YANGON: Tens of thousands of people filled a football stadium in Yangon for an interfaith rally on Tuesday, a show of unity in a country seared by ethnically-charged violence against the Muslim Rohingya on its western border.
Buddhist monks, Christian nuns, Hindus and Muslims were among those who joined the gathering in a display of support for government leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of the crisis in Rakhine.
The border region descended into violence in late August after Rohingya militants attacked police posts, sparking a military backlash that has driven more than half a million of the Muslim minority from their homes.
The mass exodus of Rohingya has shocked and alarmed the world, with the UN accusing the army of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Muslim minority.
But the conflict is viewed differently inside mainly Buddhist Myanmar, where many loathe the Rohingya and blame them for driving the unrest.
A siege mentality has developed, forging new alliances as many in Myanmar unite around criticism of foreign media and international NGOs, who they accuse of a pro-Rohingya bias.
Tuesday’s rally brought together a mix of faiths who back the Nobel laureate and her National League for Democracy (NLD), which helped organise the event.
Many in the crowd of around 30,000 held portraits of Suu Kyi or wore shirts bearing her face.
The Nobel laureate has come under sharp global censure for failing to voice more sympathy for the Rohingya streaming out of her country.
While the former democracy activist lacks control over the army, she has been blasted by rights groups for not publicly condemning their crackdown.
“This is a ceremony which shows the world that people of all religions in our country are friendly and love each other,” Win Maung, a NLD politician who helped organise the rally, told AFP.
“We feel deeply sorry for the reaction from international countries based on news without truth.”
In a speech to the crowd Myanmar’s Catholic cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, came out in strong defence of Suu Kyi, recalling her long years as a democracy activist under the former junta.
“She never asked for the Nobel Peace Prize,” he said, responding to calls from some corners that she be stripped of the title.
“Now the world sees Myanmar as a heartless country. But actually the universal religion of Myanmar people is compassion and sympathy.”
The Southeast Asian nation is home to a diverse patchwork of more than 100 ethnic groups but the Rohingya are not recognised as an official ethnicity – a status that renders them stateless.
They have been the target of systematic oppression in Myanmar for decades, with previous army campaigns driving huge numbers across the border to Bangladesh.
The military, which ran the country for 50 years until 2015, has stoked the view that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh bent on claiming the Buddhist land.
The recent violence in Rakhine has inflamed already blistering tensions between the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in the region, which has weathered bouts of communal bloodshed in recent years. --AFP