— The Organization of Islamic Cooperation
says Burma’s decision to deny it an office in the country is a setback that appears to contradict an earlier agreement the group struck with Burmese officials. This week, thousands of Burmese monks and others protested against the opening of the office for the 57-nation group that has been investigating communal violence in Rakhine state.
An OIC representative visited Burma last month after violence broke out in Rakhine state between ethnic Rohingyas, who are predominantly Muslim, and local Rakhine, who are mostly Buddhist.
The conflict killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands others, prompting the United Nations to warn of an impending humanitarian crisis.
Maha Akeel, a spokesperson for the OIC, says the group has still not received official notice that they have been denied permission to open an office, but the president’s announcement was a shock.
"This is a setback because we have a written, signed agreement to allow for the opening of a humanitarian office which will help all the communities living in the Rakhine region, not just Muslims," he explained.
International rights groups say ethnic Rohingya have long been subjected to systematic discrimination and denied citizenship. The situation has created a protracted refugee crisis, leading the United Nations to call them one of the most persecuted and marginalized ethnic groups in the world.
U.N. spokesperson in Burma Aye Win said in an e-mail that "the people in Rakhine state are suffering, and the communities need to find a way forward themselves. The humanitarian community is only trying to alleviate suffering of the people regardless of their religion or race, and it does not help the people when there is hostility towards the delivery of humanitarian assistance."
Hun Aung Gyaw, an exiled political activist with the independent “Mission for Peace in the Motherland”
recently returned from a trip to Burma, where he was invited by the government to spend two weeks on a fact-finding mission about ongoing peace talks with several ethnic groups.
Although Burmese authorities are moving forward with peace talks with several different ethnic groups, there are no such talks with the Rohingya community. Htun Aung Gyaw says Rakhine (Arakan) state is expected to be a more trying test of the government's ability to maintain peace.
"In Kachin or Shan states ethnic conflict with the government is based on equality and self determination, but in Rakhine state it's about racial issue, religious issue it's really complicated," Htun Aung Gyaw said. "So this ethnic identity is very controversial and how we interpret there is kind of race living in Burma or it is acceptable or not it will be decided by the whole majority of the people.”
Despite international concern about the Rohingya issue, Burma's political opposition appears to be united behind the president’s position on Rohingya. Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken a stand on the issue.
"I think the government is aware of how angry a lot of Burmese have become over the issue, indeed the presence of Rohingya, so I think if they were to grant the OIC an office it would whip up a lot of resentment toward the government when they're already in a fragile position," said Francis Wade, an independent analyst living in the region." It is a tactical decision. They would lose a lot of support if they were to promote Rohingya's rights via the IOC. It's quite a searing indictment of how flimsy this reform rhetoric is."
Up to 800,000 Rohingyas are believed to live along Burma’s border with Bangladesh. Neither country recognizes them as citizens and, in recent weeks, aid groups warn that many are facing increased restrictions on their movements on both sides of the border.