Myanmar has experienced significant transitions in its economic and political institutions over the past year and half, but it has yet to respond to the recent burst of attacks against the country's Muslim minority. Muslims compose only 5% of Myanmar’s 60 million population, and with the displaced Rohingya minority among the country's population, the current government’s inability to seriously address this issue sets a dangerous precedent.
Muslims in Myanmar are often associated with the Rohingya population, a landless ethnic minority group who have been severely displaced, with neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar accepting them. The Myanmar government has described the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants who come from Bangladesh, while Bangladesh too has rejected the minority group, claiming they neither have the capacity nor land to allow another minority group to settle in a 100-million-person country the size of Iowa. This has led to displacement for the 800,000 Rohingyas, who often are drawn into conflicts with Buddhists.
What is concerning to many is the recent BBC footage in Myanmar where law-enforcement agents stood idly by as Buddhist monks and many others, often affiliated with the “969” movement, attacked different Muslim minorities in Rakhine and Meiktila. Violence between the two groups will not subside in the coming months. While the EU and many others have lifted trade restrictions, it is important to note how exactly Myanmar is going to handle this. Aung Sung Kyi, Myanmar’s most eminent leader has taken a more conciliatory approach in addressing this issue, emphasizing Myanmar’s, need to build a more unified society and have the Rohingyas integrated within a Buddhist-majority nation. Kyi mentions a notable point about integration, but the rise of Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk who has called for the removal of Muslims and referred to them as the chief cause of these riots, has made this difficult.
The basic duty of any government is to protect its citizens. By not protecting its own people, the current Myanmar government is leaving a window of opportunity for more violence, less integration, and a more polarized society to develop. When communal tensions occur, we hear the voices that are projected the loudest. What we often don’t hear are the voices of the marginalized. These are the stories of the 5% of the Muslims there, and the many other minority communities all throughout the world.
Myanmar has many challenges ahead. Bringing an end to this violence and incorporating different ethnic groups into its democracy can help consolidate a smoother transition away from the military junta, which still has formidable power in the country. Picking on the minorities won’t solve the problem. Integrating them into a broader coalition in which their interests are represented will.