They leaped and whooped and their shirts came off and their hands reached up in the air and out toward the musicians. It was politics, but this National League for Democracy event in Thandwe in southern Arakan (Rakhine) State was also a party.
Hardline Buddhist nationalist monks and local leaders of the powerful Arakan National Party may not like it, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her religious and ethnically mixed NLD supporters with their “Time For Change” song have been whipping up a storm of enthusiasm even before she arrives in the trouble-hit state tomorrow.
Arakan (Rakhine) has been a hotbed of religious conflict in recent years, but the crowd of several hundred people who gathered in central Thandwe on October 13, three days before the Nobel-winning politician was due to arrive in southern Arakan (Rakhine), was a broad mix of Buddhist and Muslim supporters.
As Mother’s Musicians – a travelling band of performers from Yangon who are touring the south of the state prior to her arrival, drawing crowds to their mobile stage – reached the chorus of the NLD’s rousing election anthem, the audience was literally jumping with joy.
“I respect Daw Aung San Suu Kyi so much. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is true. She is so good,” Ko Wai Hin Phyoe, an engineering student in his 20s, yelled above the music and the cheers.
“We want change,” said his friend Ko Chit Khine Soe. “We are Muslims. Now the government doesn’t give a chance to Islamic people. It is so bad.”
Another friend, also a Muslim from the ethnic Kaman minority in her late 20s, proudly showed off her T-shirt emblazoned with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s face.
While many in the international community have condemned the NLD leader for not speaking out on rights abuses against Muslim Rohingya in the northern half of Arakan (Rakhine), the Kaman Muslims in the Thandwe crowd clearly saw the NLD as being the best option for Islamic voters, even if the party does not have a single Muslim candidate in the whole country.
But the main theme of the occasion was “change” and “democracy”, not religion.
There was no sign at the time that people in the crowd, Buddhist or Muslim, were frightened of repercussions for supporting the NLD – a party which opponents have tried to vilify by claiming it supports Muslims not Buddhists at a time when anti-Islamic feelings in Myanmar, and particularly Arakan (Rakhine) State, are running high and easily provoked.
At a street stall close to the main Thandwe market, young female volunteers and their children seemed relaxed as they handed out promotional materials for the party.
But privately some NLD supporters said they did fear harassment and that their activities were being monitored.
At the NLD’s Thandwe headquarters, local party leaders express concern that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit could be used as an excuse for opponents to cause trouble.
Thandwe locals show their support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi despite fears that Arakan (Rakhine) nationalists might cause trouble during her visit.Thandwe locals show their support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi despite fears that Rakhine nationalists might cause trouble during her visit.
“The situation in the south of Arakan (Rakhine) is different from in the north and we hope it will be no problem for her to visit. But [NLD] people are nervous,” said U Win Naing, chair of the NLD Thandwe branch.
State sponsored violence in the north Arakan ( Rakhine) by Buddhists to the Rohingya Muslim minority have flared up the tensions in the Arakan (Rakhine).
State sponsored violence which broke out around state capital Akyab (Sittwe) in 2012 left more than 200 dead and over 140,000 mainly Muslims homeless, and tensions remain high.
In the south of the state – where most followers of Islam are Kaman Muslims and, unlike most Rohingya, are generally entitled to citizenship and eligible to vote – the community is far less divided. However, violence did erupt in Thandwe in 2013 when ethnic Rakhine villagers attacked Muslim Kaman villagers. Five Kaman were reported killed and four Rakhine injured.
At the Thandwe headquarters of the Arakan National Party – which promotes the rights of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists – the party’s vice chair for Thandwe constituency, U Ko Mg Mg Phyu, told The Myanmar Times on October 13 that he did not distinguish between Kaman Muslims and Rohingya.
But the situation in the south remains considerably less tense than in the north. U Win Naing said he believes it is important Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visits the region to speak to voters directly at a time when the NLD in the state is under strong political attack from Arakan (Rakhine) nationalists, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and radical nationalist monks.
“If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi comes and speaks, so many more people will support her,” he said.
The local party chair said he believed the NLD would capture the Thandwe constituency from the USDP, which won there in 2010.
However, he acknowledged the ANP, a newly formed coalition of two Arakan (Rakhine) nationalist parties, is likely to prove stiff competition, along with the USDP, which many opposition politicians across the country have accused of abusing its government powers and financial clout to gain votes.
On October 13, U Eaindra Sar Ya, an influential chief monk and member of the hardline nationalist monk movement, Ma Ba Tha, told The Myanmar Times that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should not come to the state because it could lead to protests. He also gave his public backing to the ANP, saying it was “the only party that would be good for Arakan (Rakhine)”.
“He is dangerous. He is not a genuine monk,” responded U Win Naing, who is a former political prisoner.
He added that many Ma Ba Tha monks had been going around local villages stirring up anti-Muslim feeling in an attempt to persuade residents not to vote for the NLD.
He said that while many people in Thandwe did want democracy and would vote for the NLD, most of the other parties were mainly interested in promoting the interests of a few wealthy individuals.
“These parties are not so worried about each other. Their main concern is stopping the NLD,” he said.
He also claimed that a large number of Muslim people had been excluded from the voter lists in a deliberate attempt to cost the NLD votes. The lists, produced by the Union Election Commission, have been widely criticised across the country for a large number of inaccuracies. U Win Naing said around 50 percent of Muslim voters had been missed out of the early versions of the lists in every village in Thandwe.
He said party members had visited all the villages to help people ensure their names were added and most of the problems had now been resolved. “It was a massive amount of work we had to do,” he said.
But while a focus on religion surrounding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s three-day tour of southern Arakan (Rakhine) is inevitable given the state’s violent recent history, and the NLD leader also plans to meet nine senior local monks, local party leaders say her visit is about promoting democracy.
“A lot of the older people in particular have experience and want democracy. Since the last election the [current local politicians] have proved themselves to be useless and progress has been lost. People want change,” U Win Naing said.
Asked if the party will arrange transport for people from outlying villages to come and see the NLD leader speak in Thandwe on October 17, he laughed and said there was no need.
Predicting at least 1000 people would turn out, he said, “Everyone knows Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. When they hear she is coming they will run to see her.”
Even though the NLD is expected to lose votes in areas dominated by non-Bamar groups across Myanmar, U Kyaw Nyat Oo, a Thandwe teacher who is ethnic Rakhine, rejected suggestions that voters of his community would not back the party because of its leader’s Bamar heritage.
“The NLD is for all ethnic groups. A lot of people in Thandwe like her. Perhaps some people don’t like her because of the ethnic issue but she will get votes in most parts of Arakan (Rakhine),” he said.
Note: Changes have been made, MT is not responsible for these.