SITTWE, MYANMAR: Hundreds of Buddhist hardliners booed former UN chief Kofi Annan as he arrived in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state on Tuesday to probe religious conflict that has displaced tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya.
Annan has been tasked by the leader of Myanmar’s new government Aung San Suu Kyi with finding ways to heal wounds in the bitterly divided and poor western state.
Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, has been scarred since 2012 by bouts of communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and a minority Muslim population.
More than 100 people have been killed – the majority Muslims – while tens of thousands of the stateless Rohingya group have spent the past four years trapped in bleak displacement camps with limited access to healthcare and other basic services.
The Rohingya are despised by Myanmar’s hardline Buddhists, who say they have no rights to citizenship and label them “Bengalis”, a shorthand for illegal immigrants.
Suu Kyi has trodden lightly on the explosive issue since coming to power in March, drawing criticism from rights groups who have urged her to use her moral weight to alleviate the Rohingya’s plight.
Last month she asked Annan to lead an advisory commission focused on solving the state’s troubles.
But in a sign of the enmity that swirls around the issue, hundreds of local Buddhists turned out on Tuesday morning as he landed at Sittwe airport to make clear that the ex-UN chief is not welcome.
Many booed and shouted “No Kofi-led commission”, as his convoy left the state capital airport, holding signs reading “No to foreigners’ biased intervention in our Rakhine State’s affairs”.
“We do not like interference,” protester Ko Thein said, adding that crowds would return Wednesday to mark Annan’s departure.
The envoy, who has vowed to be impartial in his approach to the conflict, is expected to meet Rakhine leaders as well as visit camps where tens of thousands of Rohingya languish in punishing poverty.
But the region’s largest political group, the Arakan National Party, has already ruled out meeting the former UN secretary-general.
The near one-million-strong Rohingya are largely denied citizenship and the government does not recognise them as an official ethnic minority.
Their appalling living conditions, including heavy restrictions on movement, have led tens of thousands to flee, many via treacherous sea journey south towards Malaysia.
“We want him to come,” Hla Kyaw, a Rohingya man living in The Chaung IDP camp said.
“If he comes, we will raise the issue of our citizenship status and our plight of staying in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps for four years,” he added.
Last week, sitting UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called on Myanmar to grant citizenship to the group, and respect their right to self-identify as Rohingya.
But the issue remains incendiary to Buddhist hardliners.