Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off a three-day campaign tour of restive Rakhine state Friday with a full entourage of security personnel amid frustrations over her reluctance to take a firm stand on ethnic tensions that have led to deadly violence in the region.
The head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who has enjoyed a widespread following throughout Myanmar, was surrounded by bodyguards and a tight-knit group of supporters in Taungup, where she urged voters to reject intimidation ahead of the country’s Nov. 8 elections.
“I have seen some people try to intimidate voters [by saying that supporting certain parties will lead to religious strife],” Aung San Suu Kyi said, speaking in one of the townships where communal unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 sparked riots in the region that left more than 200 dead.
“I want to say that these individuals or organizations are not thinking about our country’s future, but only for themselves. If you believe their words and support them, it will bring our country trouble,” she said, citing the rise of a powerful Buddhist monk-led nationalist movement in Myanmar.
Instead, the Nobel laureate urged voters to use the elections to remove President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which took power from Myanmar’s former military regime in 2011, and usher development into the impoverished region with the help of her NLD party.
“If the government understands that the people can remove it, the authorities will be forced to work in the interest of the people—not only for themselves.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism from both the international community for her reluctance to speak out in support of Rakhine state’s ethnic Rohingya Muslims, who rights groups say bore the brunt of violence in the region, and from ethnic Rakhine Buddhist hardliners, who say she is too supportive of Muslims.
Myanmar’s government views the Rohingyas, who number roughly 1.1 million people in the country, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as “Bengalis,” although many have lived there for generations.
Some 140,000 Rohingyas were displaced during the 2012 unrest and now live in squalid camps in Rakhine state, while thousands of others have fled persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country on rickety boats in recent years.
Several million Muslims from other ethnicities also live in Myanmar—a nation of around 52 million—but the NLD has rejected all Muslim candidates from contesting on its behalf in the upcoming elections, without providing a reason for doing so.
Ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Rakhine state, authorities in Taungup, Thandwe and Gwa—the three townships she plans to visit—imposed a ban on protests, though it was unclear if the move was directly related to the opposition leader’s campaign trip.
“We held a meeting and announced a ban on protests from Oct. 14 to Nov. 30 in our region, with a particular focus on preventing destruction of property or harassment during the election … and we will take action if anyone breaks this order,” Taungup administrator Lu Maw told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
On Thursday, local police prevented singer Linn Linn, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s bodyguards, and two NLD members from traveling to Taungup ahead of the opposition leader’s visit, citing security concerns.
But despite the question of safety for Aung San Suu Kyi—who will not visit the state capital Sittwe or other areas that were hit hardest by communal violence—many prominent members of the ethnic Rakhine community welcomed her to their state Friday.
“I don’t expect that we will see unrest … in Rakhine state during Daw Aung Sann Suu Kyi’s trip,” Nyo Aye of the Rakhine Women’s Network told RFA, adding that the announcement of the ban on protests suggests authorities “look down on local people.”
“Most Rakhines are knowledgeable and have an open mind for politics. Even if someone tries to create a problem, we will control ourselves,” she said.
Myo Chit, of the Rakhine National Network’s central executive committee, said he was concerned about reports that some members of his ethnic group did not want Aung San Suu Kyi to campaign in the state.
“Any individual or party can campaign wherever they like,” he said.
But while he welcomed the opposition leader, he asked her to empathize with the Rakhine people, who he said suffer economic hardship.
“We see her as one who can raise the standard of the Rakhine people’s lives,” Myo Chit said.
“Some say the Rakhine people hate Aung San Suu Kyi, but this is not true … The authorities have said they are concerned there will be problems, but I believe it is because they don’t want her to come here.”
Ba Shein, a member of parliament with the Rakhine National Party (RNP), told RFA that authorities had likely announced the ban on protests because they believe that “the state government’s dignity would be harmed if a Bengali or Rakhine creates problems during her trip.”
Rakhine state government spokesman Hla Thein said the announcement was “not connected to her trip,” adding that it did not constitute an order—only a strong suggestion.
But he acknowledged that security would be “tight” for Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign visit “in the interest of preserving peace and stability.”
“If we have any problems, it won’t be good for anyone,” he said.
Reported by Win Naing, Khin Pyae Sone, Khet Mar and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.