Since 1962, Myanmar has been, in one form or another, under autocratic military control, punctuated by disregard for civil rights and democratic institutions. Only recently did the military regime slowly shift towards democracy, holding democratic elections in 2010, the first in nearly half a century. However, in 2016, the military began a state-led persecution against the nation’s Muslim minority. This varying progress on liberalization has led to much frustration on the part of outside observers.
Myanmar’s situation looks bleak, and their disregard for human and civil rights has come at the cost of widespread international condemnation. Despite this, there is hope that after over half a century of military dictatorship, Myanmar can overcome its current crisis and continue to press forth as a new blossoming democracy.
Burmese expansionism in the early 1800s threatened British control over India. In a series of wars, Myanmar, previously known as Burma, came under British control in 1885. After British annexation, Myanmar remained part of the British empire until it eventually achieved independence in 1948. Initially a progressive democratic state, this period was short-lived as a military coup d’etat brought Myanmar under military dictatorship in 1962. From 1962 to 2010, a military regime under the Burmese Socialist Programme Party ruled Myanmar. With increasing global isolationism and economic sanctions, the military regime eventually declined and was pressured by international actors to hold democratic elections in 2010. For the past nine years, Myanmar has been, at least nominally, a representative democracy.
It’s important to note that despite Myanmar’s liberalization, the military regime is not completely dissolved. The military still controls a large portion of this new parliamentary body. Additionally, while a civilian government has been erected, Myanmar’s military still remains actively independent of civilian authority. The lack of control and democratic transparency has led to human rights issues that have drawn international condemnation.
One of Myanmar’s Muslim populations, the Rohingya, have faced violent persecution by the government since 2016. While a minority in Myanmar, the Rohingya are also found in other parts of the world. In Bangladesh, there are 1.3 million Rohingya; 500,000 in Saudi Arabia, 350,000 in Pakistan and there are even 12,000 Rohingya in the United States. Before the state-led persecution against them, there were over 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar. Since the persecution began, over 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and less than 400,000 remain in the country.
There are a number of explanations behind these persecutions. The Myanmar constitution recognizes 135 indigenous ethnicities. Despite this, the Rohingya are not on that list, as the government views the Rohingya as illegal Bengali immigrants. Additionally, as a Buddhist-majority population, many Burmese fear that the Rohingya will threaten the territorial sovereignty of Myanmar. The War on Terror has only heightened the crisis. Using the United States’ war against Islamist fundamentalists as justification to label all Rohingya as terrorists, extremist elements of the Buddhist establishment have branded Islam as an inherently violent religion and a fifth column which threatens the sovereignty of Myanmar.
In the midst of crises, there are organizations like the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that are trying to aid Myanmar in solving their current humanitarian crisis. This group has sought to improve interfaith relations between Muslim and Buddhist communities. As much of the violence has been triggered by Buddhists monks spreading fear among their followers and preaching that Islam is an inherently violent religion, these efforts are meant to address the conflict at its source. Through interfaith community integration and activism, these historically segregated ethno-religious communities can tear down divisions and begin to see themselves as a shared people’s united under their national identity.
Some critics may say that, despite the efforts of the Burmese to liberalize their government, it remains autocratic because the military still has so much power. Other critics might argue that this tribalism that Myanmar is experiencing is too deeply imbedded within human nature, and that the only society that functions properly is an ethnically and socially homogonous one. Therefore, as long as this Muslim minority remains in Myanmar, there will always be conflict in this region. These criticisms are somewhat valid; undue military influence in society has historically led to instability, and many parts of the world feature deep-seated cleavages founded in tribalism. The hope for outsiders, however, is that through community interfaith integration and democratization, peace, order and respect for human rights can become cornerstones of Myanmar’s society.
Myanmar’s recent attempts at a more open and just society and government are a result of outside pressure through economic isolation and diplomatic efforts. The global community must continue to keep these pressures on. These trends towards an open society are a good first step, but much work remains to be done. If Myanmar wants to return into the good graces of the world, they need to keep transforming their society into one that respects democracy and human rights.