The political and economic liberalization underway in Myanmar has been hailed as a major breakthrough by human rights groups, and rightfully so. After decades of repression, Myanmar’s military junta has surprised many by following through on its commitment to create an open society that is more tolerant of dissent. This startling about-face has less to do with democratic ideals than shifting geopolitical realities, but whatever its origins, it is a hopeful change for 50 million Burmese.But Myanmar’s evolution also poses a dilemma for the U.S. human rights crowd: A more relaxed Burmese government may not be able to contain the ethnic and religious tensions that have simmered for decades. Last week, ten Muslims were murdered in apparent retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl in western Burma. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the violence only grew worse over the weekend:
The clashes intensified Friday, with state-run television reporting that security forces in the Muslim town of Maungdaw opened fire on rioters, who had burned more than 400 homes and killed at least seven Buddhists earlier in the day.
Myanmar’s president has declared a state of emergency in the affected area of Rakhine state, near the border with Bangladesh. Reuters has more details on the conflict between local Buddhists and ethnic-Rohingya Muslims:
Rohingya activists have long demanded recognition as an indigenous ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright, claiming a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine. But the government regards them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.In recent days, they have been described as “invaders” or “terrorists” by some Burmese using their newfound freedom of expression and easier access to the Internet to vent their anger on social networking sites and express anti-Rohingya sentiments that have simmered for decades.
We like to assume that all good things go together, and that more freedom leads to more peace. But when ethnic and religious conflict in the mix, more freedom often leads to less peace.Myanmar is a complicated place; the country’s rulers have some tough choices to make. Will they continue to allow the kind of freedom of expression that could unleash decades of pent-up frustration, or will they crack down and risk alienating the support of the U.S. and their other new democratic friends?