YANGON - Hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Myanmar's largest city of Yangon on Wednesday to denounce foreign criticism of the country's treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims.
About 300 people, led by about 30 Buddhist monks, shouted slogans against the United Nations and Western media, who they accuse of unfairly blaming Myanmar for a "boat people" crisis that has seen thousands of trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants wash up in Southeast Asia in recent weeks.
Protest leaders argued that the vast majority of those who have landed or been rescued at sea were citizens of neighbouring Bangladesh, who were pretending to be Rohingya in order to receive refugee protection.
Banners carried through the streets included slogans calling the migrants "terrorists" and "beast" (sic).
"If the international community puts pressure on the Myanmar government to accept boat people from Bangladesh, then we urge the government to strongly resist," Thar War, a protest leader from Habyelsaw Tadaban, a nationalist organisation, told Reuters.
Protesters also urged Myanmar's government to use a 17-nation crisis meeting scheduled to be held in the Thai capital Bangkok on Friday to resist pressure from other nations to grant greater rights to Rohingya.
Over a million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in the country's western Rakhine State and are regarded by the government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
"Bengali people don't respect Buddhism, so they are not Myanmar citizens. It's as simple as that," said Thu Dammyra, a monk from the right-wing Ma Ba Tha Buddhist organisation.
Myanmar's government has sought to portray the migrant crisis as largely involving citizens of Bangladesh lured in by human traffickers, rather than Rohingya fleeing poverty and persecution in Myanmar.
Last week, Myanmar's navy seized a migrant boat off the country's western coast with 200 Bangladeshis on board, using the nationality of the migrants to argue that Myanmar is not to blame for the crisis.
But a report by Reuters on Wednesday found that at least 150 Rohingya were on the same traffickers' boat, and were quietly whisked away by smugglers before it was raided by authorities.
More than 2,500 migrants are still believed to be stranded at sea, according to the United Nations, weeks after a crackdown on trafficking by Thai authorities prompted smugglers to abandon boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.