Don’t count on it
April 4, 2014
Myanmar’s course is leading in the wrong direction
ONE of the world’s good-news stories, Myanmar is known as an uplifting saga of the transformation of a poverty-stricken military dictatorship into a liberal democracy with a fast-emerging economy. Of late, however, it is drawing some ugly headlines. The immediate cause is an ill-conceived census, counting for which began on March 30th. It threatens potentially disastrous consequences for communal relations in a country of bewildering ethnic diversity. The more fundamental worry, ahead of a pivotal election next year, is whether the army really intends to cede power. A remarkable revolution, with no bloodshed and no losers, is beginning to look less like a revolution at all.
In principle nothing is wrong with a census. Myanmar has not had one since 1983, so estimates of the population (rough guess: 60m) are based on projections. It makes a nonsense of government planning. But the census’s 41 questions stray far beyond the basics of name, age and occupation into the minefield of ethnicity. On the face of it, that is also reasonable. A common assumption is that the largest ethnic group, the Burmans, make up about 60% of the population. But Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, has suggested that the minorities make up 60%. The many conflicts between the government and the various ethnic groups in the border areas pose perhaps the biggest threat to Myanmar’s future peace and stability. Numbers would be handy.
The trouble is that the census uses an eccentric list of 135 recognised nationalities, inherited from the British colonialists and incorporated into a 1982 citizenship law. Of its many inaccurate or debatable features, the most egregious is the exclusion of a group known as the Rohingyas—of whom Myanmar has about 1m. Muslims of South Asian descent, Rohingyas live mostly in the western state of Rakhine (once Arakan), which borders Bangladesh. Most are stateless, regarded by the authorities as illegal Bengali immigrants. Yet many have been in Rakhine for generations. Even Miss Suu Kyi has failed to back their right to citizenship, denting her moral stature overseas. Repeated bouts of murderous violence between them and the Buddhist, ethnic-Rakhine, majority in the state have left tens of thousands, mostly Rohingyas, in crowded camps, and much of the state under a form of apartheid. Shopkeepers who sell to Rohingyas risk reprisals.
Rohingyas were assured that they could identify themselves as such in the census, by telling the census-taker to write it in. Predictably, this prompted a backlash from the Rakhines, who believed that the Rohingyas’ unwelcome presence would become permanent and worried about a new influx from Bangladesh. The tension has even led to attacks on foreign and local NGOs working with the Rohingyas. Late last month nearly 700 aid workers had to be evacuated from Rakhine. The NGOs now worry about how the Rohingyas in camps will be kept supplied.
In response to pressure from Rakhines, the government has backtracked on commitments to the census’s foreign sponsors—the UN Population Fund and governments including Britain’s—and decreed that Rohingyas could not after all identify themselves as such. They are still “Bengalis”. Instead of being a small step on the road to the integration into Myanmar of a persecuted minority, the census will become another brick in the wall that excludes them.
This is not the only way in which the government of a supposedly reformist president, Thein Sein, has been pandering to Buddhist zealotry, and to anti-Muslim prejudice. Stoked in part by a group led by a rabble-rousing monk, known as Ashin Wirathu, the prejudice has encompassed other Burmese Muslims as well as the Rohingyas. Parliament is to consider a law that would ban Buddhist women from marrying non-Buddhists. Mr Thein Sein has argued this is needed to “preserve race and religion”.
For all sorts of reasons, the West has given Mr Thein Sein the benefit of the doubt. The former general’s changes have already transformed Myanmar into a far more relaxed, open country than the one he took over in 2011. Political prisoners have been released, the press freed and the ubiquity of day-to-day tyranny ended. Myanmar is a better, happier place. Moreover, the country remains a great strategic prize, snatched from China’s orbit, and one of the last great untapped markets and resource suppliers. The world, as Miss Suu Kyi has remarked, loves a happy ending.
The end of the rainbow
But when she said that two years ago, she observed that there was a long way to go. And the census controversy draws attention to the stalling of other reforms, notably to the constitution, an army-imposed charter. It can only be amended with the agreement of more than three-quarters of the parliament, a quarter of whose seats are reserved, as it happens, for the army. A parliamentary committee has just decided not to lower the threshold needed to pass an amendment. Instead, the army’s parliamentary quota is to be reduced. But no timetable is given. Nor, as things stand, will Miss Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular politician, fulfil her wish to be a presidential candidate next year. The constitution, with her in mind, bars those with foreigners in the family, and her late husband was British, as are her two sons. Her demand to change this has not been backed by the government, which is divided about how far and how fast to change.
The unlikely consensus between Mr Thein Sein and Miss Suu Kyi, forged at a meeting in 2011, where they decided to trust each other, has broken down. The consensus was the basis of Myanmar’s transformation since. But now, before next year’s election, Burmese politics is in a dangerous phase. Not all the ex-generals manning the government seem reconciled to giving up power. Anti-Muslim feeling is mounting. Lasting peace with the many ethnic insurgencies remains elusive. And Myanmar’s ordinary people, the poor, wonder when all these marvellous reforms they hear about will begin to improve their lives.