Burma may well be on the road from military dictatorship to participatory democracy, but as we have had to report far too often over the past couple of years, that transition has left a bloody trail. Burma’s leaders have struggled to control ethnic and religious tensions formerly bottled up under authoritarian rule, and in some cases the police even participated in mob violence against the Rohingya Muslims, according to the latest Human Rights Watch annual report.Now, allegations of Buddhist extremists slaughtering women and children are once again trickling out of the country’s Rakhine province, where 80 percent of Burma’s roughly one million Rohingya Muslims are concentrated. Confirming the details can be difficult, because the region is cut off from the rest of the country by a mountain range and access to foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers is often denied or heavily restricted, but the Guardian reported the story as follows:
Chris Lewa of the Thailand-based Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been documenting abuses against Rohingya for more than a decade, said … [the] death toll could be anywhere from 10 to 60. […]Tensions have been building in the region since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 arrived and started giving sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya.Worried they would be arrested, the men fled, leaving the women, children and elderly people behind.Lewa said her sources reported that Rohingya women and children had been hacked to death, but the numbers varied widely.
As we wrote last year, moving large minorities from repression to equality will be a major test for Burma’s leaders. “This process will take time and could turn bloody along the way,” we predicted then. Alas, it has.Just as worryingly, however, is that many bigwigs in global politics are blinkered to these grim realities because they don’t fit into their narrative of Burma’s emergence as an “open” and “free” democratic country. The IMF, for instance, praised the government this week for “floating its exchange rate, establishing central bank autonomy and significantly increasing spending on health and education,” the Associated Press reports. The IMF’s team leader for Burma, Matt Davies, said the country is undergoing an “exciting transition.”Similarly, western leaders have largely met Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s ambivalence over the Rohingya issue with a shrug. In an interview with the BBC last October, Aung flatly denied that Muslims were being subjected to ethnic cleansing, blamed the killings of hundreds on a “climate of fear” and said that tensions had “been inflamed by a worldwide perception—also felt in Burma—that global Muslim power was ‘very great.’”The road to democracy is perilous indeed, and Burma’s progress constitutes a significant shift in the region’s geopolitics. Those who wish to see the country prosper, however, aren’t helping its prospects by turning a blind eye toward an issue that could tear it apart from the inside.