YANGON, Myanmar – The secretary general of the world’s largest bloc of Islamic countries said emotional visits with members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim community – chased from their homes in Myanmar by Buddhist mobs and arsonists – brought him to tears.
“I’ve never had such a feeling,” Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said late Saturday, as he and other delegates from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation wrapped up a three-day tour to Myanmar that included talks with the president, government ministers, interfaith groups and U.N. agencies.
But he said it was the huge, emotional crowds living in trash-strewn camps outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, that made the biggest impression.
“I was crying,” Ihsanoglu said.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, emerged from a half-century of military rule in 2011, but its transition to democracy has been marred by sectarian violence that has left more than 240 people dead and sent another 240,000 fleeing their homes.
Most of the victims have been Rohingya. Though many of their families arrived generations ago, all have been denied citizenship by the government.
Many children in displacement camps have not gone to school for more than a year. Those who wish to leave – for medical treatment or otherwise – have to pay hefty bribes. Humanitarian aid workers face constant threats by Buddhist Rakhine, who accuse them of being biased in favor of Rohingya.
Ihsanoglu said that while visiting the Sittwe camps, he and other members of the IOC delegation were met by crowds of 5,000, but due to the language barrier, they were unable to communicate.
“They were desperate. They were afraid. They were happy we were there, but it was a happiness expressed in crying,” he said, adding that he was eventually able to offer the Islamic greeting, “Assalam Alaikum,” or “May God grant protection and security,” and the crowd responded in kind.
“I can’t explain the feeling I had,” he said. “It was very moving.”
The OIC visit to Myanmar was marred by frequent demonstrations, with thousands turning out to meet the delegates when they landed in Yangon and then Sittwe, some carrying banners that said “OIC get out” or chanting “Stop interfering in our internal affairs.”
Still, Ihsanoglu called it a success – mostly because it came at the invitation of a government that has largely remained silent about the repeated attacks on minority Muslims.
He said he received assurances that the government was seeking to resolve issues of citizenship for its 800,000 Rohingya, but gave no details.
“If this issue is not solved, it will be a big problem,” he said.
Rohingya, excluded from Myanmar’s 135 recognized ethnic groups, have for decades endured systematic discriminatory and exclusionary policies, restricting movement, access to education and jobs.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – who has said little in defense of the religious minority – declined to meet with the OIC delegation.