YANGON - Buddhist hardliners backed by monks protested in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state Sunday against help being offered to desperate migrants found adrift on boats in the Bay of Bengal.
Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest states, is a tinderbox of tension between its Buddhist majority and a persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom live in displacement camps after deadly unrest erupted there in 2012.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Rakhine in recent years, joined increasingly by economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, mainly headed for Malaysia and Indonesia.
The exodus was largely ignored until a crackdown on the people-smuggling trade in Thailand last month caused chaos as gangmasters abandoned their human cargos on land and sea.
Some 4,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have since washed ashore in the region while the UN estimates around 2,000 others are still trapped at sea.
After mounting international pressure Myanmar's navy rescued more than 900 migrants who were brought to Rakhine.
Some 150 have since been repatriated to Bangladesh.
But the rest are being held in border camps while Bangladesh and Myanmar decide their original nationality.
The rescues have infuriated Buddhist hardliners who want the Rohingya - one of the world's most persecuted minorities - expelled from Myanmar altogether and say the central government should not help those stranded in the Bay of Bengal.
Around 500 people, backed by dozens of monks, gathered under heavy rain on Sunday in the state capital Sittwe chanting slogans, a witness who joined the protest told AFP by phone. The protest finished some two hours later.
The witness' account was confirmed by a protest leader who said simultaneous demonstrations would take place in 10 townships across the state.
"We are protesting against Bengalis that were sent to Rakhine State," Aung Htay, a protest leader in Sittwe, told AFP.
Most Myanmar nationals, including the government, use the term Bengali to describe Rohingya, many of whom have lived in the region for generations.
Most of the country's estimated 1.3 million Rohingya are refused citizenship and face a raft of restrictions on their movement, family size and access to jobs.
In Maungdaw, the town closest to where the rescued migrants are being held, protest organiser Tin Maung Than said he expected 200 people to turn out.
"We are gathering people to protest against Bengali boat people here," he said.
A flyer promoting protest plans seen by AFP called on people to "protect the future of Rakhine" and also referred to migrants as "Kalar", a commonly-used racist epithet used to describe Myanmar's Muslim population.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise across Myanmar in recent years with radical monks accused of stoking religious tensions with fiery warnings that Buddhism is under threat from Islam.
Neither the government nor opposition parties have shown much appetite to confront communal tensions for fear of alienating Buddhist voters ahead of crunch elections slated for later this year.