THANDWE (Rakhine) • Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for unity in volatile Rakhine state yesterday, in an impassioned election rally, tackling head-on bitter religious divisions between Buddhists and Muslims that have shaken the nation, as early overseas voting began for the Nov 8 election.
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 their campaigns for the polls.
The 70-year-old opposition leader has faced global 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 group.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) - contesting its first nationwide vote in 25 years - is expected to defeat 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. Some 140,000 people were displaced, most of them Muslims.
In Thandwe, the gateway to the country's most popular tourist beach resorts, a wave of anti-Muslim rioting in 2013 killed at least six and left a legacy of fear.
Anxieties were evident at the rally where Ms Suu Kyi took questions. Asked by a Muslim man how the NLD would prevent religious discrimination, she said it would prioritise the rule of law, a common response from the Nobel peace laureate. But she slammed a Buddhist asking her to respond to rumours that the NLD would usher in a Muslim takeover of the country, saying the very question risked "inciting racial or religious conflict".
Myanmar's general election is tipped to be the freest in generations for a nation that languished in poverty and isolation under almost half a century of military rule.
Early overseas voting has started in Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. Although Myanmar has millions of citizens overseas, only a small fraction have registered for advance voting in 37 nations , said Mr Thein Oo, director of the Union Election Commission.