Burning Through Burma: Tumultuous Religious Discrimination and Violence in Myanmar

The southeast Asian country of Myanmar, known to the US State
Department as Burma, recently underwent a transition to a democratic government. The country was a British colony until it declared independence in 1948 and became a democratic nation. Fourteen years later, the military took power in a coup and continues to hold great power in the country, despite 2010 elections that established a new democracy. Myanmar’s government has gone through many political changes in the past century, but one issue in the country remains prevalent: the persecution of minority religious groups, primarily Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar is dominated by Buddhism. Roughly ninety percent of the country observes the religion, while six percent and four percent observe Christianity and Islam, respectively. This dominance results in a primarily Buddhist government that refuses to recognize the Rohingya as Burmese citizens. Last year, the nationalist anti-Muslim group Ma Ba Tha urged the passing of laws that would burden religious minorities and make conversion to Buddhism unnecessarily difficult. There is undeniable prejudice within the government, from the former Buddhist president (under whom many acts of discrimination went unaccounted for) to groups like Ma Ba Tha that hold influence over government officials.

The issue of discrimination persists in the form of severe human rights violations committed against Rohingya Muslims. Buddhists are often perceived as peaceful individuals who live simply, spending their time calmly meditating and abstaining from violent confrontation. However, there have been multiple killings of Muslims in recent years at the hands of Buddhists, particularly in the northern state of Rakhine. For example, following the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men, a large mob retaliated by killing two hundred Muslims. Certainly, such a crime as rape should not go unpunished, but it should be left to authorities to delegate punishments. According to an expert, large-scale atrocities such as these, coupled with a lack of intervention, are the first signs of genocide. The persecution of religious minorities, including both Muslims and Christians, has persisted throughout Myanmar’s history, and its people are not in any hurry to ease up.

Despite the hardships they have endured, religious minorities may have some cause for hope in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi. The newly-elected State Counsellor is popular among Muslims and Buddhists in the country and has a vision of equality and stability, but will face obstacles before she can realize her goals. Suu Kyi has already taken action, calling a meeting to discuss what can be done to stop discrimination, but violence persists while those suffering receive limited aid. The movement of aid agencies, in addition to that of international journalists and officials, has been heavily restricted within Myanmar by the government. Further, law enforcement officials have been blamed for ignoring instances of prejudice and for instigating acts of violence themselves. Suu Kyi is faced with a dilemma, as she wants to help Muslims yet does not want to alienate Buddhist followers who could potentially be anti-Muslim. If she wishes to ensure better conditions for Muslims without directly confronting prejudiced Buddhists, she should ensure that a substantial amount of aid reaches those in need who cannot hope to receive assistance from the government.

The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has become an issue of which concerns an increasing number of countries and NGOs. The time for assistance is long overdue, but any religious minority in Myanmar needs as much help as it can receive. Tolerance is a quality lacking in too many countries, and the issue of persecution can only be fixed if the new government cracks down on discrimination or opens up the country’s borders to allow for the free flow of aid, if it is not willing to give the aid itself. Myanmar does have an overwhelming Buddhist majority, but this does not mean that there can never be peace in the country. With a new government in place, Myanmar has the opportunity to steer itself in a new direction and diminish the religious prejudice that is so prevalent within its borders.

Aborting the One-Child Policy: China’s Conflicting Attempts to Play God

China has felt a strange rollercoaster of emotions toward children. Anger and confusion arose among many households following the government’s 1979 enactment of the one-child policy. Couples (except for minorities and some rural citizens) were limited to a single child—what Westerners would qualify as hostile to our cherished individual, “unalienable” rights. The Chinese, who tend to favor communitarianism over individual rights more than people from the West, eventually got used to the decades-long one-child ride. That is, until the Communist Party government “bent the track” and loosened the restriction to two children for every couple in 2015. Reactions from the couples that feel the effects of this modified policy are diverse and problematic: there are those who welcome the re-engineering and those who feel indifferent and tend toward what has become the social norm of a single child.

So why scrap the one-child policy if it seemed many people were accustomed to it? Well, the primary factor is money (forget how couples feel about these reproduction commandments). The intent of the one-child policy originated in economic concerns, as it seemed a check on population was necessary to ensure continued industrial development. The enforcement of the policy over time, however, revealed a host of dangerous demographic trends with economic repercussions: for example, a gender imbalance leaning toward more males due to the Chinese patriarchal preference, and a disproportionately large number of elderly people who demand unfeasible financial support from the undersized working age population.

Demographers predict that this shift in the policy will have only a minimal effect, as it has become standard in China to have a small family—plus it’s more affordable. Government officials in the city of Yichang recently tried galvanizing its citizens to actualize the new policy in response to couples’ reluctant attitudes. The letter they published had to be taken down, as it probably lacked approval from the National Health and Family Planning Commission and was widely viewed as a condemnation of Beijing’s heaven-sent regulations of the past.

