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:

2. What’s behind religious conflicts

Religious conflicts are often about resources rather than faith. Despite the headlines about clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, religious practice has virtually nothing to do with the strife.

The Rohingyas happen to be Muslim, but the conflict stems from the fact that they are seen as outsiders competing for very scarce resources. The majority of the Burmese population is Buddhist and ethnic Bamar (often called “Burman”); most inhabitants of Rakhine are ethnically distinct from the Burmese mainstream, but they are also Buddhist and speak a mutually intelligible dialect. The Rohingyas, on the other hand, come from a very different ethnic background, speak a wholly different language, and are regarded by Rakhine and Bamar alike as Bengalis rather than Burmese.

While some Rohingyas are recent migrants, most came to Myanmar generations ago, when the modern states of Burma, Bangladesh, and India were part of a unified British colonial administration. The point here is that neither the Buddhist nor the Muslim community is fighting over theology, religious practices, or other matters of faith: The conflict is rooted in disputes over land, jobs, and water – and would likely unfold in much the same manner regardless of the parties’ religions.

Myanmar’s political reforms will surely bring a wave of international investment: Thein Sein can alleviate ethnic tensions (and placate foreign investors) by ensuring that the Rohingyas and the Rakhine alike receive a sufficient share of the new opportunities.

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