Toungup, MYANMAR (Reuters) Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged supporters on Friday not to let the issues of race and religion dominate a Nov. 8 parliamentary election, as she fended off questions over the country becoming majority Muslim if her party were to win.
Hardline monks and nationalists have branded Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) too sympathetic to Muslims and unwilling to protect Buddhism, the majority religion in the country of 51.5 million.
The issue is particularly sensitive in the town of Toungup in Rakhine State, where Suu Kyi addressed hundreds of people on Friday gathered on a soccer pitch in the town.
In June 2012, 10 Muslims pilgrims traveling through the town were pulled from a bus by a mob and murdered, helping set off a wave of religious violence across the western state.
“Our people, Rakhine people, worry that if you are president our country will become a Muslim country. I’m not sure, I don’t believe that,” one supporter said following Suu Kyi’s speech, drawing applause from the crowd, although under the military-drafted constitution Suu Kyi is barred from being president.
“This is a question I have been asked around the country,” she said. “I would like to say that propaganda using religion and race is against the constitution.”
Suu Kyi said the government had done little to combat the rising use of religion in politics, particularly rumors and accusations targeted at the NLD, and she urged her supporters to “watch out for it carefully.”
The NLD, which is expected to do well in the parliamentary elections, billed as Myanmar’s first free and fair ballot in 25 years, does not have any Muslim candidates in its field of more than 1,100 election hopefuls.
Suu Kyi is on a three-day campaign trip to Rakhine but has decided not to travel to the state capital, Sittwe, and other more northern townships which are home to the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.
About 140,000 Rohingya were displaced in 2012 by violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine and remain in temporary camps with severe restrictions on their movements.
This year, temporary citizenship card holders, the majority of whom are Rohingya, were stripped of their right to vote, despite having been able to cast ballots in previous elections.
Overseas, and in some other parts of the country outside of Rakhine, Suu Kyi has been criticized for saying little about their plight.
Reporting by Timothy McLaughlin and Than Win Han; Editing by Hugh Lawson