YANGON - In a move that incites hatred against a persecuted Muslim minority, thousands of Buddhist monks have marched across Burma to demand the expulsion of Bengali-ethnic Muslims, known as Rohingyas, from the country.
The protest was to "let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar's ethnic groups at all, Wirathu, the monk who led the march, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday, September 4.
Wearing their traditional deep red robes, thousands of monks marched in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, on Sunday to demand the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from the country.
"Protect Mother Myanmar by supporting the President," read one banner, referring to President Thein Sein's suggestion to deport Rohingyas to a third country.
In July, the Burmese president commented on the website of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that it was impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingya, who are not our ethnicity.
He even suggested sending Rohingya Muslims to a third country or to UN-administrated camps.
We have lived peacefully among different religions and ethnicities for years. But we now have these illegal Bengali immigrants demanding to be recognized as a native ethnic group and asking to be granted citizenship, Wirathu said.
We want people to know the truth, that the Rohingya are not Burmese and that they are not a peaceful group.
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims are facing a catalogue of discrimination in their homeland.
They have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
The Burmese government as well as the Buddhist majority refuse to recognize the term "Rohingya", referring to them as "Bengalis".
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee their homes after ethnic violence rocked the western state of Rakhine in July after the killing of ten Muslims in an attack by Buddhist vigilantes on their bus.
The attack came following the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman, for which three Rohingyas were sentenced to death.
Human rights groups have accused Burmese police and troops of disproportionate use of force and arrests of Rohingyas in the wake of the riots.
Human Rights Watch has accused Burmese security forces of targeting Rohingya Muslims with killing, rape and arrest following the unrest.
Hundreds of Rohingya men and boys have been rounded up and remain incommunicado in the western region of the country, the group said.
But the monks' march drew fire from human rights groups for fueling hatred against Rohingya Muslims.
The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices, Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia, told Voice of America.
In 2007, monks led protests to force the ruling military junta to introduce reforms in the country.
It was very sad to see such kind of actions taken by the monks who have been heavily oppressed and killed in many cases in 2007 during Saffron Revolution, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for Forum for Democracy in Burma.
In July, NGOs have accused monks of blocking international aid to Rohingya Muslims displaced by the violence.
They said that monasteries in Maugdaw and Sittwe have refused to allow international aid to Rohingya Muslims in shelter camps.
The monks even described the aid to Muslim refugees as biased in favor of Rohingyas.
The monks also distributed pamphlets warning Burmese against associating with Rohingya Muslims.
One leaflet issued by monks described the Rohingya as cruel by nature.
It argued that Rohingya Muslims had plans to exterminate other ethnic groups in Burma.Statements were also issued by two monk groups, The Young Monks' Association of Sittwe and Mrauk Oo Monks' Association, calling on Burmese not to associate with Rohingya.