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US, UN warn Myanmar over growing religious tensions

Myanmar Buddhist monks participates in a protest against visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee in Yangon on January 16, 2014 (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

January 16, 2015

A top American diplomat Friday decried growing religious intolerance in Myanmar and warned the use of faith for political ends was "playing with fire" in a crunch election year for the former junta-run country.

His comments came as hundreds of monks staged a rally in Yangon blasting the United Nations' rights envoy for perceived bias towards Rohingya Muslims, in the latest show of strength for Buddhist nationalists.

"We expressed a concern that the use of religion in particular to divide people -- whether it is done for political or for any other purposes -- is incredibly dangerous, particularly in an election year," Tom Malinowski, a senior state department human rights envoy, told reporters after a six day mission to the country.

The delegation voiced fears "this really is playing with fire and exposing the country to dangers that it is not prepared to handle," he added.

Myanmar has seen surging Buddhist nationalism in recent years and spates of violence targeting Muslim minorities that have raised doubts over its much vaunted reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

Protesters rally against visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee in Yangon on January 16, 2014 (AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, was denounced by crowds of monks in the main city of Yangon as she concluded her second official visit to the country on Friday.

The UN envoy warned that inter-religious violence remains a "significant problem" in Myanmar, particularly in unrest-torn Rakhine state, where she said continuing acute tensions between Muslims and Buddhists could have "far-reaching implications".

"The election is a very critical time in shaping the future of Myanmar and the situation in Rakhine is still in a state of crisis," she told reporters.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has large minority religious groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, who are both estimated to account for around four percent of the population, although many believe the number of Muslims could be higher.

Religious intolerance, sporadically spilling into lethal bloodshed, has spread across Myanmar since 2012, when unrest between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists ignited Rakhine state.

- Dangerous divisions -

Both the US and UN raised particular concerns about a set of controversial laws proposed by President Thein Sein in response to campaigns by hardline Buddhist monks.

The draft legislation -- including curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates -- are seen by activists as particularly discriminatory against women and minorities. 

They are yet to be passed by parliament, but the high-level support from government has raised fears over growing politicisation of religion in the diverse and conflict-prone nation.

"If these bills are passed, it could be viewed as one of the indicators of backtracking in the political reform process," said Lee.

Her visit comes in the wake of a recent UN resolution urging Myanmar to grant the stateless Rohingya access to citizenship -- stoking controversy in the country, where many view the group as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

At the monk protest in Yangon, hardline nationalist cleric Wirathu told AFP that monks had decided to protest against the UN "as they are trying to interfere in our country's internal affairs".

The Rakhine conflict left some 200 people dead and around 140,000 trapped in squalid displacement camps, mainly the Rohingya, who have fled the country in their tens of thousands in perilous sea journeys heading for Malaysia and beyond.

"These people are Bengalis not Rohingyas," Wirathu said, using a term seen as disparaging to the Rohingya, many of whom claim long ancestry in Myanmar.

"I don't accept them because they are dangerous to our country, not because I want them to suffer," he added.

Lee also warned that while dozens of displaced people in Rakhine's Myebon area had been granted either citizenship or naturalised status during a pilot scheme last year, none of those given official documentation were permitted to leave their camp.

"They remain inside the camp with minimum food rations, limited access to health care and to other essential services. The despair that I saw in the eyes of the people in the Myebon IDP camp was heartbreaking," she said.

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