Ethnic Tension Could Derail Myanmar Reform Process

The 100-plus ethnic groups in Myanmar threaten the historic political and economic reforms currently taking place there.

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech from the balcony of a branch office of her National League for Democracy party at Thone Gwa township in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.

As history tells it, the father of modern day Myanmar, Gen. Aung San, was assassinated in 1947 not long after the country gained its independence from Britain as he sought to forge a democracy among leaders from Myanmar's 100-plus ethnic groups. But even 50 years of authoritarian military rule (itself installed following ethnic rivalries in 1962) following Aung San's death have not been able to quell ethnic tensions in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and last month saw a major flare up that could threaten the historic political and economic reforms taking place in Myanmar today.

"The central problem facing the country is not political," said David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University, in a recent interview for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy. "The sharing of power and resources has never been adequately dealt with, and that is the central issue that needs to be resolved."

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According to a government account, violent riots between Buddhists and minority Muslims in western state of Rakhine began on October 21 and continued through the end of the month have left 86 Myanmarese dead. Because the country is still ruled by a military junta, such figures are often disputed, but the United Nations estimates that more than 25,000 have been displaced in a state that is home to nearly one million people along the border with Bangladesh. It's long been a focus area for human rights groups. 

The flare up comes in the midst of reforms largely championed by Western countries that would open the Myanmarese economy to international investment and see new elections take place in 2015. A number of political prisoners have been released over the past year, and the government has slowly begun to allow more freedom for the press. The process, however, has been micro-managed by Myanmar's military leaders, and a number of constitutional reforms have yet to be implemented. 

"What's very unique about Myanmar is contrary to everything that's happened in the Arab Spring, but at the same time in parallel, it all came from the top," said Louise Arbour, former high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations and now head of the International Crisis Group, which closely monitors Myanmar. "This is not a revolution of the people, it's a transformation of a regime, self-motivated to transform."

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For that reason, democratic reforms are tenuous and could easily be reversed. While the United States has recently opened up diplomatic relations with Myanmar in response to reforms, the new U.S. ambassador to the country, Derek Mitchell, said continued ethnic tension could derail the process. 

"It's really a remarkable story, Burma, perhaps the most positive development we've seen globally in the past year," he told Great Decisions. "But you have to understand the very complex dynamics of the country, where not only are there a number of ethnic groups and multiple complex interactions between them, but there is no real rule of law and they're in a transitional phase."

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While the central government has negotiated ceasefires with a number of armed ethnic groups, problems like those in Rakhine state will require a more robust solution, according to Mitchell:

Getting past ceasefires and getting to political dialog, real resolution, national reconciliation, and trust building to create the stability and unity in the country that they have been fighting for over the past 60 years—that remains the real concern.

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Many in the country have placed their hopes for unity in opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San who sought the same goal before his assassination. 

"I think everybody's introduction to Burma is likely to be because of Aung San Suu Kyi—a remarkable, unique figure, an icon really globally for democracy—and of course, more than an icon inside her own country," said Mitchell.  "But she'll be the first to say that this is not just about her. It can't be just about a single person, it has to be about society at large."

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