YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Visiting human rights officials warned Myanmar on Friday that using religion to divide the population is like "playing with fire" and new laws proposed by the government could inflame sectarian tensions.
The country risks being exposed to "dangers that it is not prepared to face," the top U.S. human rights envoy, Tom Malinowski, said as he wrapped up a six-day visit that included high-level dialogues on rising Buddhist nationalism and recent arrests of peaceful protesters.
His visit coincided with that of the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who shared many of his views.
Myanmar only recently emerged from a half-century of brutal military rule and self-imposed isolation. The optimism that accompanied changes brought by the introduction of a quasi-civilian government three years ago — from the release of hundreds of political prisoners to the freeing up of the media — has been replaced by disappointment about stalled reforms.
That includes an outdated legal system, the refusal to amend the junta-era constitution, and a failure to secure a nationwide cease-fire with rebel armies. New fighting has broken out in recent days between the army and ethnic insurgents in Kachin state and hundreds of villagers have been displaced.
Discrimination against the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, however, tops the list of human rights concerns.
Denied citizenship by national law, the country's 1.3 million Rohingya are effectively stateless.
More than 240 have been killed by rampaging mobs and another 140,000 are now living in dirty, crowded camps in Rakhine state, where they have little or no access to adequate medical care and schooling.
The rising intolerance — fanned by an extremist Buddhist fringe — can be felt on all levels of government.
"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," Malinowski, the top U.S. State Department human rights envoy, told reporters. "This really is playing with fire."
Myanmar's government has introduced legislation that could curb interfaith marriage and limit religious conversion. The laws, which are expected to be passed soon by parliament, are seen as especially discriminatory toward women and minorities.
Lee's visit was met by protests by hundreds of Buddhist monks, including firebrand monk Wirathu, who has been instrumental in inflaming sectarian tensions since 2012.
Lee said she expressed concern in each of her meetings about the proposed new laws.
"I am concerned that these four bills could inflame already existing tensions between religious groups," she said. "I therefore strongly urge all parliamentarians to closely scrutinize these bills, in full consultation with affected communities, and to reject them in their entirety."
"If these bills are passed, it could be viewed as one of the indicators of backtracking in the political reform process," Lee said.
International scrutiny of Myanmar's rights record is intensifying as it gears up for its first nationwide elections since the repressive junta ceded power in 2011. Changes to the constitution before the late-2015 vote appear increasingly slim, meaning that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be unable to run for the presidency.