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OIC’s Myanmar visit reveals plight of Rohingya Muslims

ONE FAITH: Speaking passionately through an interpreter, OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told the emotional crowd of Rohingya Muslims: “We are here to tell you that you are not alone, you are not abandoned.” (Arab News photos by Maha Akeel)

By Maha Akeel 
November 28, 2013

A high-level delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), headed by Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, visited Myanmar (previously Burma) last week in what was described as a landmark visit. 

Not everyone welcomed the good will visit. Protests by radical Buddhist monks greeted the delegation outside Yangon airport on Nov. 13, and the day before their arrival, hundreds marched down the streets of Yangon objecting to the delegation’s visit, seeing it as a form of interference in the country’s internal affairs. 

The delegation did not spend time in Yangon. It was swiftly whisked away to the administrative capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

The delegation spent Thursday in meetings with officials, parliamentarians and interfaith groups, where the exchange of views helped bring matters a little more in focus on the Rakhine problem, particularly with regards to socio-economic hardships (high unemployment and poverty), religious and ethnic tension and humanitarian assistance.

The delegation was greeted with a group of protesters outside the airport of the capital of Rakhine.

From there, the delegation boarded two helicopters to the village of Maungdaw, one of the many villages that witnessed violent attacks on the Rohingya Muslim community, who are the majority in these villages closer to the Bangladesh border.

Landing in a grassy field, the delegation stepped out of the helicopters and into a convoy of 12 cars. 

Along the sides of the dusty road a group of protesters held signs saying “OIC, GET OUT.” 
But a short distance ahead, the crowd changed into a more docile and welcoming one, Muslims.

At a town hall gathering of Buddhists and Muslims, the secretary-general stressed that the OIC was there to extend its hand of friendship and its sympathy to the whole community for their suffering. He tried to clarify some of the misconceptions about OIC and its intentions, namely that it is not a religious organization and will not be providing assistance based on religion and that the member states which sent assistance to the victims of the violence or the cyclone tragedy Nargis did so without discrimination through the government.

Buddhist elders from the community stood in turn expressing their views. They were adamant, saying things such as “There is no such thing as Rohingya in our community; they are Bengali,” “They are creating false history,” “Rohingya in Bangladesh are instigating violence here,” “We did not receive any donations from OIC countries, they were all to the Rohingya Muslims,” “If OIC wants to help, it can help them in family planning.”

The Muslim elders, who spoke timidly to OIC delegates, said they have been living here for generations and they just want to live in peace.

The convoy then went back to the helicopters and to Sittwe, where they traveled through narrow paved roads, passing shanty homes and shops to where a huge crowd warmly welcomed and engulfed the secretary-general as he walked toward and into the Thabuchaung Mosque. 

Men tearfully stepped up to shake and kiss his hand and hug him in joy at seeing him and his accompanying delegation. The despair and anguish in their eyes was palpable. The few who could speak English blurted the words incoherently about their plight — no health care, schools or jobs and being too scared to walk outside their makeshift homes for fear of being attacked. In the small mosque, it was hard to keep the crowd calm.

Speaking passionately through an interpreter, Ihsanoglu told the emotional crowd, “We are here to tell you that you are not alone, you are not abandoned.” The crowd broke out in roars of relief saying “Alhamdulillah” (Thanks be to God) and “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).
After spending some time with the people at the mosque listening to their stories, the delegation then rode the cars again to another part of Sittwe where one of the refugee camps is located. An even bigger crowd lined the street, as the delegation walked in a large open space covered with a tent-like wooden structure. The hum from the throng was overwhelming. The secretary-general and the two foreign ministers with him, from Turkey and Djibouti who were part of the delegation, tried to talk with the crowd and listen to their complaints as a few of them approached, to no avail.

Returning to the airport, the delegation met with representatives of the Rakhine Buddhists, who expressed the view that Rohingya Muslims are Bengalis and should return to their homeland and that if the OIC feels so sympathetic toward them, it should integrate them into OIC countries. 

Rakhine Muslims, on the other hand, said that both communities have suffered and that they want to cooperate with the government to solve the issue.

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