Obama to visit Myanmar, an overture to a one-time pariah
President Obama's trip to Myanmar comes as the capstone of a stunningly fast rapprochement with a country the US once treated as a pariah. Is it too soon?
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The International Crisis Group (ICG), which is publishing a report on the country next Monday, says all is not well in the Southeast Asian nation. An advance copy of the report, "Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon," details a host of worries, most pressing; the violence that started out targeting Rohingyas but has apparently spread to the country's Muslim minority in general.Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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In the last two weeks of October, a further 89 people were killed in the communal fighting. And in a separate ethnic clash along the Thailand border, 32,000 more were driven from their homes in the Christian Karen state.
The ICG argues that the very lifting of decades of oppression can create communal violence as new freedoms lead to political jockeying.
Unquestionably. In Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, small ethnic and religious wars flared across that sprawling nation, costing thousands of lives.
Myanmar, like Indonesia, is a patchwork of ethnicities that have spent much of the country's modern history in a tense relationship with the central government, when not in open revolt. Even new media freedoms, often seen as an antidote to violence, could have been part of the problem.
"The transition has opened up unprecedented space to organize that has been denied for decades, including for long-suppressed nationalist causes," the ICG writes. "It has allowed sub-national groups to air bitter grievances and issue a call to arms without moderation or censorship. Access to the internet has only aided the spread of these ideas."
The Rohingya people are classified as illegal migrants, although many of them came from modern day Bangladesh to Myanmar during British rule. And some 800,000 of them do not have official Burmese citizenship, despite having lived in the country for generations.
The issue surrounding the Rohingya minority, and Islam in general, is a powder keg in the majority Buddhist country.
In the ICG's words: "The experience of others in the region and the country’s own past suggest that communal tensions can be exploited and inflamed for political gain. In particular, there is a real risk that the violence in Rakhine State will take on a more explicitly Buddhist-Muslim character, with the possibility of clashes spreading to the many other areas where there are minority Muslim populations. This would have very serious consequences for stability and reform."
READ MORE: Monitor Staff Writer Peter Ford's Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms
The real test of change in the country will be in 2015, when full parliamentary elections are held.
Until now, all change has largely been at the pleasure of the military, which remains political powerful.
"There is a serious risk of instability if existing power holders feel threatened by their inevitable loss of political power (which is different from a serious risk of a return to authoritarianism, which is unlikely), or if important constituencies are marginalized," argues the ICG. "It will be necessary for the NLD to ensure that its expected electoral success in 2015 does not come at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and ensure an inclusive and stable transition – whether by introducing some form of proportional representation, reaching a transitional national unity agreement with the current government, or building coalitions with other parties."
If all goes well, the Obama administration’s overture toward Myanmar will go down as a major foreign policy achievement, and more importantly signal a brighter future for Mynmar’s 48 million people. But there are challenges and pitfalls ahead, and with each concession the US and other major powers make before 2015, a potential carrot to offer for positive change is spent.
Hopefully, Obama will not have gone to Myanmar too soon.