Father Michael Kyi Lwin stands inside Our Lady of La Salette Church in Thandwe, a coastal town in southern Rakhine state on Oct. 16. (Photo by John Zaw)
The church of Our Lady of La Salette sits high on a hill outside the coastal Myanmar town of Thandwe. On the next hill is the unmistakable golden dome of a Buddhist pagoda; between are fields of rice ripe for the harvest.
Down the road in Thandwe proper sits a Baptist church, with two dozen or so mosques dotted around the town.
"It was peaceful and harmonious between Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus in the coastal town of Thandwe before 2013," recalls Father Michael Kyi Lwin, an ethnic Chin who has tended the Catholic church for 24 years.
But anti-Muslim sentiment and the rhetoric of hard-line Buddhist monks — which roiled the north of the state in 2012, cracking open religious differences that had been simmering since the middle of last century — didn't spare Thandwe to the south.
In October 2013, the sectarian violence ignited Thandwe, resulting in the deaths of five Muslims with some 70 Muslim homes torched by mobs.
The main violence in the north, around the state capital, Sittwe, had been between ethnic Rohingya, who are often called "Bengalis" by people from across Myanmar's political spectrum. The Muslims who live in Thandwe and other parts of Rakhine, however, are from the Kaman group — one of Myanmar's 135 official ethnic groups — who have lived in the country for generations.
"I never expected that religious violence would erupt in our town through targeting minority Muslims. It destroyed the beauty of interfaith harmony among different religions," a Kaman Muslim resident in Thandwe, who runs a tea shop, told ucanews.com.
"People from different religions celebrate and participate in Christmas, Eid, Buddhist Lent and Hindu celebrations together," said the man, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation from Buddhists.
And while the Kaman, who number about 300,000, have citizenship and the same rights as other Myanmar people — unlike the Rohingya, who are disenfranchised — hate speech against all minority Muslims has still been spreading among the community.
Supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy attend a rally in Thandwe on Oct. 17. (Photo by Michael Sainsbury)
Religion a political tool
The anti-Muslim campaign has been championed by hard-line Buddhist monks from the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known as Ma Ba Tha, who have successfully pushed for the legislation of four race and religion laws amid growing nationalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Some of the most influential monks in the movement have publicly endorsed President Thein Sein.
The power of such endorsements could sway voters from the country's main opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, which opposed the religion laws and has been accused by Buddhist nationalists of being pro-Muslim.
"Those who incite religion as a tool for political gain can face legal action, as it is against the 2008 constitution," Suu Kyi said, responding to a question at an Oct. 17 campaign rally in Thandwe, where thousands of supporters waved flags and sported the party's logo painted onto their faces.
Win Naing, a candidate for state parliament with Suu Kyi's party, said that the big challenges the party faces at a local level is that some groups have attacked it for being pro-Muslim.
"Whenever we reach out to villagers in campaigns, we try to give awareness about hate speech," Win Naing told ucanews.com.
Local Ma Ba Tha monks interviewed by ucanews.com denied they were involved, but anecdotal evidence from locals appeared to dispute this.
Ni Ni Win, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from Taunggok township, said that her neighbors were told by some Ma Ba Tha monks not to vote for Suu Kyi's NLD party.
"Personally, I don't believe the propaganda about the country becoming Muslim if the NLD wins power in the election. So I will vote for Suu Kyi's NLD party," Ni Ni Win, the mother of two children, told ucanews.com
Ni Ni Win, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from Taunggok township, says she would vote for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party. She is seen together with her child at Suu Kyi's campaign rally in Taunggok on Oct. 16. (Photo by Michael Sainsbury)
'Wherever any Muslims reside'
Ashin Eaindra Sa Ya, a central executive committee member from Ma Ba Tha, denied the accusations and claimed the movement has no political involvement; rather, its emphasis is on protecting Buddhism.
"I don't hear that monks are preaching not to vote for the NLD party. Our monks are preaching about race and religion laws in the townships," said Eaindra Sa Ya, who is based in a monastery in Ngapali township.
Still, Rakhine nationalist monks have expressed disappointment over Suu Kyi's stance on the 2012 violence in Rakhine state, which left scores dead and thousands displaced — mostly Rohingya Muslims.
Asked by ucanews.com whether he was surprised that violence erupted later in Thandwe in 2013, the monk said he was not.
"Wherever any Muslims reside, the problem emerges," he said.
The monk said that the violence in 2013 had a significant impact on the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in the region.
"I had a good relationship with Muslims and they gave some great help to me in the past but we have had less communication since 2013," Eaindra Sa Ya said.
The situation in Thandwe has been echoed in other towns around Myanmar where Muslims live. Just how much influence this has on the Nov. 8 election remains to be seen.