YANGON • Myanmar has launched its first bid to improve relations between followers of different religions since an eruption of deadly violence in August inflamed communal tension and triggered an exodus of some 520,000 Muslims to Bangladesh.
Rohingya Muslims are still fleeing, more than six weeks after Rohingya insurgents attacked security forces in western Myanmar's Rakhine state.
The United Nations has denounced a ferocious military crackdown in response to the attacks as ethnic cleansing aimed at driving out Rohingya.
A new surge of refugees has entered Bangladesh in recent days, including about 11,000 on Monday. Some have told of increasing hunger in Rakhine state as well as of more mob attacks on Muslim villagers.
Despite growing international condemnation of the refugee crisis, the military campaign is popular in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya, and for Muslims in general, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged in recent years.
The party of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi took the first step towards trying to calm communal animosity with inter-faith prayers at a stadium in the biggest city of Yangon, with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
"This is for peace and stability," party spokesman Aung Shin told Reuters yesterday. "Peace in Rakhine and peace nationwide."
Traffic was jammed around the stadium as Buddhist monks and nuns packed the stands inside, along with thousands of others.
The Rohingya had pinned hopes for change on Ms Suu Kyi's party but it has been wary of Buddhist nationalist pressure. Her party did not field a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 election that it swept.
Rohingya are not classified as an indigenous minority in Myanmar and so are denied citizenship under a law that links nationality to ethnicity. Regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, they face restrictions and discrimination and are derided by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state, and by much of the wider population.
The militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, who launched the Aug 25 attacks that triggered the latest spasm of violence, are demanding full citizenship rights and recognition as an indigenous community.
In relatively peaceful parts of Rakhine, Buddhist villagers are reportedly enforcing a system of local apartheid that punishes people trading with minority Muslims, fuelling fears that violence in the far north-west could spread to new areas.
"In the current situation, it's not possible for different communities to live together," said Mr Ashin Saromani, a Buddhist monk in the central Rakhine town of Myebon.