YANGON (Reuters) - Religious tensions are on the rise again in Myanmar, after masked assailants attacked young Muslims and nationalists led by Buddhist monks set up protest camps in major cities this week.
While the Muslim minority is buffeted by outbreaks of mob violence and places of worship have been shuttered, a small but vocal group of nationalists say the fledgling government of Aung San Suu Kyi is failing to stand up for the Buddhist majority.
In the early hours of Thursday, a group of about 30 people armed with sticks and swords entered the Muslim-majority Sakya Nwe Sin neighbourhood in the former royal capital, Mandalay, according to a resident.
A local administrator said two young Muslim men were injured, but authorities insisted the incident was not sectarian.
“That was just a fight between youngsters,” said Police Major Maung Htay. “But they were swearing in the quarter so it sounded like insulting the quarter’s residents.”
However, Mandalay residents told Reuters the incident had stirred fears of a repeat of deadly communal violence that hit the same neighbourhood in 2014.
Mandalay and other central towns have seen sporadic outbreaks of communal violence since Myanmar’s transition from full military rule began in 2011.
Nearly 200 people died and tens of thousands of people - mostly Rohingya Muslims - were displaced in 2012 in Rakhine state. Violence escalated there last year after attacks on border posts by Rohingya militants.
In a letter to Suu Kyi on Thursday, 20 groups working on human rights in Myanmar said the government needed to do more to protect Muslims, who make up 4.3 percent of the population.
“The Burma government must not appease the ultra-nationalists who are utilizing hate speech, intimidation, and violence to promote fear in Muslim communities across the country,” said the letter.
“It is extremely alarming to see how anti-Muslim sentiment has spread beyond Rakhine state, where the Rohingya Muslim minority has been harshly persecuted and isolated, even to major cities like Yangon.”
In several recent cases, local officials have bowed to nationalist pressure to shut down Muslim buildings that they say are operating without official approval.
Two madrassas were shuttered in May in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.
Local media reported the closure of a mosque and another Islamic school in Oatkan, on Yangon’s outskirts, this week.
Authorities in Kyaukpadaung, central Myanmar - famed for not accepting non-Buddhist residents - last month agreed to demolish a structure that was falsely suspected of being a mosque.
On Wednesday, small groups of monks with dozens of lay supporters set up two so-called “boycott camps” close to country’s most important Buddhist site, the Shwedagon pagoda, and at a Mandalay pagoda just blocks from the mob attack later that night.
Behind banners accusing Suu Kyi’s administration of failing to protect Buddhism, the monks upturned their alms bowls - a traditional symbol of defiance against the country’s rulers.
The government-backed Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee - a panel of senior monks - called for monks to stop participating in the “inappropriate” demonstrations, state media reported on Friday.
Suspected insurgents killed at least six members of a Buddhist ethnic minority in Rakhine on Thursday, the government and regional sources said.
Reporting by Shoon Naing; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Simon Lewis and Nick Macfie