THANDWE, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday shifted her election campaign to a region that presents the most formidable challenge -- the Rakhine state, which has been a hotbed of sectarian conflict between Rohingya Muslims and hard-line Buddhists.
While Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party enjoy support in most parts of Myanmar, she will find little joy in Rakhine. On the one hand she's been criticized for being largely silent over the widespread discrimination and violence faced by the Rohingyas. On the other, hard-line Buddhist nationalists have accused her of being pro-Muslim for making weak statements in support of the Rohingyas.
The government describes Rohingyas as stateless and foreign migrants even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations. They are barred from contesting the election or even voting. In addition to the Rohingyas, there are millions of Muslims from other ethnic groups in Myanmar, a nation of 52 million people.
However, the NLD has refused to let any Muslim member contest for the party in the Nov. 8 parliamentary election. It has not said why it rejected Muslim candidates.
"In this country there are about 5 million Muslims. Part of NLD's policy is to defend human rights and democracy," said Mya Aye, a rejected Muslim candidate from NLD, "but rejecting Muslim candidates from their party is rejecting the rights of 5 million Muslim minorities."
In her first trip ever to Rakhine, Suu Kyi will campaign for three days in Taungup, Thandwe and Gwa towns in southern part of the state, where the NLD support is the strongest. She will, however, skip the northern part, which is home to more than 100,000 Rohingyas.
In recent years more than 200 people have been killed, mostly Rohingyas, in violence and rioting between them and Buddhists. Another 140,000 have been forced to flee their homes, and now live in squalid camps.
At the same time, there have been reports of hardline Buddhist nationalist monks and local leaders of the powerful Arakan National Party calling on supporters to prevent Suu Kyi from campaigning in the state.
However, a statement from the Arakan National Network said the influential nationalist group would welcome Suu Kyi to Rakhine despite their political differences.