The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is pressing predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar to allow it to set up an office in the country to channel humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya Muslim minority who have borne the brunt of sectarian violence, lawmakers said.
A previous OIC request to set up a permanent office had been rejected by the Myanmar government following protests by Buddhists concerned over any international aid to the Rohingyas, most of whom are considered illegal immigrants.
An OIC delegation led by General Secretary Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu currently on a visit to Myanmar met members of parliament on Thursday and discussed the prospect of the 57-nation group establishing an office in the country, according to a member of parliament for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
"OIC wants to open an office in Myanmar," MP Khin Saw Wai told RFA's Myanmar Service amid continuing protests against the OIC visit by Buddhist groups.
"They want to open an office to help alleviate the damage caused by riots in Myanmar," she said.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar's western Rakhine state last year left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, many of them Rohingya Muslims who were attacked by Buddhist mobs, 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 in other parts of the country.
"As an MP, I want to collaborate with them [OIC] to help our people, but we need to know the people’s wishes and attitudes," said Khin Saw Wai, whose party represents the interests of ethnic Buddhist Rakhines in Rakhine state and Yangon region.
Ultimately, she said, the decision on the OIC bid would be decided by "the government and its people."
The OIC, which has accused Myanmar of failing to protect the rights of Muslims, said it was on a fact-finding mission to “contribute to the realization of the rights of the Rohingya.”
President Thein Sein's spokesman Ye Htut said on Wednesday that 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 Buddhist 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.
He said officials have no plans to discuss establishing an OIC office during the trip and that Myanmar has made it clear that any aid in Rakhine state must be provided through government channels.
“We won’t accept it if anybody helps only one side,” he said.
The government had in October last year refused permission for the OIC to establish a permanent office in the country after the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding for the Islamic group to provide humanitarian aid to victims of the communal riots.
Helping all groups
Shwe Maung, one of only two Rohingya lawmakers representing the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said the OIC delegation discussed with MPs the Islamic group's wish to help people of all religions in Rakhine state to ensure harmony.
Deputy parliamentary speaker Nanda Kyaw Zwa said he explained to the OIC team that "all MPs from different religions are working together in parliament and working together for [the interest of] all people from different religions [so that they can] live together peacefully."
Tun Aung Kyaw, another MP from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said some groups had published reports distorting the actual situation during riots in Rakhine state last year.
In one case, a group published photos of the bodies of Filipinos who had died from a sinking ship, claiming the pictures were taken during the riots and fueling the communal clashes.
"Because some people posted the pictures of dead bodies from a sinking boat in the Philippines as those from Rakhine riots, people from the two communities lost trust in each other and the situation became worse," Tun Aung Kyaw said.
"I told [the OIC delegation] about this in a friendly manner. They told us that they now have a chance to explain to the Muslim world the truth that they have seen and known because the government allowed them to visit Myanmar."
Ihsanoglu, who is accompanied by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and senior officials from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti, and Bangladesh, also held talks with senior Myanmar officials on Thursday ahead of their visit to the Rakhine capital a day later.
Tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas displaced by the deadly sectarian violence last year are still living in refugee camps in Rakhine state, where ethnic Rakhines plan to stage protests on Friday against the OIC visit.
Some 800,000 Rohingyas live in the state, where ethnic Rakhines form a majority. Rohingya residents are regarded as outsiders and immigrants from Bangladesh even though many have lived in Burma for generations.
Reports said there were anti-OIC demonstrations on Thursday in Lashio, the largest city of Shan State in northern Myanmar, and in Meikhtila city, which was hit by deadly anti-Muslim violence in late March.
There were also protests this week against the visit in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon by hundreds of monks and Buddhist laymen holding banners urging the OIC to “get out” and not interfere with the country’s internal affairs.
Reported by Myo Zaw Ko for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.