Hundreds of Buddhist monks in Myanmar have staged a rally in support of President Thein Sein’s proposal to send the members of the Rohingya minority group to another country.
Sunday’s rally in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, is the latest indication of deep-seated sentiment against the Rohingya after violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in June left at least 83 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
The monks held a banner saying, “Save your motherland Myanmar by supporting the president”, while others criticised United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has faced accusations that he is biased in favour of the Rohingya.
The leader of the march, a monk named Wirathu, told the AFP news agency that the protest was to “let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s ethnic groups at all”.
Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature. He was given a 25-year sentence but released in January this year under an amnesty.
The monks say they will demonstrate and march for the next three days and expect many more people to join them.
The United Nations has referred to the Rohingya, widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, as among the most persecuted people on Earth.
The Rohingya have been denied citizenship even though many of their families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Myanmar has denied a crackdown on Muslims and launched an inquiry into the violence, while Thein Sein has accused Buddhist monks, politicians and other ethnic Rakhine figures of kindling hatred towards the Rohingya in a report sent to parliament last month.
However, in comments to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, published on his official website in July, he suggested it was “impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingya, who are not our ethnicity” and mooted sending the group to a third country or UN administered camps.
The proposal was quickly opposed by the UN refugee agency.
Rights groups claim the government did little to stop the violence initially and then turned its security forces on the Rohingya with targeted killings, rapes, mass arrests and torture.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh but Bangladesh also rejects them, rendering them stateless.
The UN estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar and the country’s president has said the trouble in Rakhine state is an internal affair of the country and should not be internationalised.