Hundreds of Buddhists in Myanmar protest Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s upcoming visit

Yangon, Myanmar — Hundreds of Buddhists marched through the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city on Tuesday to protest an upcoming visit by a high-level delegation from the world’s biggest Islamic political bloc.

Some of those who marched in Yangon carried banners saying “Get out!” and “Stop interfering in our internal affairs!”

Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and several ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a grouping of 57 Islamic countries, will arrive in Myanmar on Wednesday to talk with government officials about sectarian violence that has gripped the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million for more than a year.

More than 240 people have died and 240,000 others have been forced to flee their homes, many of them Rohingya Muslims, described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world.

The OIC team — representing Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti and Bangladesh — will travel Friday to Rakhine state, scene of much of the bloodshed, where they will meet with community leaders and victims at crowded, rundown displacement camps.

Tuesday’s rally, joined by nearly 200 Buddhist monks and about 100 laymen waving yellow, white and red religious flags, began at Yangon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Clogging traffic, they wound through the streets to City Hall.

“The OIC is one-sided,” said Pamaukkha, one of the monks who organized the protest.

The situation in Rakhine state has been especially tense, with allegations by local Buddhists that international humanitarian organizations operating in Myanmar are biased in favor of Rohingya, something they vehemently deny. After repeated threats, some of the organizations have temporarily suspended operations in certain areas.

Several aid workers flying into Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, where massive rallies are planned for Friday, have been turned back. Foreign journalists have been told that travel to the area is barred for the time being.

Ark Hananto, part of the Indonesian delegation, said he was aware there might be a backlash from the visit, but that Myanmar’s government has provided assurances that security will be tight. He also said it’s important that the IOC not just issue statements of concern and condemnation, but also meet with those affected.

“We want to find a way to help build communication,” Hananto said.

Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said that if the Islamic bloc wants to see stability restored to the state, “it’s better that the delegation not visit at all, but provide humanitarian assistance from outside.”