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Testing Time for Myanmar

Monday, 01 April 2013 17:25 Soe Myint (Editor-in-Chief, Mizzima)

Recent riots in Meiktila and other parts of central Myanmar once again show that the country is passing through a testing time. The stakeholders—be it the armed forces, the opposition democracy activists or government officials—are each facing challenges in handling the recent communal and/or religious conflict.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are shown in an earlier meeting, in a file photo. Photo: MRTVIf one wants to understand why such communal and religious riots broke out in Myanmar so soon after the country opened up, there are certain underlying factors that need to be looked at.

Firstly is the fact that the majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhists and very religious (in a good sense) and they want to practice their faith publicly. However, there are, as in every society, both national extremists and religious extremists who want to exploit the transition of the country to their advantage and create space for themselves in this transitional period. This is equally true for opposition parties, businesspeople, armed ethnic groups, the military, and even the private media.

After decades of repressive military rule and living in a closed society, cut off from the rest of the world, people want to exercise their new-found freedom. This is the first time that they can target the establishment after harboring grievances for so long. The public has high expectations from the democratic changes underway in Myanmar.

In many ways, the anti-Muslim sentiment being exploited and led by certain factions of Buddhist monks is a way of expressing anti-establishment feelings. Many monks are still angry from the way the military brutally cracked down on their peaceful protests in 2007 and the recent mis-handling (another violent crackdown) of the Latpadaung copper mine protest by the police.

Another factor is a lack of education among some people, combined with the economic challenges, means people are more easily provoked.

The government is not sure (or at least it was not sure) of how to handle this kind of riot in a civilian way. The government is learning and it needs the support from its political alliances and its own citizens.

Yes, there are certain rogue elements within the establishment who are extreme nationalists or want to use it for their own benefit or specific political purposes, but the government in general and security forces are wary of how to handle such riots. In the past, riots like this were met with violent crackdowns and armed responses. The reaction was the same in Rakhine State last year. But the government realized that this was not the right way to deal with that kind of situation.

They are also aware that the international community and media are watching events in Myanmar closely. But it is not the role of the media to create what they call “fundamentalists”.

Condemnation of certain factions is not the answer or solution. One should not lose sight of the fact that the country is in transition under the framework of national reconciliation. Whatever we do, we should try to focus on not derailing the country and its stakeholders from the path of national reconciliation.

It is easy to condemn an event or a particular section of society, but it is difficult to bring everyone together on a path that moves forward. If we lose sight of the path of national reconciliation, it will likely take many years for Myanmar to reach the current level of changes or reforms.

In every transition, there are challenges and risks as well as opportunities. We should try to minimize the risks and challenges while taking maximum possible opportunities for the betterment of the society and country. This is easier said than done.

Of course, we should say outright that Myanmar should not provide a space for religious and racial fundamentalists. We should say that security forces should not be biased and should be professional in handling any riots in the country. We should say that there should not be a space for any sort of discrimination in Myanmar. The people of Myanmar accept that the country is not monolithic but it is a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. The majority have to respect the minority.

But it is incomplete if we do not try to understand the root of the problems. It will not be complete if we are not consistent and focused to move along the path the stakeholders have agreed to follow: national reconciliation. These problems have existed in the country for a long time and will likely continue to do so for some time. They should be addressed over time and consistently with continuity.

Contrary to many people’s criticism for her “inaction”, I believe Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knows clearly that the country should be moving forward within the frame of this national reconciliation. This is what she is doing and this is the example that she is attempting to set for the people of Myanmar.

One should also recognize certain realities in the country. The present government is a quasi-civilian government that came to power not by a free and fair election but by keeping a strong opposition in jail with a one-sided election. Many of the leaders of the present government were former soldiers. The present constitution, that was adopted forcibly by the previous military regime just a few days after the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, empowers the military with certain privileged rights such as a reserved quota of 25 percent of seats in parliament, appointments in certain important ministries, such as Home and Defense, as well as a right to return to military rule in certain situations.

The present constitution bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (having been married to a British man and having sons who are foreign citizens) to become Myanmar's President even if her party wins the majority of seats in any given election. The opposition political parties including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy are still very much in need of building as political institutions after years of clamp-down by the previous military regimes. Issues like capacity building and professionalism are in urgent need across almost every sector and on every level.

There are definitely many individuals within and outside the government who are trying hard to deal with such challenges and making efforts so that the country’s democratic reforms continue steadfastly and steadily. We should encourage such efforts. We should not forget that Myanmar was under a very tightly-controlled system and under repressive military regimes for decades. It takes time to evolve from that for everyone, every stakeholder—the administrators, the armed forces, the political parties, civil society groups, the media, etc.

But there are clear signs and visible actions that many stakeholders are making efforts to come out of those Dark Ages.

Here, we should be very careful of how the international community reacts or intervenes in the internal affairs of Myanmar, especially during this trying transitional period. They should offer a helping hand to deal with such challenges rather than setting “universal standards” for Myanmar and asking the country and its people to follow such “standards”.

It is also a testing time for the international community to understand and learn how to support Myanmar and its people in this transition to democracy. Myanmar should be given space to manage the transition with the assistance and support from well-wishers.

Myanmar has seen many positive changes in a very short period. It is important to ensure that they are sustainable and successful in the long term.
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 02 April 2013 08:59 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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