Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democracy was never going to be easy, and the violent events of March show why it will be more complicated than previously thought. Contrary to the notion that democracy and pluralism go together, the new Burma is becoming a hot spot of sectarian violence. For sure, the problem is not with democracy, but with the use of ethnicity and sectarianism to assert political identity. Myanmar is a patchwork of ethnic groups, aside from the majority, mainly Buddhist, Burmans. The political and economic inequalities between them grew during military rule as the generals, themselves from the majority community, fostered Burman nationalism. But they kept a lid on ethnic and sectarian differences with an iron grip. With that gone, and political and economic changes sweeping through Myanmar, some among the Burmans want to position their community as the country’s foremost group. It was this impulse which turned a simple argument into communal attacks on the minority Muslims in Meiktila and took the lives of more than 40 people. As the tensions spread, President Thein Sein imposed an Emergency in some cities. However, the confrontation was foretold when Buddhists in the Rakhine province, who are ethnically different from the Burmans, went on a rampage against the Rohingyas, a Muslim community that Myanmar refuses to accept as its citizens. The fears expressed then — that those attacks would not remain restricted to the Rohingyas, but would affect other Muslims who are full citizens of the country and are an integral part of the country’s fabric — have tragically come true.
In country after country in South and South East Asia, political and ruling elites have found it easier to mobilise supporters along ethnic and communal lines than doing the hard slog of governance. They use long-nursed grievances against smaller ‘other’ groups to hide their own shortcomings in building just societies. Myanmar was supposed to start off on a better path, because its democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as different. Parallels are often drawn between her and Nelson Mandela, the greatest contemporary symbol of political reconciliation. Disappointingly, Ms Suu Kyi, an opposition member in the Myanmar parliament, was quiet on the Rohingya issue; and she has made no significant public statement about the latest wave of rioting. The incidents have cast a pall on the political reforms under way. If her personal sacrifices for democracy are not to go in vain, Ms Suu Kyi must use the extraordinary popularity and moral authority she enjoys in her country to assert that Myanmar, with its pluralist history, is ill served by Buddhist majoritarianism.