Saturday, January 14, 2012
Why democracy will foster ethnic reconciliation in Myanmar
Recent developments in Myanmar have generated considerable optimism about the country’s long-impending democratisation.
But will democracy foster ethnic reconciliation, essential for Myanmar’s domestic stability? A cross-country comparison with Sri Lanka and an examination of Myanmar’s demography and geographic distribution of resources indicate that despite sharing an otherwise similar trajectory with Sri Lanka, Myanmar’s emerging democracy could foster ethnic reconciliation, even after more than 60 years of ethnic insurgency.
Geographically, Myanmar belongs to mainland Southeast Asia. But culturally it belongs to the Theravada Buddhist world, along with countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. These countries are all alike insofar as their constitutions symbolically link the legitimacy of the state to Buddhism or, at the very least, extend special treatment to the majority Buddhist community. But to the extent that each was affected by colonialism and communism/socialism, these Theravada countries can be classified into three groups: Thailand, which was never directly colonised and remained largely immune to communism; Laos and Cambodia, erstwhile French colonies, which were strongly influenced by communism; and Sri Lanka and Myanmar, former British colonies, where socialism had considerable appeal. More recently in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka minority insurgencies have contested the authority of the state. With these commonalities in mind (among others), Sri Lanka is clearly the Theravada country whose path most closely resembles that of Myanmar.
In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated state militarily defeated the Tamil ethnic minority insurgency, but then refused to honour its commitment to reconciliation. While the Sri Lankan Buddhist majority is unwilling to hold the government accountable in this regard, the Buddhist majority in a democratic Myanmar is unlikely to behave in a similar fashion. At the moment, it seems the process of democratisation in Myanmar is entirely controlled by the military regime. But the regime is introducing political reforms and trying to initiate peace talks with ethnic militias only because it is increasingly unable to sustain itself in the absence of popular support, while its legitimacy as the guardian of the majority Burmese Buddhists’ interests remains questionable. So, the democratisation of Myanmar, whenever that happens, will be a people’s victory against an authoritarian state — much different to the case of Sri Lanka.
There are two more structural reasons why majority–minority relations will not be overtly antagonistic in a democratic Myanmar. First, Myanmar’s population is not divided into two antagonistic camps. This is unlike Sri Lanka, where there remains a clear division between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority in the north.
In contrast, insurgents in Myanmar are divided along ethnic lines — and none of the groups has managed to establish its authority over the rest, as was the case in Sri Lanka, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam dominated the scene for more than two decades. Moreover, the Burmese Buddhists are also divided into a number of camps with fundamentally different approaches to the ethnic question. Second, unlike Sri Lanka, the Burmese minority insurgent groups are not devoid of members from the majority community.
In short, religious, ethno-linguistic and political divides are not co-extensive in Myanmar. This has two consequences. First, it is highly unlikely that one political party will emerge as the sole representative of all the major ethnic minorities. So, the ethnic minorities are unlikely to pose a unified political threat to the Burmese Buddhists. Second, one political party is unlikely to maintain a majority with only the Burmese Buddhist vote. Parties representing the majority community would also need the support of ethnic minority parties. Consequently, political contests are unlikely to divide the polity into two clearly demarcated camps.
In addition, unlike the stronghold of the Sri Lankan Tamils, which is resource poor and located in one corner of the country, the strongholds of ethnic minorities are distributed along the entire periphery of Myanmar. The strongholds of Burmese ethnic minorities are not only resource-rich regions that should attract major international investment following democratisation, but they also control Myanmar’s access to key neighbours like China, India and Thailand. Given the country’s decades-long economic stagnation, it is unlikely that the Burmese Buddhists will overlook this.
In sum, although demography and geographic distribution of resources failed to restrain ethnic conflicts immediately after independence, they will play a different role in a democratic Myanmar. A cursory acquaintance with Myanmar’s post-colonial history will convince the majority Burmese Buddhists of the impossibility and futility of any attempt to subjugate the minorities. This time, history should bear out the limits that demography and other factors place on ethno-political polarisation and help foster ethnic reconciliation.
Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.East Asia Forum