By Andrew R.C. Marshall
MEIKTILA, Myanmar (Reuters) - When religious violence erupted in Meiktila in central Myanmar two years ago, local politician Win Htein spoke up for the minority Muslims who bore its deadly brunt. Many of his fellow Buddhists have never forgiven him.
At least 44 people were killed in March 2013 after a rampage by Buddhist mobs that Win Htein, a lawmaker for the National League for Democracy (NLD), tried to stop.
Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD will soon contest a general election, and Win Htein admits that memories of his actions then could lose the party votes among Myanmar's Buddhist majority.
"I was accused of bias against Buddhists," he told Reuters. "I have never regretted my decision to protect a minority."
For parties contesting the election, likely to be held in November, race and religion are both central and incendiary.
They pose a special challenge for Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, who has been criticized overseas for not speaking up for Muslims and other minorities.
Religious tensions simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century of military rule, before boiling over in 2012, just a year after a semi-civilian government took power.
Hundreds died in clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists that year, which led to the organized expulsion of Rohingya by Rakhine mobs.
Some 140,000 Rohingya now live in squalid internment camps, while thousands more have fled by boat for nearby countries, sparking a regional migration crisis.
Anti-Muslim unrest later spread to central Myanmar. It was fueled by monks who claimed Islam was eclipsing Buddhism and urged a boycott of Muslim businesses and interfaith marriages.
The violent combustion of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment "could happen again in the politically charged context of an election", the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in April.
SUU KYI'S SILENCE
Win Htein, 74, a Suu Kyi confidant and former political prisoner, defends his party leader's apparent reluctance to speak up for Muslims.
"If she speaks in favor of Rohingya, she'll be accused of being a Muslim lover," he said. "If she speaks for the (Rakhine) people, she'll be accused of being a nationalist and a racist. That's why she has stayed quiet."
Meanwhile, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, led by monks and known by its acronym Ma Ba Tha, grow increasingly vocal.
In May, President Thein Sein signed into law a population control bill that Human Rights Watch warned could be used "to repress religious and ethnic minorities".
The law, which would require some women to wait at least three years between pregnancies, was one of four "Race and Religion Protection Laws" introduced to parliament with Ma Ba Tha backing. The NLD opposes them.
Myanmar's reforms have brought new freedom of expression, but criticizing Buddhism remains perilous.
On June 2, a court jailed Htin Lin Oo, a writer and NLD member, for two years for "insulting religion" in a speech promoting religious tolerance.
"ASHAMED" OF MEIKTILA
The 2013 bloodshed in Meiktila started with an argument involving a Buddhist at a Muslim-run gold shop. Buddhist mobs, monks among them, were soon attacking Muslims and their properties. Further incensed by a deadly assault by Muslims on a monk during the ensuing violence, they massacred at least 20 students of an Islamic school.
When Win Htein later declared he was "ashamed" to come from Meiktila, a group of constituents petitioned for his removal as their member of parliament.
The NLD is expected to do well nationally in the election, but local party member Khin May Si said some Meiktila Buddhists were now "totally against" the party and supported Ma Ba Tha.
Baddanta Ottara, a monk and Ma Ba Tha's deputy chairman in Meiktila, said the violence had united Buddhists.
He said Win Htein's stance was an "insult" to Buddhism, and characterized Muslims as aloof, furtive and menacing. "Not every Muslim is an extremist, but most extremists are Muslims," he said.
Muslims told Reuters they felt besieged and fearful.
Thae Thae Mar, 53, lives in a shack in a community destroyed by mobs in 2013. Many Muslims had since returned to build simple homes amid the ruins, but she still feels vulnerable.
The authorities have shut down the local mosque. Thae Thae Mar said dogs got inside and barked from the minarets. "It makes me want to cry," she said. "We're not even allowed to go in and chase them away."
(Additional reporting by Hnin Yadana Zaw; Editing by Alex Richardson)