RANGOON — A high-level delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was greeted by an estimated 3,000 protestors Friday, when the group that includes foreign ministers from Islamic countries arrived in western Burma’s troubled Arakan State.
A group from the 57-member OIC arrived in Burma on Wednesday to meet with officials and investigate the situation of Rohingya Muslims, who make up the majority of the estimated 140,000 people displaced by two waves of violence in Arakan State last year. At least 192 people were killed in inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya, who the government of Burma does not recognize as citizens.
Buddhists have staged demonstrations across the country this week accusing the OIC of trying to interfere in Burmese affairs.
On Friday, the delegation landed at about noon at Sittwe Airport, where angry demonstrators held aloft banners saying “Get Out OIC,” and “We Don’t Want OIC.”
“Our people arrived here at 7 am. We have over 3,000 people,” Tun Hlaing, an organizer of the protest, told The Irrawaddy. “We all shouted to them that we do not want them to come here.”
The Burmese government has approved the visit and reportedly guaranteed the security of delegates, who include OIC Secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Malaysian, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, Djiboutian and Bangladeshi officials.
Tun Hlaing said the group did not leave the airport, but was taken by Burmese military helicopters to parts of Arakan State where the population is majority Rohingya.
“They stayed about 15 minutes and then flew to Maungdaw and Buthitaung,” he said. “We did not get permission to meet them, but we could see them from the distance, and they could even see us shouting at them.”
Arakanese Buddhists also held smaller protests Maungdaw and Buthitaung, as well as other townships in Arakan State like Toungup and Mrauk-U.
About 1,000 people in Rangoon, mostly Buddhist monks, also marched from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda to demonstrate once again against the OIC visit on Friday. An additional protest was planned at Rangoon International Airport on Saturday to see off the OIC delegation.
Tun Kyi, a protester in Toungup Township, said it was his duty to oppose the OIC visit. “We are worried that they [the Rohingya] will get more support from the OIC and they will create more problems for our people,” he said.
Tun Kyi claimed the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State is stirred up by international involvement.
Arakanese Buddhists in Maungdaw protested when the delegation landed in the town at about 1 pm, one protester said. “It is very simple: If we have to say why we protest, it’s because we do not want them to come,” said the female protester.
Protests against the visit of an OIC delegation were also held in Meiktila, Mandalay Division, and Lashio, northern Shan State, on Thursday. Both towns have seen violence targeting Muslim communities since last year.
Rights groups have accused Burma’s authorities of allowing, or even facilitating, violence against Muslims. Authorities have granted permission or allowed all of the anti-OIC protests to take place, in contrast to protest for land rights in Burma, for instance, for which permission is notoriously difficult to obtain.
Tun Hlaing, the protest organizer in Sittwe, said he had no trouble getting the demonstration approved after applying on Monday. Regulations, which are usually strictly applied when it comes to most protests, demand that permission is sought a week ahead of a demonstration.
Many activists fighting for other causes have found themselves sentenced to three months in prison after going ahead with a protest when permission was not forthcoming in time.
Although an attempt to visit Burma earlier this year by the OIC was rebuffed, the central government has openly supported the current trip.
According to the state-owned New Light of Myanmar, the delegation met with Burma’s Vice President Sai Mauk Kham on Thursday evening in Naypyidaw. The newspaper reported they discussed peace and stability in Arakan State, and rehabilitation efforts in the region.