I’ve just spent the last three weeks in Burma, traveling around the country from the biggest cities benefiting from reforms in the last few years to the sites of greatest devastation since a wave of anti-Muslim violence broke out in 2012.
Burma has seen impressive reforms, but at the same time there is a growing sense of tension, one that most people I spoke with agree will increase as the 2015 elections approach and incentives to stoke popular fears for political purposes increase. The last two years have been defining ones for Burma, the next two are likely to be even more critical.
I am left with many impressions from this trip, but three main developments that unfolded during my visit are critical danger signs that the Burmese government and the international community must urgently address.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Kicked out of Rakhine State
On February 27th, just days after I had visited camps holding tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by violence, the Government of Burma announced it was kicking the Nobel Prize Winning aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) out of the country. This was no small development as many of the most repressed and hardest to reach people in need of medical care depend on MSF.
Tens of thousands rely on MSF delivered medicines for HIV/AIDs from week to week or day to day. United to End Genocide put out a statement condemning the decision and our organization’s President Tom Andrews returned to the camps to gather and share the stories of the real life consequences of the decision.
The government says it can fill in the gap left by MSF but that is a tall task. Attention must remain on what develops next or the consequences could be devastating.
Evidence of State Policy of Repression
On our way out to Burma we met with the group Fortify Rights and got a sneak peak at a damning report released during our first days in the country. The report, based on several leaked officials documents, provided proof that Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, already described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted people in the world, were facing concerted policies of repression.
It is not clear if these policies officially go up to the highest levels, but what is clear is that there is little denouncement of the repression from the top. One small example, is the response of President Thein Sein following reports of the dangerous speech and campaign of hatred led by extremist nationalist monk Wirathu, choosing not to speak out against such speech, but rather to tacitly condone it by describing Wirathu as a son of Buddha. Such dynamics are complex but can be generally understood as having a lot to do with playing to popular fears for the sake of power and influence.
The expected rise in tensions ahead of the 2015 elections, a concern shared with me by nearly everyone I spoke with, are being previewed in current talks around the upcoming census. At the end of March, the first census in over 30 years will be carried out. Many observers and ethnic groups in Burma have criticized the census as blind to current tensions and risking setting off new violence. One expert went so far as to say that if there is violence following the census, the international community will have blood on its hands.
One aspect of the controversy is that the census is likely to show a sharp rise in the Muslim population, partially due to real growth, but accentuated by an underplayed number in the last census. The danger is that this will play right into overblown fears currently being utilized by extremist monks of a Muslim invasion of Buddhist Burmese culture, described aptly by one Burmese expert as a “siege mentality”. Much can be and has been said about the census, but the bottom line is that it is just a preview of the tensions and risk of unintended triggers of violence as the election draws nearer.
Amid these warning signs, there were also signs of a growing, if still much overshadowed domestic efforts at interfaith reconciliation and peace. The government of Burma is also sensitive and in some cases even receptive, to international pressure or advice. Finding a way to leverage that combination of domestic civil society and international attention will be key in ensuring the troubling dynamics at work do not lead to more violence.