The recent stunning election results in Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) have led to much optimism over the future of the Southeast Asian country. Long led by the military, the majority won by Aung San Suu Kyi – leader of the National League for Democracy and daughter of the man who negotiated Burman independence from the UK – has given rise to hopes that the nation will shake its past and join the league of nations politically, economically and socially.
Challenges remain, however. The army is guaranteed 25% of seats in Parliament. The economy has been closed for decades. Lots of technology is needed to bring the country up to regional, let alone Western, standards. Ominously there are a number of ethnic conflicts that have been simmering for decades.
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic nation. Burmans constitute two-thirds of the population and dominate politics. The Burman majority has not treated non-Burman communities well – the best known uprising is that of the Karen people in the southeast.
Another conflict has come to the fore in recent years and this one has the potential to descend into much more violence. The Rohingya are a Muslim people with historical ties to Bangladesh that inhabit the northwest region of Rakhine. The area is poor and neglected and has been targeted by Buddhist nationalists with calls for limits on family size. Buddhist extremists have rampaged through Rohingya majority villages, killing and destroying, leading many to seek refuge elsewhere in Southeast Asia via human traffickers. Conditions on the boats as well as in detention camps inside Myanmar and around the region are horrendous.
One of the leading proponents for anti-Rohingya discrimination is a Buddhist monk named Wirathu. His 969 Movement is wantonly anti-Islamic and has provided inspiration, if not actual manpower, for the attacks on Muslims. Although Buddhists calling for violence seems like an oxymoron, it is happening in Myanmar. The movement avails itself of the usual reasons: Muslim families are too big, Muslims will take over, Muslims should be sent back to where they came from (in this case Bangladesh). A great religion of enlightenment is being abused to justify genocide.
This conflict has already gotten the attention of jihadists. The inter-religious violence fits their narrative that Muslims and Islam are under attack and need help. The same story that has so successfully led to waves of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Chechnya and Syria could, given the right circumstances, see itself played out in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been disturbingly reticent when it comes to condemning the violence in her country. In light of her decades long struggle against the military for democracy and justice, this silence is inexcusable. She cannot continue to pander solely to Burman nationalists as her party almost swept the non-Burman vote as well. All Myanmar’s citizens, including the Rohingya, deserve more.