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.