Alex Bryan Is Burma finally becoming a truly democratic nation or do Burma’s ethnic nationals tell a different story? The political reforms enacted by the government of Myanmar over the past few years were hailed, at least internationally, as the first step of an inevitable transition to democracy. The action was indubitably substantial; political prisoners (including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) were freed, unionisation was legalised and elections were held in 2012 which were generally thought to be free and fair. But whilst Myanmar is certainly a more politically liberal place than it was even five years ago, there is an issue which still threatens to destabilize any emerging democracy, an issue which the political reforms have done little to resolve; the question of ethnicity. The ethnic divisions in Myanmar have existed since before independence in 1946, and are deeply ingrained in society. Yet the political reforms have barely attempted to address them, with a ceasefire with the Karen ethnic group the solitary offering. In order to understand the importance of the unresolved ethnic divisions within Myanmar, it will first be necessary to detail the recent violence in Rakhine State (there has also been conflict between the army and the Kachin Independence Organisation, though we will not discuss this) before moving on to try and understand the specific nature of these particular divisions. Let us begin in Rakhine State, with the plight of the Rohingya people. Throughout much of 2012, riots raged throughout Rakhine State. These riots were of an ethnic nature, longstanding oppression and tension spilling over in the form of violence. The Muslim Rohingya group, described by the UN as one of the most oppressed groups in the world, was the target of the ire, with dozens killed and up to 90,000 displaced with whole settlements, such as Yan Thei village, destroyed. In addition to this, a number of religious buildings were burnt down. Many accounts suggest that the Myanmarese authorities allowed the violence to occur, and some claim that the army actively partook in the violence. The background to this ethnic tension spans many centuries, and is entrenched in Myanmarese society, the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men simply being the trigger. The Rohingya group is discriminated against on a legal level; the 1982 citizenship law denies them the right of citizenship. Not only this, they are not even granted refugee status, meaning that they exist as illegal migrants, a status emphasised and exploited by political rhetoric even from opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the regime. It is clear that the experience of the Rohingya group gives weight to the claim that Myanmar is still far from becoming a genuine democracy. More important than the fact of the ethnic oppression however, is the nature of it. Matthew J. Walton has attempted to show how the race relation which existed in the west between white and black people is functionally the same as the ethnic relations between ‘Burmans’ and ‘non-Burmans’ in that it is essentially a relationship of privilege through identity. Walton bases his view on the concreteness of ethnicity in Myanmar, as well as the religious identifier, citing a common saying – ‘To be Burman is to be Buddhist’. The nature of this ethnic divide, if Walton is right, does not simply provide evidence to show that Myanmar is far from being a democracy, but shows that, if reforms continue upon their current path, stable democracy is almost unrealisable. The reforms of the past few years have focussed on political, individual liberties, yet the issues of seismic import in creating a democratic Myanmar are distinctively ones of group identity. An ethnic division which has become a kind of chauvinism cannot be solved through a liberalised economy or free and fair elections. They will not stop the army from encouraging ethnic violence, nor stop the discrimination. What is Alex Bryan needed is a re-evaluation of the position of privilege held by those granted citizenship and those deemed as ‘Burmans’. This is not to say that democracy is unattainable in Myanmar, simply that the current reforms can be seen as no more than a sticking plaster. In order to become a true democracy, Myanmar must acknowledge its history, must acknowledge the difficulties that arise from centuries of ethnic tribulations. To enact an agenda of liberal reforms is to assume a democratic basis. This is completely lacking; a democratic basis entails equality of the law regardless of ethnicity, religion, race or gender and a cultural attitude of tolerance towards those different to ourselves. When the army endorses mass violence against one ethnic group, when that group is denied citizen and refugee status, when that group is castigated as ‘foreign’ and ‘unwanted’ by senior politicians, it is clear that the discrimination is too deep to be ended by a programme of liberalisation. The privilege status of the ‘Burmans’ must be addressed as the root of the problem, and steps must be taken to try and reconstruct society around the principle of ethnic equality, at least in front of the law. The political reforms so far enacted are a step forward, and show that the Myanmarese authorities are serious about democracy. A democracy built on ethnic subordination, however, will not last, and will end badly. The path to lasting democracy in Myanmar is a difficult one which few countries have been able to make in a short period of time. It requires a re-examination of the very concept of being a citizen of the nation, and a genuine attempt to reconcile ethnic communities which have been uncomfortable neighbours for decades. If Myanmar does this, it can be more than a democracy. It can be a beacon for the rest of the world.