NAYPYIDAW - The grisly killing of several Muslim passengers by Buddhist vigilantes is reflecting a growing anti-Muslim hostility in Myanmar and a pervasive discrimination of the sizable minority.
"The daily relationship with Buddhists is good as long as you know your limited ground and do not cross it," Ko Aung Aung, of the exiled Burmese Muslim Association (BMA), told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Wednesday, June 6.
For the majority of people "any crime is a crime", but when a Muslim is suspected "it could be a good reason to riot against them.
At least nine Muslim passengers were killed Sunday after Buddhist vigilantes attacked their bus western state of Rakhine.
The attack followed the rape and murder of a woman in the state, which borders Bangladesh, for which three Muslim men have been detained.
"These innocent people have been killed like animals," said Abu Tahay, of the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the country's much-persecuted stateless Muslim Rohingya community.
"If the police cannot control the situation, maybe the (unrest) is going to spread.
But Muslim groups see the anti-Muslim violence as the most visible expression of a pervasive discrimination.
"Riots are always possible at any place and any time. So we must be very careful, said Ko Aung Aung, who fled Myanmar in 2004 fearing for his safety because of his activism.
Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, has a Muslim population of around 100,000 and dozens of mosques.
But a Muslim leader in the town, who asked not to be named, told AFP there was "no religious freedom".
He added that authorities rarely granted permission for new mosques to be built, or repairs to be carried out.
Muslims make up nearly five percent of Myanmar's more than 53 million population.
The largest group of Myanmar Muslims is the ethnic-Bengali minority, generally known as the Rohingyas, who mainly live in the western state of Rakhine.
Less numbered are the Indian-descended Muslims who live in Yangon and ethnic-Chinese Muslims, known as the Panthay.
Pockets of sectarian unrest have occasionally broken out in the past across the country, with Rakhine state, which has the largest concentration of Muslims, a flashpoint for tensions.
In February 2001, the then-ruling junta declared a curfew in the state capital Sittwe after clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.
The authorities this week warned against "anarchic acts" after the mob killings and an attack on a police station by an angry crowd in Sittwe.
Many believe that the latest episode of violence reflects the deep divisions between the majority Buddhists and the Muslim minority.
"There is a feeling, a fear among the country's Buddhists about being invaded," a foreign researcher told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Shwe Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which represents the ethnic Rakhine people, says many Buddhists harbor deep fears of Muslims.
"One day it will be a serious problem, they caused trouble in Thailand, Europe, USA. They try to make trouble in Rakhine State."
Many Buddhists share similar anti-Muslim sentiments.
"They are fighting to own the land, occupy the entire state," Khaing Kaung San, a local activist in education and other areas, said of Muslims.
"They don't need weapons, just by their numbers they can cover the entire land."
Muslims entered Myanmar en masse for the first time as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.
But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country and are seen as foreigners.
"For many people, a Burmese is a Buddhist by definition. Buddhism forms an essential part of their identity," said Jacques Leider, a historian at the French School of the Far East based in northern Thailand.
"The situation is explosive and from friction to the clashes is only a matter of lighting the fuse.
Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
Every year, thousands of minority Muslim Rohingyas flee Myanmar in wooden boats, embarking on a hazardous journey to Thailand or Malaysia in search of a better life.
While some find work as illegal laborers, others are arrested, detained and "repatriated" to a military-ruled country that washed its hands of them decades ago.
Rohingyas say they are deprived of free movement, education and employment in their homeland.They are not recognized as an ethnic minority by Myanmar and say they suffer human rights abuses at the hands of government officials.