Like many of its equivalents elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s nationalism celebrates its core and periphery. Myanmar draws its stability from its Buddhist, ethnic Bamar identity and history as the nation’s ballast. However, the country, which recognizes 135 ethnic groups, also prizes cohesion and tries to make itself a home for all its ‘national races’.
The transition away from military rule provided Myanmar the opportunity to restart interethnic relations, as it were, that had descended into armed insurgencies. This search for national cohesion is evidenced in the fanfare that led up to the September 2016 repeat of its nation-founding Panglong Conference. Known as the 21st Century Panglong Conference, the gathering aimed to wipe the slate clean in Bamar/non-Bamar conflicts that have bedeviled the country since as early as independence in 1948. Although the conference did not result in a general peace agreement, leaders of ethnic guerrilla armies did sit down together with Myanmar generals.
But something is different with the persecution of the Rohingya today. A Myanmar military general may find himself negotiating with a Kachin insurgency leader or a Karen opposition chief, but no one in Myanmar can picture the same thing with the Muslim Rohingya. This is because the Rohingya simply has no place in Myanmar’s self-conception, not even in its periphery.
This Myanmar prejudice is the reason why Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to come to the aid of the Rohingya has been shocking to outsiders but a non-issue to most in Myanmar. This position also informs Kyaw Zwa Moe’s analysis in The Irrawaddy, the first article in AsiaViews’s Spotlight section this week. The main argument is that the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State is endangering democracy in Myanmar as growing instability may lure the generals to take over the country again. The idea that democratic progress is not worth endangering for the sake of ‘foreigners’ makes for a peculiar read.
Outsiders, especially the Rohingya, are also what the radical monks of MaBaTha are railing against. The group claims to protect and promote Buddhism in a challenging time. Our second article in this week’s Spotlight is a short take on the International Crisis Group’s report on the roots of support for an exclusionary nationalist narrative that MaBaTha espouses. The report urges the Myanmar government to reframe the narrative of Buddhism in a new democratic setting and to address the underlying reasons for grievances that empower the reactionary group.
It would not be excessive to point out the possible repercussions on other countries in the ASEAN region. Indonesia, like Myanmar, is still on guard against the destructive elements of extremist Muslim groups that have managed to become very influential among the more moderate population. Writing in the Nikkei Review, former journalist and crisis mediator Michael Vatikiotis said, “Never in modern times have tensions been so high between faiths that have coexisted peacefully in this region for centuries. If the trend continues, it could become a more dangerous threat to social stability than that posed by Islamic State fighters returning from the Middle East.