NAYPYIDAW - Myanmar's president blocked a world Islamic body from opening an office in the country, an official said Monday, bowing to rallies against its efforts to help Muslims in unrest-hit Rakhine state.
"The president will not allow an OIC office because it is not in accordance with the people's desires," said an official from Myanmar leader Thein Sein's office, after thousands of monks held the latest protests against the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in two major cities on Monday.
The official, who asked not to be named, declined to comment on an agreement signed with the OIC, the top world Muslim body, which confirmed last week that it had obtained the green light to open an office in the country.
Around 3,000 maroon-robed clerics, some shouting and holding banners reading "No OIC", marched through the country's commercial hub Yangon, according to a photographer.
Thousands more protested in the second-largest city Mandalay, with another demonstration in the town of Pakokku in Magway region in central Myanmar, according to organisers.
"We cannot accept any OIC office here," Oattamathara, a monk leading the Mandalay protest, said. "Not a temporary office and not a permanent office."
Sectarian tensions are running high following Buddhist-Rohingya clashes in June in western Rakhine which left dozens of people dead and forced tens of thousands to seek refuge in temporary shelters.
Monks were at the vanguard of a 2007 pro-democracy uprising that was brutally crushed by the former junta. They have been involved in a series of protests against the OIC and Myanmar's 800,000 stateless Rohingya, who are described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
Members of the 57-member OIC toured Rakhine last month after accusations from rights groups that security forces opened fire on Rohingya during the sectarian unrest, prompting concern across the Islamic world.
Myanmar's Rohingya, who speak a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants.
Tensions in Rakhine have spread to neighbouring Bangladesh, where police said recently they had arrested nearly 300 people in connection with a wave of violence targeting Buddhist homes and temples.
The OIC head office did not react officially to Monday's decision.
At the time of its visit in September, the delegation signed "a memorandum of co-operation, envisaging the opening of an office for humanitarian work in the Burmese capital and a coordination office" in Rakhine State, an IOC source said.
The document was signed by the border affairs minister, said the source.