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Anti-Muslim Hatred and Other Problems for Obama in Burma

“We have to expel the Muslims. We don’t want what happened in Afghanistan to happen here. . . . Muslims are different to us.”

Buddhist nationalists like Sayataw Virathu, who volunteered the quote above in an interview, are perhaps the most dangerous threat to the government of Burma and its political reforms, which seem to have spun out of the control of the former military junta. Virathu (Sayataw is a title meaning “venerable teacher”) had been jailed in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim hatred; he was released in January as part of a sweeping government amnesty plan. He immediately restarted the anti-Muslim program, this time in Rakhine state, complete with a Facebook campaign, street protests, and DVDs that show alleged Muslim atrocities. Hundreds of people died in violence this year, hundreds of villages were burned to the ground, and tens of thousands of Muslims fled to refugee camps and neighboring countries.

Burma is a cauldron. Religious and ethnic hatreds could plunge the country into worse violence than anything yet seen. The government’s reforms released those hatreds, which had been previously suppressed by the oppressive military regime.

President Obama is due to make an historic appearance in Burma on Monday. It is the first trip by an American president to the former pariah nation. White House officials cautioned that this was not a “victory lap” but a show of support that would, in theory, urge the Burmese government to press on with political reforms and solve its dangerous new problems, notably the violence in Rakhine: “This is a moment when we believe the Burmese leaders have put their feet on the right path and that it’s critical to us that we not miss the moment to influence them to keep going,” said the President’s top Asia advisor Danny Russel.

U.S. policy has tough choices ahead for two particular reasons. First, the government’s reforms have had unintended, violent consequences, and it is not yet clear whether the police and military are able or willing to deal with ongoing wars with rebel groups and ethnic conflicts like the widespread rioting in Rakhine this year. In Kachin state, for example, government soldiers have been accused of terrible abuses—rape, massacres of civilians, using child soldiers—in the long-running war against the Kachin Independence Army.

Second, it is also not yet clear whether the military is serious about its reforms. The reforms so far have been carefully stage managed. The power of the armed forces is enshrined in the constitution, written in 2008 by the junta; soldiers have immunity in civilian courts from all crimes, and three cabinet posts and a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for unelected officers. The military also controls vast business conglomerates that are perfectly poised to strike it rich as foreign investment comes flooding into the country.

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