International alarm over Myanmar religious tension ahead of key polls

Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party walk down a road as they campaign for the upcoming Nov 8 general election, in Yangon on Sept 15, 2015.
Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party walk down a road as they campaign for the upcoming Nov 8 general election, in Yangon on Sept 15, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - The United States, Japan and other major powers on Tuesday (Sept 15) raised fears that rising religious tensions in Myanmar could spark "division and conflict" as campaigning begins for historic elections.

Myanmar goes to the polls on Nov 8 in what many hope will be its freest vote in generations after decades of army rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party widely tipped to make huge gains.

But religious tensions are spiking in the Buddhist-majority country, which has seen sporadic outbursts of often deadly religious unrest in recent years, with minority Muslims facing increasing political exclusion as the influence of nationalist monks grows.

In a statement a day after hardline monks began two weeks of nationwide ceremonies that coincide with the start of election campaigning, foreign governments called on Myanmar "to promote a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect, and equality under the law to ensure the elections are peaceful and inclusive".

"We, as international partners invested in the success of this country and these elections, are concerned about the prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season," the statement said.

It was signed by the embassies of Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, Japan, Sweden, Britain and the US.

Religious unrest has overshadowed Myanmar's reform efforts as it begins to emerge from the grip of outright military rule under a quasi-civilian government, which came into power in 2011.

The impoverished nation has seen sporadic outbursts of anti-Muslim violence since 2012, when festering resentments between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state erupted in two rounds of bloodshed that left at least 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.

Unrest spread across the country in tandem with the rise in influence of nationalist Buddhist clerics.

In March Myanmar revoked temporary identification documents - a move affecting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have since been stripped of voting rights after parliament banned people without full citizenship from voting.

As elections near, Suu Kyi has accused opponents of "using religion" against her National League for Democracy party.

But neither her opposition or the ruling party has put forward any Muslim candidates for the polls, despite the minority making up some four percent of the population.

On Monday hundreds of monks gathered in Yangon to begin two weeks of ceremonies across Myanmar to celebrate the passage into law of four controversial "religious protection" bills, including one that restricts interfaith marriage, that activists say discriminate against women and religious minorities.