And here lies a critical issue in China’s implementation of the one- and two-child policies, beyond the perhaps adverse economic and demographic consequences: lack of organization and unity among provinces. The various provinces of China hold the responsibility of enforcing the family planning policies, but no individual province wants to take the first plunge, which is to create clear programs in their healthcare sectors. Family planning officials across the nation, as they receive different training province-to-province, might not apply equal degrees of rigidity to the two-child policy. One investigation of this disparity chanced on a strict official who claimed a mother would not be allowed to have a child and bear the accompanying fine juxtaposed with another official who seemed to not care how many children a mother wanted to have. As a result of the confusion surrounding how to implement the policy, some wonder if the coercive abortions so prevalent in the enforcement of the one-child policy will carry over and affect violators of the two-child limit. Even God might have difficulty controlling such a diverse country.

The abortions were sometimes voluntary, though, as many Chinese couples preferred “spending” their only allowed child on a baby boy. But when the two-child policy was enacted, it became clear that Chinese families would have a less difficult choice to make—yet their obsession with the gender of unborn children did not fade away. Relatives and strangers alike have been reported infringing on the privacy of pregnant mothers, asking them if they could find out the gender of their second child before birth.

Some might argue that these policies, in spite of the violation of women’s rights and the strange social dynamics that have evolved as a result of child selectivity, are worth it for the collective good of China in principle. Even if this were universally accepted, many experts have pulled together data into reports that invalidate claims of the campaigns’ successes for the Chinese population as a whole.

The Chinese government either needs to stop playing God or unify its doctrine. After all, the people can only worship for so long.

How to End the World in One (Kinda) Easy Step

We often hear references made to cutting off the head of a snake. This is usually done to prove the point that removing the upper tier of a group will cause the rest to crumble. Remove the head and the snake will die, simple. We are all well acquainted with the uses of this metaphor when applied to humans. But what if we try something else. Will the metaphor hold up when applied to the non-human? For an example, you need only to pick up a globe, spin it and plant your finger on a random point. 71% of the time that random point will be somewhere in the ocean and that’s where we’ll find our answer.
Firstly, it is important to remember that despite being divided up into EEZs and territorial waters with geographic regions initially named, no part of the ocean is independent. Imbalances in the ecosystem of the Java Sea can have effects on the pelagic organism of the great Pacific which will be felt from Anchorage to San Diego. Fishing trawlers are similarly unbound; whether legal or not Chinese ships may go as far as Kenya.
So back to our metaphorical snake. If the entire ocean is the snake than what would be its head? Simple, apex predators. And there is no marine predator so well known as sharks. And should this “snake’s head” be removed there would be quite the disaster. The removal of an apex predator would lead to an explosion in population of species which occupy lower tiers of the food chain. This would then lead to the depletion of those species’ food sources, causing that recently exploded population to starve and die out. Sure, another predator would rise eventually and equilibrium, in a new form, would be restored. During the interregnum however countless habitats would be destroyed. It would be a regular “silent spring.”
What makes this hypothetical so pressing is the fact that it may not remain a hypothetical. In certain circles the words “shark fin soup” evoke apocalyptic dread. The traditional Chinese dish was traditionally a sign of opulence and has risen in popularity. Commonly served at weddings and important events shark fin soup can range from 10-100 USD making it one of the most expensive seaford dishes. A survey in 16 Chinese cities found that 35% of people reported having eaten the dish and 9% had consumed it three or more times. The role the fin itself plays in the soup is not to add flavor but to thicken it. The fin itself is broken down into collagenous fibers, removing all skin, meat, and cartilaginous skeleton. These tasteless, they literally have no taste, fibers are then added into a soup in order to thicken it.
As the shark fins have risen in demand the number of sharks killed yearly has increased also. Roughly 5000 kilos of fins are consumed daily in Beijing alone. It’s also estimated now that roughly 100 million sharks are killed annually. In 2015 sharks killed a record high, six, humans, globally.
Perhaps the most distressing development from an animal rights perspective is the method known as shark finning. Factory ships will shark an area to depletion. Instead of keeping the sharks they catch however the ships cut the fins of the still living sharks and then hurl the animal back into the sea for a slow and painful death of starvation or suffocation. Finning wastes between 95% and 99% of the animal.
So to what extent have these practices actually affected global shark populations? Well anywhere from 80% to 90% of the population of prime species have been killed off. They are apex predators sharks have evolved to mature slowly and reproduce slowly with long gestation periods.
All in all, we have already, if inadvertently, hacked part of the way through our metaphorical snake’s neck. The damage of what has already been done will be felt throughout our oceans for decades if not centuries. The best solution at this point would be to fight for increased protection, a handful of species have already made their way onto the CITES appendix II but more are still threatened and regulations must be enforced for them to do anything at all.