Why sectarian conflict in Burma is bad for democracy

Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and ...

By
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages

Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes are spreading fast.

Although a predominantly Buddhist state, Arakan is home to a large number of Muslims, including the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by the Burmese government as stateless illegal aliens. The United Nations has described them as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. However, many Burmese call them "Bengalis," or even use a racial slur, kalar, a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian appearance.

Given the present situation, it's worth recalling J.S. Furnivall, the scholar who introduced the idea of the "plural society" to early 20th-century scholarship. Furnivall, a top Civil Service officer serving in colonial Burma, came up with his theory after studying Burma under British colonial rule. In his view, the myriad ethnic groups in Burma led to a disintegration of common social will.

Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes are spreading fast.

Although a predominantly Buddhist state, Arakan is home to a large number of Muslims, including the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by the Burmese government as stateless illegal aliens. The United Nations has described them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. However, many Burmese call them "Bengalis," or even use a racial slur, kalar, a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian appearance.

Given the present situation, it’s worth recalling J.S. Furnivall, the scholar who introduced the idea of the "plural society" to early 20th-century scholarship. Furnivall, a top Civil Service officer serving in colonial Burma, came up with his theory after studying Burma under British colonial rule. In his view, the myriad ethnic groups in Burma led to a disintegration of common social will.

"In Burma, as in Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples — European, Chinese, Indian, and native," he writes. "It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways."

Furnivall blamed the atomization of society on the laissez-faire economic forces introduced by British colonial rule in Burma. The medley of peoples was held together solely by an economic nexus and had no social or cultural ties. What an insight!

For Burmese nationalists, Furnivall reasons, the objective is not to reform and humanize plural society, but to resist and reject it. Furnivall, who wrote as early as in 1931 that "[N]ationalism in Burma is morally right," felt that ethnic Burman nationalism was an apt solution to a divisive plural society.

Unfortunately, Burmese history has produced ample evidence that Furnivall’s optimism was unfounded. Burman-Buddhist nationalism, which historically lacks inclusiveness, has deepened ethnic divisions, triggered intractable civil war, and prompted coercive assimilation in minority regions. This is a failed model for an otherwise promising multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

President Thein Sein was right when he warned in his televised speech this weekend that "if we put racial and religious issues at the forefront … if we continue to retaliate and terrorize and kill each other … the country’s stability and peace, democratization process, and development … could be severely affected and much would be lost."

There are other people among the ruling elite, however, who, though not responsible for causing the outbreak of violence, have effectively exploited it for their own agendas. The reports in both state and private media treated last month’s rape and murder of a local woman that led to the outbreak of violence not as a criminal case, but as a racial crime. The reports highlighted the identity of the victim as an Arakan Buddhist girl and of the alleged perpetrators as Muslims. On June 3, 10 Muslims were killed in the same region in apparent retaliation for the murder of the Buddhist girl. The state media even used the racial epithet kalar when referring to the Muslims, but then issued a correction (not an apology) the following day. A senior official in the Presidential Office has used his personal Facebook page to inflame matters by framing the issue as a matter of national security, and urging the people to rally behind the armed forces. Racially charged comments from proud-to-be-Burman racists are proliferating across social media. There are several violent racist blogs and groups, such as the "Kalar Beheading Gang," on Facebook.

Since politics is all about "who gets what, when, and how," it would be naive not to think in terms of winners and losers. Both sides in this conflict are underdogs: the Arakan people, who are repressed and exploited by the Burman-dominated military regime, and the Rohingyas, who reside at the bottom of Burma’s discriminatory landscape. By killing each other, they themselves become the ultimate losers. It is the military that ends up as the clear winner. The government’s initial passivity in enforcing law and order in Arakan state has led the public to demand decisive military intervention. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is that the army will emerge as the indispensible defender and savior of "national security."

The timing of the conflict clearly benefits the rulers. The sequence of events could cost Aung San Suu Kyi dearly. Suu Kyi, who begins her first European trip in 24 years on Wednesday, humiliated Burma’s nominally civilian government when she visited Thailand last month to an enthusiastic public reception. But the ongoing communal clashes will likely overshadow her trip and undercut the domestic coverage of her actions abroad. The government’s proxies will say that she’s promoting herself and her personal popularity while her people suffer back at home.

She is already being pressured by the local media and some public figures to take a clear stand on the Rohingya issue. In Europe, where a network of Rohingya exiles is well-established, she will be asked by the media about her position on Rohingya rights. I’ll bet that the Burmese military will be very happy to see her tackle such questions, since her answer could either cost her a large number of domestic supporters who are hostile to the Muslim minority, or contradict her moral stand of prizing equal rights for minorities.

Meanwhile, the international community has called for a halt to the violence and a transparent investigation. The communal violence, however, continues to rage in Arakan state, and local residents say that the authorities are still failing to restore stability and enforce the rule of law.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate in the political science department at University of California, Berkeley. He is a regular contributor to Democracy Lab's blog, Transitions.

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.