The Long View on Burma

The Long View on Burma

In Burma, a country long plagued by ethnic strife, violence is breaking out once again. The government is accusing members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, of attacking police officers, while human rights groups say that security forces have killed unarmed civilians and raped Rohingya women. It’s becoming clear that, despite the country’s vaunted democratic transition, it will take decades to erase the visceral hatred, dispel the haze of misinformation, and effect genuine national reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim populations in Rakhine State represents just one of Burma’s many ethnic divides. The country is home to the longest-running civil war in the world, dating back to its independence from the British Empire in 1948, when ethnic rebels took up arms against the new central government and its leaders. The military junta that seized power in 1962 established a harsh dictatorship, barring any debate about the discrimination suffered by the nation’s minority groups or any possible remedies. The resulting stasis, which continued until the start of liberalization some five years ago, ensured the continuation of armed conflict between Burma’s Buddhist-majority center and the periphery.

Now all hopes are turning to Nobel laureate and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi to heal the country’s wounds. Ms. Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest for 21 years under the military regime. Last year, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) was finally allowed to compete in nationwide democratic elections, the party won a landslide victory that enabled it to take control of the government. Suu Kyi has invited former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to head an international panel that will attempt to solve the crisis in Rakhine State.

Ms. Suu Kyi, known simply as “the Lady,” has a great burden placed on her. The world is watching the longtime democracy champion and international icon as she attempts to maintain good relations with Burma’s powerful army, which still controls 25 percent of the parliament’s seats, while navigating ceasefire negotiations involving more than a dozen armed ethnic groups.

Yet despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal charisma and popular mandate, don’t expect her NLD to resolve Burma’s simmering ethnic conflicts: Achieving real national reconciliation may take generations. While negotiations on power-sharing between the ethnic minorities and the central government are a clear precondition for an end to the violence, they alone cannot ensure a permanent solution to the country’s deep-seated problems. A successful long-term strategy requires the government to invest significantly more in education and international experts to scale back their presence, allowing local stakeholders to lead the negotiations.

First, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, should invest more in education, which currently takes up just 7 percent of the government budget, or $13 billion. By comparison, neighboring Thailand spent nearly 20 percent of its budget on education in 2012. This will not bear immediate fruit, but in the long run, educating Burma’s people will be the most effective way to promote broad-based growth and national reconciliation.

For decades under military rule, the junta of Ne Win (1962-1988) and successive generals shuttered universities across the country and clamped down harshly on civil society organizations in an attempt to stifle dissent. In response, groups across the border in Thailand, such as the Vahu Development Institute (where I used to work), took on the task of training young civil society leaders in the hopes that this generation would lead Burma toward reform. This educated cadre will be a critical voice in the country’s ongoing transformation, but the government must do more to build human capital by improving the quality of education and enabling greater access to it.

Secondly, the alphabet soup of international experts, consultants and peace-brokers involved in the peace process (who are often perceived as meddlers by locals), should reduce their footprint to let Burmese (not to be confused with “Burman,” the two-thirds majority Bamar ethnic group) civil society leaders lead the ceasefire negotiations. Burma is not inexperienced in the instruments of war and peace, and it’s time for the international community to recognize that fact. Its people have been struggling since independence in 1948 to form an identity as a multi-ethnic state.

The country is home to an astounding number of ethnic minority groups (Burmese law officially recognizes 135). On top of the crisis in Rakhine State, there are myriad other ethnic armed factions. As many as 21 (depending on how you’re counting) are actively engaged in wars against the government.

The most intense conflict has taken place in regions where the central government has historically lacked a strong presence. As a result, local residents often know the Burmans for their soldiers’ abuses rather than for any government services. In the wake of a successful ceasefire deal, it will be especially critical to expand education and development services in those under-resourced states.

Education, as well as improved public health and basic infrastructure, can in turn stabilize these conflict zones by encouraging political buy-in to Burma’s democratization and earn the government much-needed goodwill. Education can also encourage Burma’s disparate ethnic groups to think of one another as equals in a larger federal union by teaching the history of the country’s diverse cultures and ancient kingdoms. This will be an important corrective to the current narrative of hate directed at subgroups like the Rohingya.

Though optimists point to the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi as a sign of the country’s long-awaited democratic awakening, Burma presents a mixed picture to regional leaders. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have called attention to the regional migration crisis spawned by Burma’s persecution of the Rohingya, even as investors have high hopes for the country’s rapidly growing economy (projected growth in the next year is around 8 percent).

Ultimately, if the United States and regional powers like ASEAN want to help Burma on its path toward democratic stability, they should assist in education and technical assistance, while taking care not to commandeer the peace process. In the end, it is up to the Burmese people — not the international community — to forge a lasting multiethnic national identity.

In the photo, Muslims pray at a religious event in Yangon, Burma on September 24.

Photo credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images