Photo: Demonstrators in Yangon protest a visit by a delegation from the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, November 2013 (Christopher Smith).
Religion and nationalism fuel anti-OIC protests across Myanmar
Six years ago, images of monk-led protests against Myanmar’s military dictatorship filtered through to the outside world, prompting statements of solidarity from the international community before and after the brutal crackdown that ensued.
The monks are on the move once again, but their reasons for mobilising are radically different now. Last Friday, coordinated protests around the country against a visiting delegation from the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) attracted nearly 3,000 participants in Rakhine State’s capital of Sittwe; about 800 protestors, about half of whom were Buddhist monks, led a simultaneous march from Shwedagon Pagoda to central Yangon, with smaller protests occurring in other cities around the country. Another set of demonstrations took place earlier in the week before the delegation arrived.
Counting 57 member states among its ranks, the Jeddah-based OIC is the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation outside of the UN system. It has been consistently critical of Naypyidaw’s treatment of Muslims and the Rohingya, in particular, going as far as describing the situation in Rakhine as “genocide” last November. Led by OIC chairman Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the delegation included senior officials from seven countries, including Myanmar’s closest Muslim neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
The OIC’s advocacy of rights for Myanmar’s persecuted and stateless Rohingya has fuelled a belief that it is part of an international Islamic plot to undermine Burmese Buddhist identity and culture. Numerous proposals by the OIC to open an office in Myanmar over the past year have been rebuffed by the President’s office.
While the OIC’s motivations for engaging with Myanmar are complex, there is probably no organisation trusted less by the Burmese public, as many believe it intends to introduce Sharia law to Myanmar. “The OIC supports terrorists around the world,” said organiser U Aye Paing, a lawyer representing a religious-promotion organisation, in a speech at the Yangon rally. “We can’t agree to an OIC office here. We are against the OIC.”
Monks have taken a leading role in fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment over the past year and a half, which has spiralled into violence with alarming regularity. The notion that Myanmar’s Buddhist civilisation is threatened by “Islamisation” is now a dominant narrative, with outlandish conspiracy theories and reactionary alarmism disseminated in sermons and speeches.
“In Thailand, three provinces have already been Islamised,” U Parmaukkha, the leader of the Yangon rallies and the senior abbot of a monastery in central Myanmar, told The Edge Review. “According to Islamic law, a man can marry up to four wives. If each wife bears him two children, that’s 32 children from one man. Burmese [Buddhist] men can only marry one wife… I’m worried about population growth.”
At the rally, demonstrators held up signs demanding the resettlement of “Bengalis” (most Burmese reject Rohingya identity as “artificial”) in OIC countries, repeating the assertion that their presence was the result of unchecked illegal immigration. “We have lax security at the borders,” U Parmaukkha said. “They take advantage of this.”
The “demographic time bomb” and “immigrant invasion” scenarios used to scapegoat the Rohingya have no basis in reality, according to a July 2013 report by David Dapice and Xuan Thanh Nguyen of Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The authors found “no evidence of large post-1950 migratory flows into Rakhine, claiming “the official data and information on income and poverty would suggest the opposite” and found no evidence of a relative increase in birthrates over the same period.
Less than two weeks before the arrival of the OIC delegation to Myanmar, a number of international NGOs suspended operations in Sittwe’s Pauktaw Township following an intimidation campaign conducted with the acquiescence of local authorities. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which provides frontline healthcare available to vulnerable populations throughout Rakhine, decided to pull out of the area temporarily on November 6 after another round of violence in the area that left four dead.
In an unusual move, MSF country head Peter-Paul de Groote wrote an editorial in the English-language Myanmar Times, responding to allegations that its provision of aid was “biased” in favour of Muslims. The fact that MSF dedicates more of its resources to Muslims is based on need and priorities, he explained, as Muslims – particularly Rohingya – live in conditions far more dire than their erstwhile Buddhist neighbours. There are “significant humanitarian needs among Muslim communities, who suffer from inadequate shelter and latrine provision, shortages in drinking water supplies and intermittent health services,” he wrote. “Statements [alleging bias in aid distribution] demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of the principles by which humanitarian organisations are bound to operate.”
The delegation urged the government to ensure “fundamental freedoms” for Rohingya, although it did not critique specific pieces of legislation.
It was careful to meet with representatives of Buddhist and Muslim communities alike across Rakhine, and in a joint communiqué released on Sunday, the OIC promised, in a conciliatory gesture, to “not to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion in the provision of humanitarian assistance,” agreeing “to ensure that humanitarian assistance will be provided on a non-discriminatory basis” through the government.
Critics of the OIC, both inside and outside of Myanmar, have accused it of placing an undue focus on conflicts where Muslims are mistreated by non-Muslims – such as Palestine, Mindanao and Myanmar – claiming that it glosses over conflicts within Muslim societies and the persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims. While the OIC has taken action against member states in recent years – such as its suspension of Syria in 2012 – it has been criticised by its member states for mishandling crises in the Islamic world, such as the brutal Egyptian military crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in July.
As the OIC’s member states are not necessarily friendly with one another, it is perhaps no surprise that the OIC chooses to focus on issues that tend to generate a broad consensus across the Muslim world. It’s easier to get Saudi Arabia and Iran to work as a team on the Rohingya issue than it would be to bring about substantive cooperation on Syria, for example.
However, the presence of the Bangladeshi, Malaysian and Indonesian officials in the delegation may signal that, even though the OIC is a pan-Islamic organisation, its mandate in this specific context is more regional. All three states have been affected by state-sanctioned persecution of the Rohingya to varying degrees. Banding together under the auspices of the OIC – the only major intergovernmental affiliation they share aside from UN membership – may allow them to apply pressure on Naypyidaw to a degree that would be difficult to achieve on their own.
Thousands of Rohingya refugees have arrived on Indonesian and Malaysian shores since mid-2012, in search of resettlement in third countries and – particularly in the case of the latter – to stay permanently. Among Asean member states, Malaysia and Indonesia are disproportionately affected by the Myanmar government’s abuses in Rakhine, and as such, both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur are keen to see the crisis resolved.
But harnessing the power of Asean to put pressure on Naypyidaw is likely to be non-starter. With Naypyidaw set to assume leadership of the ten-country bloc next year, open criticism of Myanmar’s human rights record would lead to image problems it would rather avoid. Likewise, the principle of non-interference that forms a fundamental pillar of the ‘Asean Way’ has precluded the Association from developing binding diplomatic mechanisms to settle disputes between member states, let alone “internal affairs” with far-reaching transnational consequences.
But the realpolitik behind the scenes is lost on the incensed Buddhists plying the streets of Myanmar’s cities, convinced as they are of a pernicious Muslim conspiracy to eradicate their religion and way of life. “[The international community] thinks the Myanmar Buddhist majority is attacking the Muslim minority. But in reality, it is the minority that attacks the majority,” U Aye Paing said. “People are free to practice their own religions, but our majority is Buddhist. And they [the OIC] should recognise that.”