THANDWE, Myanmar: Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi called for unity in volatile Rakhine state on Saturday in an impassioned election rally, tackling head-on bitter religious divisions between Buddhists and Muslims that have shaken the former junta-run nation.
The opposition leader has faced international disappointment at her reluctance to speak out in support of marginalized Rohingya Muslims in the western state, but is also viewed with suspicion among Buddhist hardliners who see her as sympathetic to the minority.
In a speech to hundreds of supporters in Rakhine’s Thandwe town, Suu Kyi said it was critical that people nationwide could live “without discrimination based on race and religion”.
“All citizens in the union need to unite… great hatred and fear does not benefit our country,” she said, repeating recent assertions that her political opponents had tried to use religion as a tool in campaigns for the November 8 polls.
Myanmar’s general elections are tipped to be the freest in generations for a nation that languished in poverty and isolation under almost half a century of military rule.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) — contesting its first nationwide vote in 25 years — is expected to shunt out the army-backed ruling party, which has overseen a quasi-civilian transition since junta rule ended in 2011.
But there are rising fears that the polls could act as a flashpoint for religious intolerance that has festered in Myanmar since deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims swept across Rakhine in 2012, later spreading to other parts of the country.
Radical monks have surged in prominence in recent years, preaching a message that Muslims threaten the very fabric of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
In Thandwe — the gateway to Myanmar’s most popular tourist beach resorts — a wave of anti-Muslim rioting in 2013 killed at least six and left a legacy of fear in the region.
Those anxieties were on display at the rally on Saturday, where Suu Kyi took questions from both Buddhists and Muslims.
Asked by a Muslim man how the NLD would prevent religious discrimination, the veteran activist said a government under her party would prioritise the rule of law, a common response from the Nobel laureate.
But she slammed a Buddhist asking her to respond to rumors that her party would usher in a Muslim take-over of the country, saying the very question risked “inciting racial or religious conflict.”