Myanmar: Suu Kyi warns against race, religious divisions

18th Oct 2015
Myanmar: Suu Kyi warns against race, religious divisions

YANGON (AA): Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on voters Saturday not to be influenced by divisions over race and religion during her first visit to conflict-stricken Rakhine state in 15 years. However, she her and other parties have refused to run Muslim candidates for the election and have refused to accept Rohingya Muslims as citizens.

After the Nobel laureate was greeted by a crowd comprised of ethnic Rakhine and local Muslims upon her arrival at Thandwe airport Friday, the rally the next day drew around 1,500 people.

Locals said the lower than expected attendance was due to a township edict which some residents reportedly understood as warning that attendees — rather that protesters aiming to disrupt the gathering — would be charged, according to the Irrawaddy.

The newspaper also reported that when asked again whether a government under her National League for Democracy (NLD) would favor “Bengalis”, a term used to refer to the persecuted Rohingya minority, Suu Kyi referred to rumors of her party of pandering to Muslim voters.

“I am not afraid to ask [my critics] where the NLD’s canvassing has contravened the law,” she was quoted as saying. “If they have enough courage to accuse me, they should do so lawfully and through official channels… I am wary that using race and religion to sway voters is happening across the country.”

Suu Kyi is in an tricky position in Rakhine, as even though Rohingya leaders have said they will support her party in Nov. 8 polls, she cannot publically endorse their vote, for fear that the affiliation alone will jeopardize her chances.

The Myanmar Times reported Friday that rumors persist that she will face protests from ethnic Rakhine nationalists, who perceive her to be too sympathetic to the state’s Muslim community.

When also asked about the “Bengali” issue Friday, Suu Kyi had urged the crowd to think critically about why religious and ethnic tensions would be brought up by some parties amid election campaigns.

One member of Ma Ba Tha, also known as the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, described the NLD as a party “backed by Islamists” during a recent rally.

In September, a senior party official admitted that the NLD had failed to put forth any Muslim candidates in order to appease a powerful extremist group led by Buddhist monks,

Win Htein, who has worked as an aide to Suu Kyi, told the UCA News website that the party has Muslim candidates who are qualified but they have been excluded from the election for “political reasons”.

“We can’t select them,” he said. “And Muslim candidates also realize our situation so they understand us. If we choose Muslim candidates, Ma Ba Tha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it.”

The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party has also avoided fielding any Muslim candidates in the latest poll, which observers say will be an important test of the country’s political reforms.

In August, Ambia Perveen, the European Rohingya Council’s secretary for advocacy, told Anadolu Agency that despite the NLD’s failure to recognize Muslim support she still sees Suu Kyi as the best choice for Rohingya.

“When she was in the jail we prayed for her. She had quotations like ‘Follow us and speak for our freedom.’ Rohingya fought for her release,” she says.

“But today, even though it appears as if she has forgotten us, we hope that Western countries — who pushed for so long for her freedom — will pressure her to do more to help us.”

Myanmar’s Rohingya minority of roughly one million have faced systematic persecution for decades, but it is only recently that the government has moved to exclude them from taking part in elections.

Hundreds of thousands were disenfranchised earlier this year when authorities withdrew temporary citizenship documents known as white cards — held by many Rohingya — that also allowed them to vote.

The group, who are linguistically and ethnically distinct from majority Rakhine Buddhists, are officially regarded as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh and referred to by most in Myanmar as “Bengalis”.

In the flawed 2010 election, many Rohingya voted in favor of the military-backed USDP party.

Since then communal violence led by Buddhists has forced tens of thousands of Rohingya and other Muslims from their homes and killed hundreds.

November’s poll is expected to be the freest in decades despite mounting doubts about problems with voter lists, the disenfranchisement of many Rohingya and the exclusion of many Muslim candidates.

Hundreds of villages in war-torn ethnic areas will also be left out because of security concerns, the Union Election Commission said earlier this week.

The poll will nonetheless be seen as a test of Myanmar’s move from decades of military dictatorship towards a freer and more democratic society.

The last time the NLD contested a poll was in 1990, when it won a large proportion of seats but was barred from coming to power by the junta.

Author: Ekip
Additional reporting by The Muslim News
[Photo: : Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters during a campaign rally in Maw Bi township, outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, on October 10, 2015. Photographer: Kaynak: Kyaw Kyaw/AA]

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