Myanmar monks lead protest decrying U.N. envoy's visit
|Myanmar Buddhist monks stage a protest against visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee in Yangon on January 16, 2014 (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)|
By Paul Mooney
January 16, 2015
Hundreds of protesters led by Buddhist monks rallied in Myanmar on Friday to denounce a visit by a human rights envoy of the United Nations, which has urged the government to grant citizenship to persecuted Rohingya Muslims.
Crowds roared and pumped their fists in the air as Ashin Wirathu, a extremist monk known for railing against Muslims, delivered an impassioned speech in Yangon attacking the U.N. and its Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who is concluding a 10-day visit.
The scenes demonstrate a surge in Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, where monks carry considerable influence and were revered for their moral integrity during the five decades when the country was under brutal and corrupt military rule.
Protests were outlawed until the civilian-led government that took office in 2011 lifted the ban. But that has given rise to a Buddhist movement that has taken aim at Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of Myanmar's population of 53 million.
Sectarian violence since June 2012 has killed at least 240 people, mostly Muslims. The Rohingya are the worst affected. At least 140,000 were displaced in western Rakhine state, where Lee faced similar protests last week.
Lee said Rakhine state "remains in crisis" and urged the government to allow full aid access to Rohingyas stuck in camps with limited food and medicine.
"The despair that I saw in the eyes of the people ... was heartbreaking," she told reporters on Friday.
Restricting their rights, she said, was "merely serving to exacerbate tensions and anger."
The U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in November urging Myanmar's government to protect and grant citizenship to the Rohingyas, who number about 1.1 million.
The U.N. call was rebuffed and caused outrage in the Buddhist-majority country, where many reject the name "Rohingya" and see them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Some protesters on Friday dismissed them as "terrorists", echoing some Myanmar officials who believe militant elements are among them, a claim Rohingya leaders refute.
Demonstrators wore shirts saying "stand together against Islam", with a cross over the U.N. logo. The backs of shirts read "don't use fake name for illegal immigrants Bangladeshi".
Signs were held saying: "Kick Rohin-liars out".
The issue is a political hot potato for President Thein Sein, who was lauded for his wide-ranging reforms but is now accused of being indifferent to the Rohingyas' plight. Helping them, however, could affect his government's popularity.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Neil Fullick)