`Is Burma finally becoming a truly democratic nation or do Burma`s

Alex Bryan
Is Burma finally becoming a truly democratic nation or do Burma’s ethnic nationals tell a different
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.