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This Is Where the Real Work in Myanmar Begins

By Erin Murphy
April 22, 2014

The trajectory of Myanmar's transition from authoritarian rule toward democratization appears to be stalling. Recent violence in Rakhine State and ominous statements from high levels of the government and military on religious and political issues are legitimate concerns, however, it is too soon to deem this the end of a fledgling democratic transition. Myanmar is not returning to its former despotic ways but it is at a crossroads in addressing its most difficult and deeply entrenched issue: national reconciliation. Setbacks should be expected in any developing democracy and accordingly, the global community must not prematurely proclaim that all is lost and abandon the economic and political progress made thus far. Rather, along with the government, political opposition, and civil society, it should build on those advances and take advantage of newfound openness to aid, assistance, and capacity building programs to prevent backsliding and instability.

Myanmar has been has been in the prolonged throes of war since World War II and its subsequent independence in 1948. Decades of conflict and military rule resulted in local populations being subjected to land grabs, questionable labor practices, environmental degradation, and a variety of other human rights abuses. The then-ruling junta in the 1990s forged ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen armed ethnic groups halting the civil war, but failing to reach a broader political solution. Mistrust became firmly entrenched.

Today's government, populated with many generals from the former ruling junta, has defied expectations on national reconciliation and both the executive and legislative branches are committed to seeking resolution. The Thein Sein-led government since 2011 has made significant inroads towards a durable peace and a political dialogue with armed political activists and ethnic groups. Ethnic nationalities, working to overcome mistrust, have also actively participated in the negotiations. While these groups may not see exactly the same path forward, there is a strong commitment from all sides to see this process through, even if it takes decades. And that should be celebrated and further supported.

However, there is one glaring piece missing from this dialogue--the fury and violence in Myanmar targeting one of the world's least wanted people, the Rohingya. Muslims of all ethnicities are currently being harassed in Myanmar but the Rohingya ethnic group bear the brunt. Myanmar is the epicenter of the problem, but neighboring Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh--each dealing with their own set of ethnic minority issues--are not helping either. The Rohingya there are housed in dilapidated facilities and there are reports of mistreatment. Beach-going tourists in 2009 caught Thai security forces beating then towing Rohingya refugees in rowboats out to sea. Indonesia and Bangladesh continue to threaten to send refugees back to Myanmar and have limited aid agencies' efforts to assist the displaced population.

But Myanmar is where the core of this issue must be addressed. One hallmark of a dictatorship is its ability to forcibly quell ethnic and religious tensions. As a country opens, a depressingly common characteristic is that newfound freedoms bring with it the liberty to vent repressed feelings of hatred long unspoken within communities where members of these groups lived side by side in peace for decades. The hopeful and inspirational political transformation in Myanmar has unleashed such sentiments, potentially threatening the progress civil society leaders and international governments have invested so much in promoting. Myanmar has the tools to prevent a massacre, de-escalate tensions, and forge a long-term solution to the divisive citizenship issue. The international community must be there to assist and see them through this effort.

First, Myanmar's political and civil society leaders must show leadership and preach tolerance and an end of violence. There has to be a champion to stand up against the type of violence engulfing the west of the country. Unfortunately, the pillars of Myanmar's prodemocracy movement have remained silent, sided with restrictive policies, or publicly used racial affronts, dispelling hope of in-country support. Additionally, police and military officers called into protect the Rohingya--and aid and NGO workers--should undergo sensitivity training and learn appropriate techniques to stop violence and turn instigators over to the courts.

The next step is improving and clarifying the legal system--which derives from six different governing regimes dating back to the 1800s--enhancing civil rights and improving its record keeping system. The law must be written to protect all people in Myanmar, regardless of race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Tied to this, Myanmar must establish a functioning immigration system--predicated on basic human rights, due process, and rule of law--that can determine birthplace, legality of immigration status, and provide a system to process people accordingly.

New investors--and newly engaging foreign governments--could bring much more to bear beyond investment and assistance dollars. They have a chance to offer first-hand experience with these issues and share lessons learned in overcoming such challenging workplace and governance issues. Their investments should also impose and enforce non-discrimination policies and seek zero tolerance of discriminatory behavior. Additionally for the Myanmar government, appropriately addressing violence will bring in new investors as recent reports have had a chilling effect on companies concerned with risk mitigation.

If anyone thought that Myanmar's transformation was going to progress perfectly, they were deceiving themselves. Myanmar has come a long way, but it will not be able to continue its remarkable transition if it fails to protect human rights and ensure rule of law for all of its people or if the international community gives up. There are difficult days ahead to be sure. Myanmar is struggling with ethno-racial and religious tensions that even the most developed countries, including the U.S., still grapple with. Now is not the time to declare the country a loss. The work that could ultimately bring peace and stability to Myanmar is beginning now.

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