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Myanmar's Suu Kyi campaigns in Rakhine, but to avoid trouble spots

By Timothy McLaughlin
October 17, 2015

THANDWE, MYANMAR -- Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in Rakhine State on Friday for three days of campaigning, but she will skip the state's most restive areas where her opposition movement faces stiff competition from a powerful nationalist party.

In the buildup to a Nov. 8 election in which religion and politics have become increasingly intertwined, Suu Kyi has been accused by her Rakhine rivals of being too friendly towards Muslims.

The charge is in stark contrast to the rest of the country and overseas, where the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) been criticised for saying too little about the plight of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority.

Suu Kyi's decision to visit the southern townships in Rakhine, rather than the state's capital Sittwe and northern areas, was based on the acceptance that the NLD was unlikely to garner much support in those constituencies, party members said.

While the NLD is expected to do well in the landmark election, the party has encountered a formidable opponent in the Arakan National Party (ANP), which has been bolstered by a wave of nationalism and the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment following violence in the western state of Rakhine in 2012.

The party has cast Suu Kyi as too sympathetic to the country's marginalized Rohingya and unconcerned with issues facing Rakhine Buddhists.

Some 140,000 Rohingya remain in squalid camps in Rakhine and were stripped of voting rights this year, moves that brought international condemnation on the semi-civilian government running the country since military rule ended in 2011.

John Yin Win, Thandwe township NLD chairman, conceded that the party faced long odds in northern Rakhine, but "there is still a possibility to win in this area."

Suu Kyi is scheduled to travel directly from Thandwe after arriving on Friday to the neighbouring Toungup township.

Toungup was the setting for one incident that helped trigger a wave of violence in June 2012; 10 Muslims pilgrims travelling through the town were pulled from a bus and murdered by a mob.

Thandwe was not spared from the religious violence either.

In October, 2013, Rakhine Buddhists killed five Kaman Muslims in the town. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman are recognized as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups. Several hundred people were displaced by the violence.

John Yin Win said the NLD's campaigns in Thandwe had focused on reconciliation, but the party decided against having any Muslims in its field of over 1,100 parliamentary candidates.

"There is always a worry. There is no guarantee of safety," said Toe Toe, 50, a Kaman Muslim resident of Thandwe. "We hope Suu Kyi will fix this problem."

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