YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's government said it will not allow the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to open a liaison office after thousands of Buddhist monks and laypeople marched Monday to protest the plan.
Sectarian tensions have been running high in Myanmar's western Rakhine state after clashes in June between Rakhine Buddhists and Bengali Rohingya Muslims which left nearly 90 people dead and displaced tens of thousands. Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples were burned down during the unrest.
Myanmar's state press had reported that the government and the OIC had agreed last month to open an office in Yangon to provide aid for people displaced by the fighting, and the OIC sent a team to investigate the violence.
On Monday, the Information Ministry cited the President's Office as saying that "the opening of the OIC office will not be allowed as it is contradictory to the aspirations of the people."
The OIC has 57 member states and seeks to be the voice of the Islamic world.
The anti-OIC protests were held in four Myanmar cities, including Yangon, the country's largest city, where about 5,000 people participated. Some said they were marching to safeguard Buddhism.
Holding banners reading "We don't want OIC" and "Long live Buddhism," the protesters marched from the Shwedagon pagoda to Sule pagoda in the city center, shouting slogans against the OIC and paralyzing traffic in the area.
Similar protests were staged in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe and the second-largest city, Mandalay.
Reflecting widespread public opinion, the head of an influential privately owned news magazine, Weekly Eleven, said there was no need for an OIC office because "we are not a member of the OIC and we are not an Islamic country."
"If the OIC wants to provide humanitarian aid, they can do so through NGOs or the U.N.," Than Htut Aung told The Associated Press. "The opening of an OIC office amounts to inflaming further tension between Rakhine people and the Bengalis, and we will not allow the opening of an OIC office in Myanmar."