Hundreds of Buddhists in Myanmar have staged a protest against a visit by former UN chief Kofi Annan, who is leading a commission to advise the government on how it can bridge the bitter sectarian divide in Rakhine state. The protesters claimed the Ghanaian-led panel was meddling in Myanmar's internal issues.
Annan was appointed by Myanmar's de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi to head the commission to find a solution to alleged widespread human rights abuses by Rakhine Buddhists against religious and ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims.
The state's dominant Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Rakhine Women Network led the protest from near the airport in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine. Dozens of police oversaw the protest in which local residents and Buddhist monks took part. They were reported to have viewed the nine-member commission as "foreigners' biased intervention".
On his two-day visit to the state, Annan was greeted by jeers and chants with some members of the crowd shouting: "Dismiss the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission now."
While the demonstrations were going on, Annan told local officials and leaders from the Buddhist community that he and his team were there only to help provide ideas and counsel. "We are also aware of resistance, fears and doubts that have prevailed again and again," Reuters cited Annan as saying.
Some of the locals have said they wanted one of their own local Rakhine nationality people to represent the panel and not an outsider. The lower house of Myanmar's parliament was also discussing on Tuesday (6 September) whether to allow foreigners to be part of the commission.
Aung Than Wai, secretary of ANP's executive committee, said: "This country has its own sovereignty, so we will not accept foreign interference in local affairs."
One of the local residents, May Phyu, from the Buddhist community told the Associated Press: "We came here because we don't want that foreigner coming to our state." The protester said she did not know who Annan's team were and why they were in her country, but "I came here to protest as I don't like them to come here".
Annan and his panel comprising of six Myanmar citizens and two foreigners are expected to visit displacement camps in Rakhine where tens of thousands of people live in cramped and poorly maintained huts.
The Rohingya Muslims were thought to have been blocked from moving freely within the country, with many denied Myanmar citizenship and access to basic services. They were allegedly seen as Bangladeshi Muslims living in the country illegally, although the minority group has reported to have been living in Myanmar for many generations. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes following the 2012 unrest in Rakhine state.
Annan assured that he would be "impartial" in arriving at a solution to the long-running conflict. "Dialogue will be the order of the day," he said during the panel's first meeting in Yangon on Monday (5 September).