Today we’re going to talk a little bit about events in a country in Southeast Asia. In the West, it’s referred to as Burma. Its own government prefers the name Myanmar.
And unfortunately, I don’t really know where to stand on that. The government there is a military dictatorship (albeit one that has been making a series of liberalizing reforms lately,) and they renamed the country when they came to power. So that’s not ideal.
However, the name Burma has predominantly been used in English since the days of British colonization, and I just personally have a problem with the Eurocentric assertion that the imperialist practice is the better one. In fact, both names actually come from different forms of the same word and refer to the name of the biggest ethnic group of the country.
So either way it’s a bit of a challenge. But just to be contrary, I think I’m going to go ahead and use Myanmar.
Anyway, the military took power in Myanmar in a coup in 1962 and has remained the major political force in the country ever since. However, in 2008 they held a constitutional referendum to begin a process of transferring the country to civilian rule and democracy.
Since then, a number of reforms have been implemented. A few of the most significant include allowing public protests and freeing political prisoners, including world-renowned democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. She was subsequently elected to parliament and now serves in government, working with her former adversaries to further democratize the country.
Ethnic Identity and National Security
But unfortunately, we haven’t quite reached a happy ending to the story in Myanmar.
There have been several different conflicts between ethnic groups within Myanmar, and while the government has reached a ceasefire with one group, the Shan, trouble still plagues the relationships between the majority ethnic Burmese, who are primarily Buddhist, and the minority Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine.
Technically, this policy has been on the books since 1994, but was apparently not readily enforced. And it remains unclear so far how it will be enforced now. The government has stated that right now, they are only applying the policy to two townships in Ronhingya that are apparently about 95% Muslim.
The policy has been rightly decried as discriminatory and a human rights violation by Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the U.N. And of course, the Rohingya population is not thrilled either.
The assumption underlying implementation of this policy is that, rightly or wrongly, the majority Burmese population sees the growth of a minority population as a threat to them. As a result, the growth of that minority is destabilizing.
If we take a step back, that fear is not so foreign. From the Balkans to the Sahel to the deserts of Arizona, xenophobia is not unusual. Minorities are all too often seen as a threat to the status quo, their children something to fear. Their use of resources is thought of as a destabilizing influence. There are certainly people who fear the future of a United States in which Caucasians are a minority.
The main difference is that in many countries, this fear shapes policy as we debate immigration policies, rather than forcing the minorities to limit the number of children they have.
So here’s a thought: instead of trying to control minorities in fear of becoming one ourselves, how about we don’t treat minorities like second-class citizens. Then, if we have strong democratic institutions built to ensure equality, if one day the tables are turned, there will still be nothing to fear.