Since 2010 the Burmese military Government has embarked on an agenda of reform and modernisation, the speed of which has taken many by surprise. The reforms have seen the release of 1,100 political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the relaxation of restrictions on freedom of the press and of expression. The international community responding to these reforms have repealed sanctions, which has in effect lead to the normalising of international relations between Burma and the UK, as well as opening the country up to foreign investment. Given the active steps the Government of Burma have taken to be more accountable and transparent, it is easy to take the view that the country is on the right track and heading towards becoming a fully fledged democracy. However such a simplistic political analysis misses the deeply entrenched societal and security issues that manifest themselves in the form of the ethnic and religious divisions that still exist in the country.
A multi-ethnic state, Burma is divided between the 65% who consider themselves ethnic Burmese and Buddhist, and 7 other minority groups, the Shan (10%), the Karen (9%), Arkan (5%), the Mon (2.5%), the Chin (2%), the Kachin 1.5%, and the Karenni (0.8%); which are made up of 136 ethnicities. Since the military coup of 1962 minorities have faced discrimination at the hands of a Government policy of "'Burmanisation" and seen themselves effectively shut out of the political arena, with most of the decisions still made by a handful of Generals in Rangoon.
The Rohingya Muslims have it the worst of all. Originally from Bangladesh, there are 800,000 Rohingya mainly living in Rakhine State in Western Burma. The Government rendered them stateless in 1981 when it passed a citizenship law and since then they have been subjected to Government restrictions on travel, marriage, employment, education, worship and a de facto one "child policy". The Government sponsored discrimination reinforces the ethnic tensions within the state where communal violence fuelled by Buddhist extremists continues to break out. According to a recent UN report since June 2012 over 237 people have been killed by religious violence in Burma, and in March the Government banned a number of aid agencies from Rahkine State including Doctors Without Borders the largest NGO healthcare provider. President Thein Sein has said the only solution to the anti-Muslim violence is to deport the Rohingya or put them in camps, using the violence as a pretext to further marginalise Muslims in Burma.
Religious minorities in other parts of the country find themselves facing similar discrimination against a backdrop of heightened Buddhist nationalism. The Kachin and Chin Christians have found themselves facing intimidation and threats, including the burning of churches. The state they argue continues to deprive them of linguistic, cultural, and religious rights while effectively treating Buddhism as the state religion.
These ethnic tensions and the Government's human rights abuses are what have fuelled the violence etween the army and these minority groups since Burma gained independence in 1948. While the overnment has managed to negotiate a general ceasefire agreement between themselves and minority rebels, there is still instability and violence particularly in Kachin State.
This violence has forced many into refugee camps in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, all countries that refuse to ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, where sex trafficking is common and their basic rights are severely limited. The UN estimates that since 2011 250,000 people have been internally displaced.
The growing spectre of violent Buddhist extremism continues to go unchecked by both the Buddhist dominated army, who in some cases are just as bad and the official opposition as well. Aung San Suu Kyi since her release has remained relatively silent on the issue of minority rights and growing extremism in the Buddhist community. Returning in a by-election to Parliament in 2012, Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy are set for a landslide in next year's parliamentary elections. She is also still set on running for the presidency, despite a clause written in the constitution in 2008 that bans people with spouses or children who are foreign nationals from becoming President. Suu Kyi and her supporters are pushing for the clause to be removed as well as a provision that guarantees a 25% share of parliamentary seats to the military.
Many believe that Suu Kyi's silence over the horrific treatment of the Rohingya and other minorities is politically calculated (CNN/Washington Post/Telegraph). To win the presidency she cannot risk offending or putting off ethnic Burmese voters who represent well over two thirds of the electorate. Many of whom favour further democratic reforms and Suu Kyi's candidacy, but view the Rohingya as foreign migrants and the cause of trouble; this includes members of her own party.
The concern is that by trying to transcend the divides that are ingrained across the country and refusing to speak out for minorities, Suu Kyi may inadvertently reinforce them. For those of us in the international community we need to be cautious, and not be swept up by premature euphoria surrounding the reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi's eventual election as president will only be the beginning on what is a long process towards making Burma an inclusive democratic society. Reaching that goal will mean not only challenging a corrupt military who continue to have a stranglehold on the economy and politics, but challenging ingrained ethnic prejudices held by many of her fellow countrymen over many years. The path of truth and reconciliation is an extremely difficult one yet it is the only one that can guarantee a future for all Burmese. Such a path requires strong leadership, concessions on both sides, and more importantly continued pressure from the international community.
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