THANDWE, Rakhine State — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took her election campaign over the weekend to the troubled western state of Rakhine, where she urged citizens to avoid religious discrimination and not be swayed by rhetoric aimed at stirring up Buddhist-Muslim tensions in the divided region
“Hatred and fear is of no benefit to Myanmar,” Suu Kyi told a crowd of around 2,000 in the coastal town of Thandwe on Oct. 17.
Despite efforts by Buddhist hardliners to depict her party as being over-friendly toward Muslims, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to win more seats than any other party in the Nov. 8 election.
However, the NLD is thought unlikely to have much success in Rakhine State, also known as Arakan, where the ethnically-based Arakan National Party is expected to perform well among the state’s estimated 2 million Rakhine Buddhists who make up about two-thirds of the local population.
Rakhine State’s 3.2 million people account for only a small percentage of the country’s total population of 51.4 million. The population in Yangon, the nation’s largest city, is more than twice as large so Rakhine is not as important to the NLD’s election prospects as the more densely populated Burman central zone.
Rakhine’s remaining 1.1 million people are mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, a group that the government does not recognize as citizens. They are often described in Myanmar as “Bengalis,” implying that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi avoided mentioning the Rohingya, let alone discussing their plight, which disappointed local Muslims and human rights activists. The party earlier decided against fielding any Muslim candidates in the forthcoming election, despite the voting potential of a group that makes up an estimated 10% of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population.
Myo Win, an activist in the cordoned-off Aung Mingalar Rohingya enclave of Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, said he nonetheless welcomed Suu Kyi’s visit to the southern part of the state.
“It is good she said those things,” said Myo Win, referring to Suu Kyi’s plea to ignore inflammatory rhetoric. However, as he and other activists pointed out, there will almost certainly be no Rohingya representation in parliament after the election because of the government’s move to deny the group the right to vote.
“We are excluded from the election, so it’s hard to see it [the election] as relevant to us,” Myo Win said.
The day before her speech in Thandwe, Suu Kyi addressed a larger crowd in the Rakhine town of Toungup, where she was asked by audience members whether an NLD-led government would favor Muslims. She responded by telling the crowd not to be fooled by attempts to foment religious tensions, which she cautioned was against election campaign rules.
Suu Kyi avoided visiting Sittwe, the regional capital, as well as elsewhere in Rakhine State’s more bitterly divided north. But the area where she campaigned at the weekend had previously seen vicious sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Although some Muslims of Kaman descent among other ethnic origins live in the state, the Rohingya have borne the brunt of anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine, and account for most of the 140,000 people who have fled their homes into temporary camps in the northern part of the state.
In efforts to steer clear of sensitive issues of religion and race, Suu Kyi focused on economic issues in her campaign speeches at the weekend, highlighting Rakhine’s status as one of Myanmar’s poorest regions. Describing her meetings with struggling Rakhine workers in Yangon’s industrial estates, Suu Kyi said an NLD government would improve infrastructure and promote increased agricultural productivity in the state, while ensuring that the local population benefits more from the tourist influx to the region’s beach resorts. “Without peace and security, a country cannot prosper,” Suu Kyi told the crowd, explaining that religious conflict would undermine economic development in the region, where China and India have major pipeline and port investments around Kyaukphyu and Sittwe in northern Rakhine.
Some of Suu Kyi’s campaign managers had advised the opposition leader against visiting Rakhine State because of security concerns, as her foes have labelled the NLD as supporting the Muslims.
Win Htein, a senior NLD member, said that worries about her safety have not deterred Suu Kyi. “We have had these worries since 1988,” he said, referring to the year when the army cracked down on massive student-led protests and helped launch Suu Kyi’s political career. Suu Kyi survived an apparent army-backed assassination attempt in 2003, when a mob attacked a her NLD convoy in a rural area of central Myanmar.
The NLD last year planned a rally in Sittwe as part of a national campaign to overturn constitutional provisions that prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president, but abandoned the attempt due to hostility toward Suu Kyi from local Rakhines.
Despite the NLD’s failure to change the constitution, Suu Kyi predicted in a recent interview that she would be the de facto head of any NLD-led government. Key to her hopes could be winning seats in ethnic minority regions such as Rakhine, or failing that, forming alliances with other successful minority parties.
Although the opposition leader would not say whether she was pleased with her reception in Rakhine State when asked by the Nikkei Asian Review, Win Htein said that the crowd response was “beyond our expectations.”
“We have to think about who is best to lead our country,” said one local, Kyaw Soe Naing, speaking while he taped a poster of Suu Kyi to the back of a truck ahead of the opposition leader’s arrival in Thandwe. “So I will vote NLD.”
More of my photos from the NLD leaders’ campaign in Thandwe and Taunggup