SITTWE, Myanmar: Hundreds of Buddhists jeered former UN chief Kofi Annan as he arrived in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state Tuesday to examine a bitter religious conflict that has displaced tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya.
Annan has been tasked by the de facto leader of Myanmar’s new government, Aung San Suu Kyi, to head a commission charged with finding ways to heal wounds in the poor western state.
But in a sign of the passions surrounding the issue, protesters turned out as he landed in the state capital Sittwe.
Many booed and shouted “No Kofi-led commission” into loudspeakers as they swarmed around his convoy, carrying signs that read, “No to foreigners’ biased intervention in our Rakhine State’s affairs.”
“We want decisions to be made by our own people. I don’t want foreigners to make decisions, that is why I am peacefully protesting here,” May Phyu told Agence France-Presse.
Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, has been scarred since 2012 by bouts of communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim population.
Their plight threatens to poison democratic gains in the former army-run country and has damaged Suu Kyi’s reputation as a defender of the downtrodden.
More than 100 people have been killed—the majority of them Muslims—while tens of thousands of the stateless Rohingya have spent the past four years trapped in bleak displacement camps with limited access to health care and other basic services.
The Rohingya are despised by hardline Buddhists, who say they have no right to citizenship and label them “Bengalis”, shorthand for illegal immigrants.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has disappointed rights groups who accuse her of failing directly to address the plight of the Rohingya in a sop to Buddhist nationalist sentiment.
Last month she asked Annan to lead the advisory commission on solving the state’s troubles.
The envoy, who has vowed to be impartial, met local Rakhine leaders and civil society groups in Sittwe shortly after his arrival.
Recognizing the highly-charged nature of the divisions in the state, he said his advisory commission would listen to all sides.
“This first visit is an opportunity to listen and learn from you, the local people,” he said, as protesters continued to chant slogans outside the building where he made his brief remarks.
The Ghanaian diplomat is also expected to meet Muslim leaders and visit a camp where tens of thousands of Rohingya languish in poverty.
But the region’s largest political group, the Arakan National Party, has ruled out meeting the former UN secretary-general and mounted a push in parliament on Tuesday to disband the commission.
“We do not need to rely on any foreigner,” U U Hla Saw, a lower house MP from Rakhine, told lawmakers Tuesday.
The near one-million-strong Rohingya are largely denied citizenship and the government does not recognize them as an official ethnic minority.
Their appalling living conditions, including severe restrictions on movement, have pushed tens of thousands of them to flee, many via treacherous sea journey south towards Malaysia.
“We want him to come,” said Hla Kyaw, a Rohingya man from The Chaung, a village outside Sittwe where many displaced Muslim families live in tents.
“If he comes, we will raise the issue of our citizenship status and our plight of staying in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps for four years,” he added.
Last week sitting UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called on Myanmar to grant citizenship to the group and respect their right to self-identify as Rohingya.
But that question of identity remains incendiary for Buddhist hardliners. AFP