In Dalla Township across the river from downtown Yangon in Myanmar, a group of 50 Muslims aged 13 to 21 sit in huddles as they study Arabic, English and Islam at a local madrasa, or religious school.
While the teachers are warm and hospitable, they skip over the thorny subject of the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled northern Rakhine State, for fear of retaliation from local authorities.
"How can we be happy when our fellow Rohingya Muslims are being oppressed and thousands have fled to Bangladesh?" asks one of the teachers, who declined to be named.
"We are troubled by the plight of the Rohingya as they are our brothers."
Another instructor from northern Shan State wondered why the government in Myanmar was not doing more to help the Rohingya, as he read about their struggles thousands miles away while reading the news on his smartphone.
"Why didn't the government give the media access to Rakhine? Did it have something to hide?" he asked.
Rohingya refugees now living in squalid Bangladeshi camps claim they fled Myanmar due to a state-sanctioned persecution campaign that saw villages razed and people murdered.
The military, which is now believed to be building security outposts and other installments on top of the burned villages, said it was responding to attacks by Rohingya militants.
Myanmar has signed a repatriation deal with Bangladesh but Dhaka has delayed the deal citing logistical and documentation problems. Meanwhile, many of the refugees say they are afraid to return home.
Back at the madrasa in Dalla, one local Muslim man said Rakhine State has long been divided along ethnic lines and the people who live there were to some degree alienated from the rest of the country regardless of religion.
"The Rakhine people, both Buddhists and Muslims, are quite different from us," he said. "They live on the other side of the mountains and speak different languages."
Tin Mg Than, vice-president of the trustee of Narsapuri mosque in Yangon, speaks with ucanews.com reporters on March 9. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)
More than 671,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine since the military's brutal crackdown began last August. Both the U.N. and the United States have described it as a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.
While the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world is unfolding in the region, other Muslims inside Myanmar remain mute on the issue amid rising nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Local Muslims say they are taking a pragmatic approach to the crisis. They recall the snowballing episodes of violence that arose after a series of riots first broke out in Rakhine back in 2012.
Tin Mg Than, a Muslim who sells spectacles at a store in downtown Yangon, said concern is growing about the rising tide of hate speech directed at Muslims in Myanmar.
He also pointed to fighting taking place between different religions in Sri Lanka but stressed that Buddhists and non-Rohingya Muslims in the Myanmar capital coexist without any significant problems.
"The government is trying to take action against those who spread hate speech. It's their responsibility to protect minority groups," Mg Mg Thein, the vice-president and trustee of Nasapuri mosque in Yangon, told ucanews.com.
However, he said Muslims are still targeted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, especially in rural areas.
Near Tin Mg Than's shop, a crowd of Muslims had formed as people came to attend traditional Friday afternoon prayers at the mosque.
Yangon's Muslim community has mostly escaped the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment and extreme violence seen elsewhere in the country.
But now many here fear the rapidly mounting power of the Ma Ba Tha — Myanmar's officially banned but highly organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, which has spoken openly about the "threat" of Islam.
Muslim women gather near the entrance to the mosque before Friday prayers begin at 1pm on March 9. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)
Muslims targeted as political tool
Aye Lwin, a Muslim and co-founder of the Yangon-based interfaith group-Religions for Peace, warned of the potential for religious violence but said Muslims were being targeted for political reasons.
He said anti-Muslim sentiment has been stoked in Myanmar since 1962 when the regime of General Ne Win exploited religious differences to build public support among his power base.
Hatred and prejudice against Muslims is deeply rooted in the country. They have been under increased attack since the violence broke out in Rakhine last August, according to political pundits.
"Under the government of State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has moved to curb hate speech and take action against hard-line monks who fuel anti-Muslim sentiment," Aye Lwin told ucanews.com.
"But I don't see them protecting the interests of Muslims from minority groups and I think this hurts the image of Buddhism in the country."
The Muslim leader also serves as a member of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was set up by the Suu Kyi. It has paid several calls on the strife-torn state and also visited some of the refugee camps for Rohingya in Bangladesh.
He said a Muslim community has been living in Rakhine for generations regardless of how people describe them.
The Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic group with deserved citizenship rights and regards them as Bengali migrants.
"The problem stems from the government and military's total denial of their existence as a legitimate community, which precludes a lasting solution to the issues now being faced," Aye Lwin said.
The violence in Rakhine poses a challenge to the Suu Kyi government's efforts to confront growing Buddhist nationalism.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come under fire for staying silent on the plight of Rohingya. At the same time, hard-line Buddhists have been wary of her handling of the crisis, calling her weak and indecisive in her policy toward Muslims.
Suu Kyi appears to be struggling as she walks a tightrope between pressure from the international community to accommodate the Rohingya, and pressure from Buddhist nationalists to get rid of them.
Muslims take their seats inside the mosque before Friday's prayers on March 9. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party now dominates both the upper and lower houses of parliament. But critics have slammed it for not representing Muslims in a country that more than one million Muslims call home.
This number does not include the 1.1 million Rohingya who lived there before the mass exodus began last year.
While international pressure amounts on the Suu Kyi government, the Myanmar military still has the upper hand as it controls the Defense Home Affairs (the national police force) and security forces along the nation's borders under the 2008 charter.
They army claims it has been acting in self-defense after Rohingya militants resorted to violence to seize territory in Rakhine State.
Meanwhile, hard-line Buddhist groups have appealed to big themes like nationalism, Islamophobia and the integrity of Myanmar's sovereignty to attract public attention and shore up support.
Muslims have been targeted and used as a political tool under the military regime, which has ruled the country for over five decades. It is now positioning itself as the nation's "savior" to justify its brutal crackdown in Rakhine, pundits say.
Mandalay-based Ashin Wirathu, leader of the ultra-nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, has spent over five years preaching anti-Muslim rhetoric.
He helped fueled communal riots that erupted across the country from 2013 to 2014 and now ranks as a growing force in Myanmar, where monks are held in high regard.
The vitriolic monk was barred from giving sermons for one year in March 2017 due to his hate speech but he has since made a comeback with no new restrictions imposed so far.
He was imprisoned in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim sentiment and has used Facebook, where he has amassed more than one million followers, to fan anti-Muslim hatred through a series of inflammatory posts. Facebook removed his account in January due to his incendiary posts.
More people in Myanmar now have access to Facebook after the once-pariah nation opened up its telecoms sector in 2013. A recent study found that 38 percent of people who use the social media site in Myanmar derive most of their news updates from it.
U.N. human rights experts say social media is playing the role of an unwitting accomplice to the anti-Rohingya hate campaign taking place.
"Social media has … substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissention and conflict, if you will, within the public," Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, told reporters on March 13.
"Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that," he said.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N.'s special rapporteur to Myanmar, said Facebook was a huge part of public, civil and private life and the government was exploiting it to disseminate biased information to the public.
"Everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar," Lee said.
"It has been used to convey public messages but we know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebooks and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities," Lee added.