On July 22nd, I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on “Myanmar’s Ethnic, Communal, and Human Rights Challenges and the 2015 Elections.” The event was moderated by Vikram Nehru and featured
- Cultural anthropologist Christina Fink from George Washington University;
- US Institute of Peace’s Susan Hayward; and
- Kelley Currie of the 2049 Institute.
The panelists made clear the critical moment in which Burma finds itself, as the transition to democracy has not lived up to its promises and the upcoming elections will be a vital moment in determining the trajectory Burma takes.
Burma has long-running conflicts between the government and various minority ethnic groups, and the speakers focused on how the elections would impact these conflicts. Ethnic groups are represented both through political parties and armed groups. Furthermore, Fink said ethnic political parties and armed groups broadly want the same thing, a more federalist system of government where they receive more autonomy and receive better treatment. However, Fink noted that for many ethnic groups in the upcoming election, votes will likely be split as multiple parties compete to represent a single group. Still, given that it seems no one party will be strong enough to win the Presidency on their own, ethnic parties may have enough power to play a crucial tie-breaking role in the formation of the new government.
A particularly interesting section was the discussion of the development of Buddhist nationalism and its effects on the Rohingya. The Rohingya are a majority-Muslim group who mostly live in the West of the country. They are denied citizenship by the Burmese government and subjected to extensive human rights abuses. Hayward described how their current treatment could be traced back to the colonial era. British colonialism reduced the power of Buddhism in the country, and in an attempt to maintain its influence, Buddhist leaders spread an expectation that individuals should personally focus on protecting Buddhism. That pattern continued after independence, and many Burmese are still very invested in ensuring the survival and strength of Buddhism in Burma. This has caused the appeal of a state that actively promotes Buddhism, and Buddhist nationalist organizations like Ma Ba Tha have tapped in to this sentiment. As a result, candidates for election face great pressure from voters to be “good Buddhists,” and those who defend the Muslim Rohingya are often seen as not properly fulfilling their responsibility to defend Buddhism. Rohingya, who are already in a dire situation, struggle against the influence of Buddhist nationalist ideas that see them as a threat to Burma’s national identity.
The panel made clear that Burma’s transition to democracy has not lived up to everything that it was hoped to. Currie noted that civil society groups have benefited from increased political freedoms in the last five years, but also that international donors have often failed to effectively help civil society and political repression has increased in the last year. This year’s election will be an important indicator of whether Burma is slowly heading towards a more just and free society or if the transition to democracy was a false dawn. Perhaps policies will shift in line with the desires of the voters and elected leaders will respect ethnic minorities once in office, but it is also very possible that electoral procedures will be manipulated to ensure a victory for the ruling USDP party and the military will guarantee its power remains untouched. The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s Early Warning Project places Burma as the most likely country in the world to have an onset of state-led mass killing, underlining just how crucial it is that the direction Burma is heading is the right one.