Obama and Myanmar (Burma): 4 points about conflict there

A long-simmering ethnic conflict in Myanmar (Burma) recently broke into American newspapers: At least 89 people have been killed and more than 35,000 displaced in what is being described (not entirely accurately) as Buddhist-Muslim violence. With President Obama as the first US head of state to visit this country, there are four points to bear in mind about this detour from Myanmar’s road to a more open society:

4. Extreme weather may be a factor

Severe weather events may increase ethnic discord. This is an underappreciated aspect of the climate change debate. Both Myanmar and the Bengal region have long suffered from floods, cyclones, tsunamis, and other types of extreme weather.

Refugees have flowed out of Bangladesh since the nation was created in 1971, migrating not only to Myanmar but also to neighboring India and countries farther afield. This is nothing new. People have migrated from one place to another for all of human history.

What is new, however, is the possibility that climate change could spur increasingly rapid movements of increasingly large populations. The more that extreme weather wreaks havoc on delicately balanced ethnic mosaics, the more we are likely to see greater flows of refugees – and greater competition for the basic resources that every community needs to survive.

Why should we care what happens to the Rohingyas? Because they could be a harbinger of the future.  We can expect to see continued jockeying for scarce resources among vulnerable populations around the globe, attempts by majority communities to disenfranchise powerless minority groups, and (as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina reminded Americans) episodes of extreme weather to blow away any notion that disasters – whether natural, man-made, or both – can’t happen here. The Rohingyas aren’t as far away as they might seem.

Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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