YANGON - The United States, Japan and other major powers on Tuesday raised fears that rising religious tensions in Myanmar could spark “division and conflict” as campaigning begins for historic elections.

Myanmar goes to the polls on November 8 in what many hope will be its freest vote in generations after decades of army rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party widely tipped to make huge gains.

But religious tensions are spiking in the Buddhist-majority country, which has seen sporadic outbursts of often deadly religious unrest in recent years, with minority Muslims facing increasing political exclusion as the influence of nationalist monks grows.

Religious unrest has overshadowed Myanmar’s reform efforts as it begins to emerge from the grip of outright military rule under a quasi-civilian government, which came into power in 2011.

The impoverished nation has seen sporadic outbursts of anti-Muslim violence since 2012, when festering resentments between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state erupted in two rounds of bloodshed that left at least 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.

Unrest spread across the country in tandem with the rise in influence of nationalist Buddhist clerics.

In March Myanmar revoked temporary identification documents - a move affecting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have since been stripped of voting rights after parliament banned people without full citizenship from voting.

As elections near, Suu Kyi has accused opponents of “using religion” against her National League for Democracy party.

But neither her opposition or the ruling party has put forward any Muslim candidates for the polls, despite the minority making up some four percent of the population.

On Monday hundreds of monks gathered in Yangon to begin two weeks of ceremonies across Myanmar to celebrate the passage into law of four controversial “religious protection” bills, including one that restricts interfaith marriage, that activists say discriminate against women and religious minorities.