YANGON (AFP) – 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 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 emergence from decades of harsh military rule.
Crowds of maroon-robed monks thronged near the city’s golden Shwedagon pagoda holding signs against the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who is also concluding a visit to the country on Friday.
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.