Soe Win, a National League for Democracy (NLD) candidate, clutches the microphone and paces about as he shouts questions at a crowd of hundreds of Buddhist Rakhine residents in Sin Khaung village.
“Was it Aung San Suu Kyi who ordered assaults on the Buddhist monks protesting against the military dictatorship back in 2007? Did she order the attack on the monks with firebombs protesting against a Chinese-funded copper mine at Letpadaung Mountain in 2012?”
“No!” the villagers shout back in unison, applauding his rousing campaign speech along a dusty road in a remote village east of Thandwe, southern Rakhine State’s biggest town.
The only group in Myanmar that ever hurt Buddhist monks, the NLD candidate said, was the military and the former generals now in the current Union Solidarity and Development Party led government.
The opposition candidate’s rhetoric reflects the role Buddhist nationalism has played in Myanmar’s election campaign as the country heads for the polls on Nov. 8.
The widely popular NLD has been forced to counter claims by the Buddhist nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha that the party of Aung San Suu Kyi would not defend Myanmar from what radical monks claim is an “Islamic threat” to the majority Buddhist country.
The charge resonates particularly in Rakhine state, home to more than a million Rohingya Muslims where simmering anti-Muslim tensions have boiled over into communal violence. Suu Kyi would let Islam engulf the state, which borders Bangladesh, if her party comes to power, Ma Ba Tha monks have claimed.
“Those who have exploited our country and want to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi lose public support are spreading rumours about her,” he told the audience. “Don’t believe them. If you believe these rumours, then the military dictatorship would be prolonged.”
In the background, a campaign poster of the USDP swung on a coconut tree next to an announcement for a Ma Ba Tha “educational talk” about the group’s controversial ‘race and religion laws.”
Here in southern Rakhine State, one of Myanmar’s poorest and most unstable states, the NLD is up against the dominant Arakan National Party (ANP), which is hoping to capitalize on nationalist sentiment, targeting 34 seats in the state legislature and most of the state’s 17 Lower House and 12 Upper House seats.
The ANP has a strong support base in central and northern Rakhine State, where Rakhine (or Arakanese) culture and language are more prevalent, but here in the south, where many people also speak Burmese and have ties with central Myanmar, its hold is more tenuous.
Here the USDP has also portrayed itself as a party defending the values of the Buddhist Rakhine majority.
This part of Rakhine has also been affected by the communal conflict between Buddhist Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims that has wracked the north since 2012 and left more than 100,000 people displaced, mostly Rohingya. Thandwe saw an outbreak of deadly clashes in October 2013.
The stateless Rohingya’s plight worsened further after the government in February annulled the group’s only form of official identification, thereby disenfranchising the roughly 1 million Muslims in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.
With the Rohingya disenfranchised, the ANP needs to defeat the NLD to take political control of the state. Its message to voters is that it will restore Rakhine control over security and the area’s rich natural resources.
“Only if the Rakhines can control the Rakhine parliament, can we protect our own national security and the future of the Rakhine people,” ANP chairman Aye Maung said in a speech to voters on Sunday in the southern town of Kyaintali.
Aye Maung later told Myanmar Now in a phone interview that his party expected to sweep the state. “We are confident that we will win 90 percent of all the seats,” he said.
The USDP, meanwhile, is hoping to also win seats. President Thein Sein reportedly travelled to the state capital Sittwe on Tuesday, from where he visited the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U for the changing of a gilded umbrella atop a Buddhist temple.
In Thandwe and the villages around it, there are about 90,000 eligible voters, according to figures provided by the local election commission office. Would it be worth mentioning how many constituencies/seats the NLD hopes to win in southern Rakhine??
The NLD has been fending off continuous nationalist-based attacks to lay claim to local constituencies.
“It seems that both the ANP and USDP view us as common enemy. They are verbally poisoning the public against the NLD daily,” said Win Naing, a NLD Lower House candidate and party chairman in Thandwe.
Khin San Hlaing, 58, a Rakhine woman in the village of NyaungCheyhtauk near Thandwe, said ANP and USDP members came to a local monastery last month and told the villagers that the NLD is mainly formed of Muslims and should not be supported. “The Arakan National Party is more aggressive than USDP,” she added.
In fact, possibly fearing a backlash at the polls, the NLD has not fielded a single Muslim candidate.
Local USDP and ANP members denied using spurious or false claims in campaigning. “We don’t attack the NLD party in our campaigns,” said MaungMaungPhyu, the ANP candidate in Thandwe running for a Lower House seat. “But we will prevent the influx of aliens (from Bangladesh) if our party wins in the elections.”
BhadantaSandimar, the abbot of Thukhawatti Buddhist Monastery in Thandwe and a Ma Ba Tha member, said he instructed his followers not to vote for parties such as the NLD which did not support the ‘race and religion’ laws, proposed by Ma Ba Tha and widely criticized as anti-Muslim.
“Personally, I have no trust in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She cares more about human rights than about the welfare of our ethnic region that is founded on values of culture and religion,” he said, adding that Thein Sein should be granted a second term.
After a group of Buddhists attacked a bus and killed 10 Muslim pilgrims in Taungup, southern Rakhine State, in early 2012, Suu Kyi reportedly said “the majority shouldn't bully the minority.” The remarks have been seized upon by ANP and USDP campaigning in Rakhine.
Win Naing said, however, that a recent visit by Suu Kyi to Thandwe, Gwa and Taungup had boosted the NLD’s popularity in the south. “We will win here because people now understand more about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after she came here last month and gave a speech,” he said.
During her visit, the Noble Peace Prize laureate was forced to refute accusations that she favoured Muslims, or would let the Rohingya “take over“Rakhine state.
“She told these people to sue her if they have proof. But these people could not respond and instead the public applauded her,” Win Naing said. “Our party won most of the seats in the elections in 1990 here in the southern Rakhine. Public support had been quite strong before all these racial and religious violence. Now, it’s all coming back again.”
Zaw Min Oo, 32, a Buddhist man in Sin Khaung village, said he had been influenced by nationalist attacks on the NLD, but he stopped believing them after listening to Suu Kyi’s speech in Thandwe.
“Mother Suu wants all of us, whether Buddhists or Muslims, to live harmoniously and peacefully. I love her now so much,” he said. “We have lived together with Muslims here for so long. Why on earth do we have to fight with them?”