US warns Myanmar over growing religious tensions

YANGON - 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.

"I came here to protest against the UN as they are trying to interfere in our country's internal affairs," hardline nationalist cleric Wirathu told AFP.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has large minority religious groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, who are both estimated to account for around four per cent 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 western Rakhine state.

That 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.

The US envoy Malinowski also criticised barriers to citizenship for the Rohingya - most of whom are stateless and subject to a web of restrictions.

He raised particular concern 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.