It’s curious to me that the Coke and Pepsi of America’s print media, The New York Times and The Washington Post, seem to be giving voice to the reality that democracy is not a magic elixir whereby people no longer “suck.” Titled In Myanmar, the Euphoria of Reform Loses Its Glow and U.S. wanted Burma to model democratic change, but it’s not turning out that way, the two pieces highlight the ugly realities of democratic populism. Though these articles are usually bracketed as Muslim-Buddhist conflict, this is only the tip of the iceberg that is the palimpsest of modern Burma.
First, it is important to note that Muslim-Buddhist conflict has several layers. The ethnic cleansing which is occurring to the Rohingya people of Arakan is actually more properly modeled as a racial-ethnic dynamic than a religious one. Physically and linguistically these people are part of the continuum of Bengali populations of South Asia, not the Tibeto-Burman, Tai, and Mon-Khmer peoples of the rest of Burma. Buddhist chauvinists have claimed that this population is a product of the British colonial people, and therefore is not indigenous to Burma, and should be expelled. From what I have gleaned it does seem quite possible, perhaps even likely, that the vast majority of the Rohingya arrived only in the past century or so, from the southeast of Bengal. This does not justify the quasi-exterminationist stance of Buddhists, but it places in proper context the feeling of Buddhist Rakhines of Arakan that they are being dispossessed by aliens. Of course the Rohingya themselves dispute this assertion, attempting to tie themselves to older long settled Muslim populations in Burma. This is an important point, in that in Burma being Muslim does not mean that one is Rohingya. There is a large Muslim population which is ethnically and racially much less distinct from the broader Burmese population, and these are accepted as native to the country. This is why the recent violence in Mandalay can be termed specifically religious, rather than ethnic, because the Muslims of Mandaly differ from the Burmese majority in that city primarily based upon their religion.
The world’s media has noted that Aung San Suu Kyi has been silent or relatively muted on the ethnic and religious violence roiling her country. They have also alluded to the troubling possibility that democratic opening of the country has stoked nationalism and ethnic division. Troubling because the standard Western assumption is that democracy, giving power of the people, is all for the good. But what you see in Burma is that when you give people voice and allow them to organize, sometimes they have a mind of their own. Though the Burmese junta has not been reticent about using conflict in the past to reinforce its rule, it seems unlikely that the neo-liberalizing regime would think that populist chauvinism would be “good for business.” Rather, atavistic popular self-consciousness is being voiced sincerely by the people, the “people” in this case the dominant Theravada Buddhist Bamar majority of the nation. If one is aware of the history of nationalism, and of Burma’s particular history, this phenomenon should not be surprising at all. Mass democracy has been suspiciously correlated with the demand to ‘cleanse’ the nation time & again.
Addendum: Though Burma is relatively diverse, not all diversity is created the same. The Mon people have been the Greeks to the Bamar majority’s role as Romans. As Theravada Buddhists the Mon have been assimilating to Bamar identity over the past few centuries. The Shan of the eastern highlands are ethnic Tai who are relatively late arrivals. But, they converted from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada. In contrast many Karen and almost all the Kachin are Christian, which alienates them from the Bamar. Finally, you have the case of the Rohingya, who are not only religiously distinct, but are racially very different from the other Burmese ethnic groups, explaining their role as the most extreme pariahs in modern Burma.