SITTWE (Myanmar) • Hundreds of Buddhist hardliners booed former UN chief Kofi Annan as he arrived in Myanmar's Rakhine state yesterday to probe the religious conflict that has displaced tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya.
Mr Annan has been tasked by the de facto leader of Myanmar's new government, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, to head a commission charged with finding ways to heal wounds in the poor western state.
But in a sign of the passions surrounding the issue, he was greeted by Buddhist protesters as he landed in the state capital Sittwe.
Many booed and shouted "No Kofi-led commission" into loudspeakers as they swarmed around his convoy, carrying signs that read: "No to foreigners' biased intervention in our Rakhine State's affairs."
Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh, has been scarred since 2012 by bouts of communal violence between the state's ethnic Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim population.
The Rohingya's plight threatens to poison democratic gains in the former army-run country and has damaged Ms Suu Kyi's reputation as a defender of the downtrodden.
More than 100 people have been killed - most of them Muslims - while tens of thousands of the stateless Rohingya have spent the past four years trapped in bleak displacement camps.
The Rohingya are despised by hardline Buddhists, who say they have no right to citizenship and label them "Bengalis", shorthand for illegal immigrants.
Ms Suu Kyi has disappointed human rights groups who accuse her of failing to directly address the plight of the Rohingya in a sop to Buddhist nationalist sentiment.
Last month, she asked Mr Annan to lead the advisory commission on solving the state's troubles.
The Ghanaian diplomat, who has vowed to be impartial, met local Rakhine leaders and civil society groups in Sittwe shortly after his arrival. Recognising the highly charged nature of the divisions in the state, he said his advisory commission would listen to all sides.
"This first visit is an opportunity to listen and learn from you, the local people," he said, as protesters chanted slogans outside the building where the meeting took place.
But the region's largest political group, the Arakan National Party, has ruled out meeting the former UN secretary-general and instead mounted a push in Parliament to disband the commission.
"We do not need to rely on any foreigner," U U Hla Saw, a Lower House MP from Rakhine, told lawmakers yesterday.
Mr Annan is also expected to meet Muslim leaders and visit a camp where tens of thousands of Rohingya languish.
"We want him to come," said Hla Kyaw, a Rohingya man from The Chaung, a village outside Sittwe where many families live in tents.
"If he comes, we will raise the issue of our citizenship status and our plight of staying in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps for four years," he added.