http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/change-ruling-class/2229286.html SITTWE, Myanmar: The leader of an influential and controversial Buddhist lobby group in divided Rakhine in north-west Myanmar has called for the people of the state to govern themselves in order to prevent a Muslim "occupation". Mr Nan Da Ba Tha, the state chairman of Ma Ba Tha - or Patriotic Association of Myanmar - said the elections on Nov 8 will be critical in ensuring Rakhine preserves its proper Buddhist faith and enforces the laws of the land, something he believed the central Government had failed to do. "The people of Rakhine need to manage our own state, not the central Government," he said. "The daily lives of the Rakhine people are filled with poverty and low standards. "The country has already changed but most people don't see any of that change. We have transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democratic country but the ruling class is still the same. Our country needs to change this class." He also blamed long-running divisions in the region on "propaganda-spreading Bengalis" and said the spread of Islam in the region was a trend that needed to be stopped. "The Bengalis want to take this land on a permanent basis for generations to come," he said. Ma Ba Tha is a hardline nationalist movement whose best known member is Mr Ashin Wirathu, a Mandalay-based monk who has been labelled the "Burmese Bin Laden" and the "face of Buddhist terror" by international media. Mr Ashin Wirathu has previously been accused of inciting violence against Muslim populations and using hate speech that has contributed to nationwide divisions between communities - claims he has denied. Ma Ba Tha is not part of the Buddhist Sangha, the monastic order, but is said to boast many members who are. 'FOLLOW THE RULES' Rakhine was rocked by sectarian violence in 2012, resulting in Government-enforced segregation, which is still in place in Sittwe. Rohingya Muslims, which the Government identifies as Bengalis, live in security-fenced villages and internally-displaced persons camps on the fringes of the city. "The violence in 2012 was a strategic plan by the Bengalis, they want to occupy Rakhine state and they committed crimes and rape," Mr Nan Da Ba Tha said. Although there are believed to be new arrivals from across the fluid Bangladesh border, many Muslims in the region say they have ancestry dating back hundreds of years. Still, Rohingyas and other Muslim groups are not entitled to vote in the elections - a Government decree based on intensified scrutiny of individuals' citizenship statuses. Unlike some of his more hardline contemporaries, Mr Nan Da Ba Tha accepted that reconciliation would be possible in Rakhine and that people of different faiths could live together, on the condition that Muslims followed the laws of the country. "It all depends on them, because they have to follow the rules of the country," he said. "They must stop telling lies to the world that they are 'Rohingya'. If they obey then they can apply for citizenship," he said before pointing to a world map depicting the world and its religions, notably with the Islamic nations of the Middle East greatly inflated in size, in order to enhance his message about the risks of a Muslim takeover. 'NOT BASED ON RELIGION' Mr Zaw Tun, the director of Wan Lark, a non-government organisation focused on community development and an election monitor, believes that healing divisions and improving the livelihoods or both Buddhists and Muslims will be a major responsibility and challenge for a future government, regardless of who wins the vote. "This is not based on religion," he said. "So many different religious groups lived together here for a long time in Rakhine and never fought like this before. Economically, every community has a lot of difficulties." "Indeed, this is abusive to use the excuse of religious differences. We analyse it as only a border issue and the Government is the only one who can solve it," he added. Mr Nan Da Ba Tha agreed: "People around the world think it's a conflict between two religions, Islam and Buddhism, but it's not." He blamed Bangladesh and its swelling population for a border overflow and reinforced a message about maintaining the integrity of Myanmar's borders and its dominant religion. About 80 per cent of the country identifies as Buddhist, while around 4 per cent are Muslim. Throughout Sittwe, the status of Buddhism is far more visible and entrenched, with large golden pagodas, old and new. In contrast, local Muslims said about 35 mosques in the city are now destroyed or abandoned, either burned during the 2012 violence or converted into headquarters for military troops or police. Anti-Islam sentiment is commonplace in Rakhine, with many locals saying they agree with the Government's decision to segregate the two communities. The city has now been peaceful as a result, and Ms Saw Mra Raza Linn, the chairperson of Rakhaing Women's Union and key negotiator in Myanmar's peace process believes both groups want to keep it that way. "The Rakhine are almost all Buddhists and killing is not in our nature," she said. "They want to live peacefully. So to maintain this kind of peaceful situation, both communities need to be responsible and the government also."