THANDWE, Myanmar (AFP/REUTERS) - Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for unity in volatile Rakhine state on Saturday (Oct 17) in an impassioned election rally, tackling head-on bitter religious divisions between Buddhists and Muslims that have shaken the former junta-run nation as some Muslim residents claimed support for her.
The opposition leader has faced international disappointment at her reluctance to speak out in support of marginalised Rohingya Muslims in the western state, but is also viewed with suspicion among Buddhist hardliners who see her as sympathetic to the minority.
In a speech to hundreds of supporters in Rakhine's Thandwe town, Ms Suu Kyi said it was critical that people nationwide could live "without discrimination based on race and religion".
"All citizens in the union need to unite... great hatred and fear does not benefit our country," she said, repeating recent assertions that her political opponents had tried to use religion as a tool in campaigns for the Nov 8 polls.
"It is very important that all people regardless of race and religion living in our country must be safe," she said. "We can have peace in our country only if the people feel safe both mentally and physically."
Muslim supporters of Ms Suu Kyi said on Saturday they hoped a government led by her National League for Democracy (NLD) would improve their lives in Rakhine, where many still face discrimination after violence in 2012 and 2013.
The Muslims have put their hopes in the NLD even though the party did not field a Muslim candidate on its lists of over 1,100 hopefuls standing in the Nov 8 election and has been criticised for not speaking out against their marginalisation.
The campaign has seen a spike in tensions stoked by anti-Muslim hardline Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, which has sharply criticized the NLD.
In Thandwe, five Kaman Muslims were murdered during a flare-up in religious violence in October 2013.
Many Muslim residents of Thandwe and surrounding villages who came to see Ms Suu Kyi said they still supported her and hoped the NLD would help to end their discrimination and foster reconciliation between Buddhists and Muslims.
"We have a little hope," said Mr Win Naing, 41. "We don't have equal rights. I hope that if Mother Suu wins the election, we will get equal rights," he said.
Another supporter, Mr Tun Win, 48, from a village outside Thandwe, said Muslims faced bullying from Buddhists and that many Muslims had been denied national identity cards by the government, curbing their freedom of movement.
He hoped the NLD would make obtaining them easier. "They say, 'go to Yangon', but we can't because we don't have any identity cards," he said. "We come and go around here and it is like a prison."
Ms Suu Kyi made no mention of the violence in Thandwe during her speech on Saturday.
During a speech in the nearby town of Tongup on Friday she also did not mention the 2012 killing of 10 Muslims, who were pulled from a bus by a mob in the town.
While avoiding references to specific incidents, Ms Suu Kyi made broader points about religious tensions and violence.
Unlike the marginalised Rohingya Muslims, who also live in Rakhine, the Kaman from Tandwe are one of Myanmar's 135 recognised ethnic groups.
The Rohingya live predominantly in Sittwe and northern Rakhine, where 140,000 were displaced by violence in 2012.
Ms Suu Kyi will not visit Sittwe or northern parts of Rakhine during her three-day trip through the western state.
Myanmar's general elections are tipped to be the freest in generations for a nation that languished in poverty and isolation under almost half a century of military rule.
The NLD - contesting its first nationwide vote in 25 years - is expected to shunt out the army-backed ruling party, which has overseen a quasi-civilian transition since junta rule ended in 2011.
But there are rising fears that the polls could act as a flashpoint for religious intolerance that has festered in Myanmar since deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims swept across Rakhine in 2012, later spreading to other parts of the country.
Radical monks have surged in prominence in recent years, preaching a message that Muslims threaten the very fabric of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
In Thandwe - the gateway to Myanmar's most popular tourist beach resorts - a wave of anti-Muslim rioting in 2013 killed at least six and left a legacy of fear in the region.
Those anxieties were on display at the rally on Saturday, where Ms Suu Kyi took questions from both Buddhists and Muslims.
Asked by a Muslim man how the NLD would prevent religious discrimination, the veteran activist said a government under her party would prioritise the rule of law, a common response from the Nobel laureate.
But she slammed a Buddhist asking her to respond to rumours that her party would usher in a Muslim takeover of the country, saying the very question risked "inciting racial or religious conflict".