more to provoke sectarian tensions in the country than resolve them.
"Whenever people from the OIC visit our country, problems emerge between Buddhists and Muslims. If we live with our own rules, we can live together in peace,” he told RFA.
Ethnic Rakhines, the Buddhist majority in Rakhine state, believe the OIC is visiting the western region to help “only” Rohingyas, Than Tun, a local community leader in Sittwe said.
Local problems between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities should not involve “the whole Muslim world,” he said.
“The situation between the two communities is calming down, and the OIC’s visit is intended to break this calm.”
The Rohingya, whom the U.N. has called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are widely considered in Myanmar to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many say they have lived there for generations.
Haji Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader in Yangon who will meet with the OIC delegation, said he believed the organization would be able to help Myanmar address sectarian tensions.
“I feel that they have come here to see the real situation,” he said.
“They can’t put any undue pressure on Myanmar because every country has its sovereignty. I don’t want people to see the OIC as a danger.”
He said he planned to show the delegation that much of the country’s anti-Muslim violence, which rights groups have said appeared to have been coordinated, had been intentionally incited to undermine stability.
“Some people who don’t want stability in the country caused these riots, so we have to be very careful not to fall into their trap.”
Protests against the OIC visit come after the U.N.’s special envoy for human rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana in August abandoned a visit to a refugee camp for Muslims displaced by clashes in Meikhtila after what he said was an attack on his car by a Buddhist mob.
The Myanmar government denied his claim, saying Quintana had faced "peaceful" protesters scrambling to hand him a petition and that it did not consider the incident an attack.
Reported by Thin Thiri and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.