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Lifting the Lid on Burma’s Ethnic Violence?

The murder of nine Muslims in western Burma by Buddhist vigilantes—claiming revenge for a Buddhist woman killed by Muslims last week—reveals the toxic difficulties Burma must confront as it attempts to liberalize.

There are some poisons for which political liberalization is no antidote: ethnic and religious tensions are rarely dissolved suddenly by the introduction of freedom of speech and assembly. In fact, when such freedoms are instituted in a populous and diverse country with a history of religious and ethnic tension, they often clear the way for violence. And as evidenced by Monday’s attack, there are ethnic and religious groups in Burma who don’t much care for each other.

Reuters described the aftermath of Monday’s violence:

Rakhine is home to Myanmar’s largest concentration of Muslims, but their presence is often resented by the Buddhist majority. The resentment is particularly sharp for Rohingya Muslims, whose roots date back to the 1820s when they were brought to the country as laborers by colonial power Britain.

Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries, where sectarian and ethnic tensions still persist, despite a new political climate and broad reforms by a civilian-led government that says it has made peace and national unity a priority since it replaced a military junta 15 months ago.

Meanwhile, ethnic tension in another form has been on display in the north of the country, as rebels continue their fight against the government. UPI covered this story:

Kachin rebels and other ethnic groups are battling for more self-rule. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has tried to broker peace agreements with ethnic rebels but talks with the Kachin group have so far failed.

Nearly a dozen clashes between Kachin rebels and government forces have erupted since the end of April, The Guardian newspaper in London reports, citing Myanmar’s state-run media. At least 31 people were killed during the latest clashes, with rebels suffering the greatest loss.

Over the past few decades the military junta has tried to keep a lid on the simmering hostility, with varying results. The question now is, what will happen as Burma begins to open up? Whether you look at the Buddhist-Muslim skirmishes or the ongoing Kachin rebellion, it’s far from clear that a spirit of tolerant compromise will emerge from an atmosphere of increased street demonstrations and propaganda.

If that spirit doesn’t emerge, both the Burmese government and its new American and Asian friends will have some hard choices to make.

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  • Kris

    If at the beginning of this year I would have been told that Burma would become more like Thailand, that would not have seemed like an entirely negative development.

  • J R Yankovic

    Almost SEEMS to reinforce what I’ve been saying right along: There is no global religion whose adherents aren’t capable of “jihadifying” themselves – in one degree or another – given the right provocations. And yes, maybe I’m looking too far down the road (not to mention the wrong road). But what happens, I wonder, if, as militant Burmese Buddhists start drawing closer to India, Burmese Muslims compensate by seriously realigning with China and/or Pakistan? And suppose the Kachins “join” them?

    All in all, very astute, farsighted post. And woefully undercommented on (speaking of which, when is somebody else – besides VM – going to start paying more attention to to our modern politicized/militarized global religion?).

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