MANDALAY, Myanmar (Reuters) - The city of Mandalay in northern Myanmar is a Buddhist religious centre so crowded with temples, monasteries and monks that they can sometimes seem innumerable.
Much easier to count is the number of Mandalay Muslims standing in Myanmar’s historic general election on Nov. 8. That would be one.
Khin Maung Thein hails from an obscure little party and runs his campaign from a cluttered, two-story home that doubles as the family printing business.
As the sole Muslim candidate in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city and a stronghold for Buddhist extremists, he is treading where giant rivals won’t dare.
Not even the front-running National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi, is fielding a Muslim candidate in Mandalay - or, indeed, anywhere else.
NLD leaders told Reuters they fear antagonising a Buddhist ultranationalist group called Ma Ba Tha, which is led by monks and wields huge influence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Ma Ba Tha says Islam is eclipsing Buddhism and has called for a boycott of Muslim businesses and a ban on interfaith marriages.
Scores of Muslim candidates have been disqualified and voting rights removed from hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar.
Experts say marginalising Muslims could reignite religious unrest, embolden Buddhist radicals and undermine the credibility of what many people hope will be Myanmar’s first free and fair election in 25 years.
Only a dozen or so Muslim candidates are now running nationwide, mostly from Khin Maung Thein’s party, the United National Congress (UNC).
“Muslims have been suffering in Myanmar in recent years and this pushed us to go into parliament,” said Khin Maung Thein, a stout but youthful-looking 71-year-old.
He identifies himself as Pathi, a Muslim group with Persian blood and a centuries-old history in Myanmar, and sees the election as a chance to “restore our ethnic pride”.
He also wants to promote UNC policies such as reducing the budget of Myanmar’s all-powerful military and spending it on education instead.
Muslims make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s 51 million population. Religious violence has killed hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, since a military-backed civilian government took power in 2011 after nearly half a century of dictatorship. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s second-largest city of Mandalay in July 2014 killed two people and left the communities on edge.
Mandalay is home to a leading Ma Ba Tha monk called Wirathu, the self-styled “Burmese bin Laden”, who is famous for his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The group, founded in 2013 and known in English as the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, is urging people not to vote for Suu Kyi and other NLD candidates for opposing four “race and religion protection” laws.
Ma Ba Tha monks have expressed support for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who did back the race and religion laws. The USDP isn’t fielding Muslim candidates either.
Khin Maung Thein’s UNC party was founded in 2012 and competes in a system that seems stacked against Muslims.
Earlier this year, in Rakhine State, the government invalidated the identity cards of about 650,000 Rohingya, effectively disenfranchising them.
In a September statement, the U.S. State Department noted that Myanmar’s election commission had disqualified about 100 candidates, mostly Muslims, “through an opaque and discriminatory process” that could undermine confidence in the election.
Among those disqualified were six of the UNC’s 12 candidates, all Muslims. A week later, amid international pressure, the election commission reinstated 11 Muslim candidates, including four from the UNC.
The exclusion of Muslims as both candidates and voters feeds into growing concerns that they are being edged out of public life.
In July, police in Mandalay arrested three people, two of them Muslim, from a respected interfaith group after what family members said was a Ma Ba Tha smear campaign. They remain in custody.
Four others from the same group fled abroad and public interfaith meetings in the city were halted. A Muslim activist told Reuters he had received death threats.
Muslims in and around Mandalay told Reuters they were afraid to go out at night and had stopped travelling in large groups for fear of arbitrary arrest.
Khin Maung Thein, the lone Muslim candidate, is only campaigning in Mandalay’s mosques, rather than on its streets, concerned that Ma Ba Tha monks might harass the people he canvasses.
“I can’t show up openly and hold campaign rallies,” he said.
Editing by Bill Tarrant