Ethnic unrest and near-silence from political leaders threatens to turn Myanmar's much-touted opening into a disaster.
Democratic platitudes will not reverse Myanmar's spiral
On April 22, at a packed, black-tie ceremony in New York City, the Myanmar president, represented by minister Aung Min, accepted an award from the respected global NGO International Crisis Group for the "pursuit of peace". The award, given annually by the group, is meant to honour someone who promotes change and reform, and helps end violent conflicts, like the ones that have ranged along Myanmar's borderlands for decades.
Over the past three years, since Myanmar began its transition from one of the most repressive military regimes in the world to a civilian government, such honorifics - both for civilian President U Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, freed from house arrest and able to travel the world - have become common. While only three years ago, nearly every leading democracy maintained strict sanctions on Myanmar, and portrayed the country as an isolated land run by a thuggish regime, now foreign donors, investors and officials are rushing into the country, and portraying Myanmar as the next giant emerging market and example of democratic change.
In its annual report on human rights, released last week, the US State Department noted, "Burma [the old name for Myanmar] continued to take significant steps in a historic transition toward democracy … its democratic transition, if successful and fully implemented, could serve as an example for other closed societies."
Yet neither the cartoonish portrayals of Myanmar in the past nor today's idyllic pictures of Myanmar's future are correct.
While the country has taken important steps towards democracy, its opening also has unleashed dangerous forces that, in recent months, have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar's Muslim minority. Overall, at least 100,000 Muslims have been made homeless in the past two years by violent attacks on them and their homes, and hundreds if not thousands have been killed. Left unchecked, with Myanmar attempting to make the transition to democracy from one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, this rising ethnic hatred and attacks could turn the country into at 21st century version of post-Cold War Yugoslavia.
Myanmar has had a long history of xenophobia and inter-ethnic tensions, which were exacerbated by the British colonists' use of divide-and-rule tactics and then by the army's oppressive five-decade rule over the country. In 2010, the army began a transition to civilian government, holding elections that ultimately helped create a civilian parliament and formally renouncing their control of the presidency.
Myanmar's opening has allowed for both opposition parties and the media to finally exercise their rights. Where once the Myanmar media diet consisted of a bland state-dominated newspaper, a few websites, and state TV, in the past two years countless websites and new print publications have opened up as the government has lifted blocks on the web. Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy swept last year's by-elections, the first truly fair elections in two decades.
But the rapid opening has also unleashed extremists. The military is not entirely under civilian control, and some Muslim leaders accuse members of the security forces of stoking the violence. Although in another country the president might be able to call upon the army to help quell unrest, Mr Thein Sein cannot even trust his regional commanders to follow his orders.
Meanwhile, the Myanmar internet is already overwhelmed by hateful screeds against Muslims, Indians, Chinese and other ethnic minorities. The internet has become a rallying ground for a radical, anti-Muslim Buddhist group called the 969 Movement, led by nationalistic monks. The 969 Movement's activities are not hidden to the government or to Ms Suu Kyi; they have been giving anti-Muslim speeches, holding anti-Muslim rallies and distributing DVDs full of vitriol for at least a year.
Over the past two weeks, anti-Muslim violence, which last year had seemed confined to the western state of Rakhine, has exploded across the country. Mobs of Buddhists, some with ties to the 969 Movement, have attacked Muslims in the towns of Miktila, Naypyitaw, Bago and now in Yangon, the largest city. Many Muslims in Yangon, Bago and other large towns are afraid to go to the mosque, enter shops catering to Muslims, or show displays of their faith outside their homes or stores.
Anti-Muslim nationalists appear to be well organised, since the recent violence has spread rapidly and in an apparently coordinated way. In many towns, local Muslims and ethnic minorities have complained that the police and army have done nothing to protect them from attackers.
Although both Ms Suu Kyi and the president have publicly called for greater tolerance and for reconciliation, neither has taken real steps that might end the climate of hate. Neither the government nor Ms Suu Kyi has offered a viable plan for how to create a more federal state, which will be essential in a country with so many ethnic minorities and religious groups and so little trust of the central government. Within the top ranks of the National League for Democracy, Ms Suu Kyi's party, nearly all senior leaders do not support significant federalism despite ethnic minorities' deep distrust of the national government.
In addition, while ethnic minority areas are the most in need of aid and investment in physical infrastructure, players in the capital Naypyidaw already are competing to channel new foreign aid and investment to Burman regions, at the expense of less developed areas. Meanwhile, though donors have been scrambling to enter Myanmar since most democracies lifted sanctions over the past two years, little of the new assistance has focused on ethnic tensions, and much of it has been given without coordination with other donors.
If the situation does not change quickly, Myanmar's much-touted opening could end in disaster.
Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for South-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations