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How Myanmar can combat ethnic conflict

Rohingya refugee Mohamad Husein from Myanmar wipes tears from his eyes as he talks to reporters at his hostel on the outskirts of Alor Setar, Kedah, North Malaysia, Nov. 23, 2013. After his tiny Muslim village in Myanmar's northwest Rakhine was destroyed in a fire set by an angry Buddhist mob, he and his younger sister became separated from their family. (Photo: Vincent Thian/AP)

By Seth D. Kaplan
May 15, 2014

Myanmar holds the key to improving the lives of millions within its borders and beyond. With international support, it must work to promote social unity and empower and protect minorities. Then it can be an example for a region that has too often failed to uphold pluralist norms.

As a sign of the great progress Myanmar (Burma) has made over the past few years, the country held its first census in decades. But the exclusion of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim population from the census stands as a reminder of the great challenges the country still faces as it seeks to transition to democracy. 

Although it has made significant progress economically and politically over the past three years, Myanmar’s future is imperiled by the specter of ethnic and religious conflict. Myanmar’s leaders, with support from the international community, must take steps to ensure minority rights and promote social unity.

A patchwork of ethnicities 

While the actions of Buddhist extremists against Muslims have grabbed headlines, Myanmar has deeper fault lines that have long challenged its unity. No government has controlled the whole country since before World War II; armed conflict has plagued it ever since. 

With a patchwork of fractious ethnicities that have little sense of common community, Myanmar is divided between the country’s majority Burman population and ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Shan, Karen, Chin, Mon, and Arakanese, to name just a few. Meanwhile, the Rohingya Muslims, who number about 1 million, suffer systematic discrimination.

This degree of ethnic and religious diversity would be challenging to even the most stable and developed of countries. Myanmar’s long history of instability, repression, weak institutions, and underdevelopment makes it especially at risk of conflict, which would invite the military-run government to reassert its authority and roll back reforms. Free elections could easily ignite – rather than absorb – these tensions.

The benefits of social unity

Myanmar will succeed only if its leaders make a concerted effort both to promote social cohesion across the country and to find ways to empower minority groups. Doing so will actually increase the legitimacy of the state – and improve the lot of the entire country.

Academic research has shown that socially cohesive countries have less conflict, better government, more development, and greater stability. Tunisia, for instance, has the best prospects among the Arab Spring countries because it is more cohesive than places such as Libya and Syria. Its leaders have been more willing to compromise for the national good than elsewhere. Such cohesion is particularly essential during political transitions – when the rules of governing are being renegotiated.

Building social cohesion in Myanmar will require an emphasis on inclusiveness by the country’s leaders, both in words and in actions. Too often, however, they have acted in ways that aggravate relations between groups. 

No major Burmese political leader – not even Aung San Suu Kyi – has confronted the intolerance and social exclusion that threaten the country’s transition. And although President Thein Sein’s government has made decentralization more of a priority than his predecessors did, the political autonomy of subnational governments (which would in most cases be governed by minority communities) remains very limited.

International aid – and pressure

The international community can help in several ways. First, international assistance – and investment – should be tied to concrete steps by the government to address social exclusion. The more trade deals, visits by foreign leaders, and aid are conditioned upon inclusive policies, the more likely reformists will respond. Foreign companies and governments can thus provide cover for domestic politicians to take stronger stands for such policies.

Bringing in prominent Buddhists from overseas and strengthening leading Buddhists within the country willing to promote inclusiveness would increase the appeal of principled action and reinforce the effectiveness of such actions. 

Second, aid for decentralization – developing regional-level governments with a degree of autonomy – should be given priority. Every democratic country with multiple geographically separate identity groups uses decentralization in some form to hold itself together.

Myanmar will have to follow the same path to succeed. Local actors increasingly recognize this, but much help is required to establish the most appropriate political structures, public administrative organs, and fiscal arrangements.

Lessons from India, Tunisia, South Africa

Third, the international community can offer examples and access to leaders of countries that have dealt successfully with similar challenges. India is an important regional actor and offers a blueprint for success. Despite occasional bouts of conflict and immense diversity, the country has held together by creating a strong national identity and decentralizing substantial power to regional governments based on strong regional identities. 

South Africa developed a new post-apartheid national identity as a “rainbow nation” to build social cohesion in a country that once had very little of it. This famous moniker both helped shape the actions of its leaders and signaled to minorities that they were still welcome. The country also decentralized power, giving minority groups greater chances to rule.

Linchpin for a region

Situated at the crossroads of India, China, and Southeast Asia, Myanmar holds the key to improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people within its borders and within surrounding countries. It can be an example for a region that has all too often failed to uphold pluralist norms, as recent elections in Cambodia, Thailand, and Bangladesh have sadly shown. 

Myanmar’s leaders, with support from the international community, must not see diversity as a threat to the state, but leverage it to build greater unity and stability.

Seth D. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the managing editor of the Fragile States Forum (;@fragile_states) and the author of “Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity.”

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