RANGOON — Burma’s government says it will take action against Buddhist protesters who allegedly carried a banner insulting Islam during a demonstration against a visiting delegation of global Islamic leaders last month.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that protesters in Rangoon’s Bahan Township received permission to demonstrate against the delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), but not to hold the banner, which the newspaper described as “assaulting faith.”
Buddhists in mid-November staged protests across the country, accusing the OIC of trying to interfere in Burmese affairs. The OIC, the world’s largest bloc of Islamic countries, sent its delegates to assess the situation in parts of western Burma where Muslim communities were devastated by religious unrest last year.
The biggest anti-OIC demonstrations were in west Burma, but in Rangoon about 1,000 protesters, mostly Buddhist monks, also marched from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda. In Bahan Township, some Buddhists monks allegedly held a banner saying, “Oppose Islam, as it is similar to animalism, with uncontrollable birth rates.”
The banner used a derogatory Burmese word, ta yeik san warda, which is used to describe animals.
“During the protest against the OIC and its delegation members on 15 November, protesters held the banner without obtaining prior approval from the local authorities, although they were allowed to stage the protest peacefully,” The New Light of Myanmar reported Sunday.
“Action will be taken against those protesters who were using [the] banner assaulting faith.”
The OIC delegation visited Arakan State for three days in November. Arakan State was the site of two major bouts of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in June and October last year, during which at least 192 people were killed and an estimated 140,000 were displaced. The majority of victims were Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority group that is largely denied citizenship in Burma and has been confined to isolated villages or displacement camps without adequate access to services such as health care.
Phoe Thar, a leader from the Rangoon-based Arakan Youth Organization who applied for permission to protest in Bahan Township, said the government was within its rights to take action against those responsible for the banner.
“They are doing their duty,” he said. “From our side, we will respond how we can. We will fight within the rule of law.”
He said he had not approved the banner before the protest.
“We condemn the use of this word,” he said. “There were people who wanted to make us look bad by using this poster. We found other posters, but we seized them at the event. We tried out best to stop it. This was our mistake—we could not check all of them. I had a duty to check them.”
He said the government also had a responsibility to prohibit defamatory banners.
“But I do not feel that the word was very insulting to Islam,” he added. “And I want to ask one question to Muslims: How can we solve the problem of Muslims raping our Arakanese [Buddhist] women and burning the houses of our people?”
Ethnic Arakanese Buddhists also lost homes in the violence last year, and monks around the country campaigned earlier this year to restrict interfaith marriage, claiming that Buddhist women are vulnerable to rape or forced religious conversions. Rights activists called this campaign inappropriate and discriminatory.
U Pamaukkha, a senior Buddhist monk who led anti-OIC protests in Rangoon last month, said the intention was not to insult Islam.
“We are doing this to protect our religion and race. I do not want the OIC to have an office anywhere in our country, and we do not want interference from other countries,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We do not see another way, except to solve this case within the rule of law. I do not feel guilty for using this word, because we are doing it for our people.
“The government should think carefully about whether to take action with this case. They should consider whether taking action against us will result in peace or not. …From our side, we are ready to face trial.”
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a humanitarian group that works for Rohingya rights, said the defamatory banner went too far.
“If the translation of the banner is correct, this goes far beyond anti-OIC protests,” she told The Irrawaddy. “This is defamation of religion.”
She said that while the government allowed the anti-OIC protests last month, it has violently suppressed other anti-government or anti-industry demonstrations—including around the Letpadaung copper mine in northwest Burma.
“Not only has the government easily given them permission to demonstrate while cracking down on Letpadaung protesters, but letting such insult to whatever religion unchallenged and unpunished would be clear evidence of the government’s involvement,” she said. “This will not go unnoticed in the Muslim world.
The Burma government has been accused by rights organizations of being complicit in anti-Muslim violence, amid allegations that state security forces have moved slowly to stop bloodshed in several riots.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organization (MAPIM) condemned the extent of protests against the OIC in Burma.
“We are outraged and we register our strong condemnation against the denigration of Islam by monks in major cities of Myanmar under the pretext of resenting the visit of OIC foreign ministers to Myanmar [Burma] a few days ago,” Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, president of the council, said in a statement last month.
He said that equating Islam to animal ideology was not only insulting, but also “tantamount to declaring war on Islam.”
“We see this deep hatred toward Muslims and Islam as intentionally orchestrated by officials of the Myanmar government themselves,” he added.