Myanmar’s multi-layered conflicts originate in the political reordering of the country after 1948. Despite efforts to accommodate the demands of the country’s many ethnic minority groups alongside those of the majority Burman people, fighting broke out shortly after independence. Tensions between minority groups and the central government were fuelled by policies of centralization and government attempts to make Buddhism the state religion. When, by 1958, ethnic minorities realized they would not be allowed to secede from the union nor be granted autonomous rights as provided for in the 1947 constitution, they took up arms. The country has been in a continuous state of armed conflict ever since, making Myanmar’s civil war the longest in the world.
While economic development can quickly generate wealth, the extractive, agricultural, and infrastructure-building industries are at risk of being concentrated in the hands of privileged elites, as in other Southeast Asian states, namely Cambodia. Economic development also has the potential to create and increase local grievances over social injustices and environmental damage, which in turn could disrupt fragile ceasefires in conflict-sensitive zones. This is a dangerous situation in a country of over 52 million people – home to 135 ethnic groups – in which 70 percent of the population is small-scale farmers and inequality is rampant. Myanmar has a long history of ethnic violence and is also a theater of violent interplay between two religious traditions within a sociocultural setting dominated by one religion.
Instances of communal violence have occurred in areas recently visited by monk-led Buddhist nationalist groups, including the “969” movement, and the more organized and politically influential Organization for Protection of Race and Religion, or MaBaTha. Observers have noted a pattern of nationalist monks delivering anti-Islam speeches, before agitators, unfamiliar to locals, incite violence against local Muslims.
Although Islam has a long history in Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment has developed since the colonial period, as the British encouraged mass migration from the Indian subcontinent. Military governments since the 1962 coup treated Muslims with suspicion, and Buddhism became the de facto state religion. Today, estimates of the Muslim population lie between four and 13 per cent, while Buddhists are though to make up approximately 80 per cent.
The transition to constitutional rule during 2010-11 was initiated by the military junta itself, under Than Shwe’s leadership. Ever since the 2003 launch of the seven-step roadmap to democracy it has been clear that the Tatmadaw sees this process as a means to enhance its legitimacy in Myanmar politics. The military does not intend to withdraw from its political role. It dominates the government and the USDP. Under the current constitution it has the right to disobey government orders if national security is threatened, and even to seize power if necessary.
Religious violence or renewed ethnic conflicts might tend to confirm the need for a strong military with a continuing political role. Instead of preventing violence, the Army would intervene to restore order after it has occurred. As of today it seems unlikely that the military will stage a coup d’état in the style of Thailand, but the Tatmadaw may look for ways to influence the 2015 elections so that parties intent on removing the military from politics do not become too powerful.
Myanmar’s increasing problems of religious and ethnic violence and anti-Muslim agitation as aspects of competition for political power. Underlying distrust between religious and ethnic groups is exploited by powerful political actors to stir up violence for the purpose of winning swing votes. There is therefore good reason to alert policy makers and local communities to the risk of renewed violence in connection with the elections in 2015, particularly if groups within the Myanmar Army involve themselves in the struggle for political power. There is an added risk of violence if ethnic-minority parties fail to win political representation at the Union level.
Rising anti-Muslim sentiment and violence are no doubt related to the 2015 elections. As in other ethnically and religiously divided countries, underlying religious suspicions can be easily exploited. Politicians play the religious card in order to reduce the appeal of parties that highlight other identities or socioeconomic interests such as poverty alleviation.
In 2001, riots between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims broke out in the state capital Sittwe. An argument between a group of young monks and a Muslim stallholder escalated into a night of violence during which perhaps twenty people were killed and homes and businesses were torched. A curfew was imposed in the city for several months. Violence also spread to Maungdaw township, and several mosques and madrasas were destroyed. In the same year, violence also targeted Muslim communities in other parts of Myanmar.
The 2010 multiparty elections again led to rising political tensions in Rakhine State. Many Rakhine Buddhists were angry at pledges by the regime-established Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) prior to the elections to grant Rohingya people citizenship – part of an effort to secure the Muslim vote and thereby limit the electoral success of the Rakhine party. This exacerbated intercommunal tensions and contributed to the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in the state in 2012.
Marte Nilsen and Stein Tonnesson, High Rish of Electoral Violence in Myanmar, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), 2014, http://file.prio.no/Publication_files/Prio/NilsenandTonnesson(2014)High-Risk-of-Electoral-Violence-in-Myanmar-PRIO-Policy-Brief-6-2014.pdf.
Myanmar: Conflict profile, Insight on Conflict, Peace Direct, Last updated March 2014, http://www.insightonconflict.org/conflicts/myanmar/conflict-profile/.