RANGOON — Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off a tour of war-torn Kachin State on Friday, urging voters to choose her National League for Democracy (NLD) in order to better prospects for peace in the region.
“You all have to decide,” she said Friday, in response to a question on the party’s plans for peace, raised by a member of the audience during a campaign rally in the state capital Myitkyina.
“We would be able to do that only if you have faith in us and give us a chance to do it. Without being the government, we aren’t able to bring peace. That’s the reality.”
The 70-year-old Nobel laureate told the crowd that her party had not been invited to participate in ongoing peace negotiations between more than a dozen ethnic armed groups and the government of President Thein Sein.
“We were accused of derailing the peace process even if we made constructive criticism on the issue. So, if you want us to make it happen, please give us enough votes to form the government,” she added.
Fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has flared periodically in several parts of Kachin State since a ceasefire agreement between the two parties broke down in 2011. Clashes in Mansi Township late last month forced Suu Kyi to scratch planned campaign stops in the area.
Suu Kyi has been criticized at home and abroad for her silence on the Kachin conflict, which has seen more than 100,000 civilians displaced over the last four years. But on Friday under the scorching morning sun, thousands of enthusiastic NLD supporters gathered nonetheless at a sporting grounds about a kilometer away from the venue that local authorities barred the party from using.
“There are many ethnic people in Kachin State, so let me tell all of you that the NLD is for all the ethnic people in the Union. It is not a Bamar party, by Bamar people,” Suu Kyi said during her speech, referring to the country’s ethnic Burman majority.
During a question and answer session that followed Suu Kyi’s remarks, members of the audience put questions to the pro-democracy leader, with one man asking if Burma would become a Muslim country if the NLD was able to form a government following the Nov. 8 general election.
The question, coming amid an effort by Buddhist nationalists to paint the party as overly sympathetic to the country’s minority Muslims and not sufficiently supportive of the Buddhist majority, prompted Suu Kyi to invoke the country’s Constitution.
“Don’t believe in people who are trying to brainwash you. The Constitution restricts abusing race and religion for politics. I wonder why the government turns a blind eye to them even though we have the constitutional prohibition,” she answered.
Kachin State is home to one of the country’s largest populations of minority Christians.
Hitting closer to home, one questioner asked Suu Kyi about how her party planned to deal with the Myitsone dam in Kachin State, a controversial Chinese-backed hydropower project that was suspended by Thein Sein in 2011 amid public backlash
“The first thing we will do if we become the government is to disclose the deal [between the government and the Chinese firm] to the public,” she replied. “I don’t want to make any promises now because we still don’t have any idea about it either. We all have to find an answer for it when we reveal it. I would ask that you help give us suggestions on what we should do about it.”
On Friday evening, she traveled to neighboring Waingmaw Township, where she assured her supporters that the NLD’s main rival was the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), not the dozens of ethnic political parties competing in the election.
Some ethnic political parties’ leaders have in recent weeks criticized the opposition leader for her party’s decision to contest nearly all of the 1,171 seats at play in the election, arguing that the party should have ceded races in areas with predominantly ethnic constituencies to ethnic political parties.
“When we win, we will invite other parties to work for national reconciliation and a democratic, federal union,” she said.
Additional reporting by Steve Tickner in Myitkyina and Maingmaw.