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Myanmar must respect minorities

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By Farish A. Noor

NATION-BUILDING: It must ensure the rights of all communities, including the Rohingya, are protected

 ONCE again, violence is flaring in the state of Rakhine, Myanmar. Once again, the headlines are full of stories about the violence meted out to the Rohingya minority.

That the issue exceeds the compartmentalised borders of Myanmar is evident for all to see, as it has contributed to a mass exodus across the frontier and now impacts on other countries like Bangla-desh, and even the rest of Southeast Asia, as a result of the movement of boat people.

Yet, the root of the problem can be traced back to a singular issue that is not unique to Myanmar, or to the Rohingya themselves.

It is, in fact, the result of a culmination of historical and contemporary variable factors, that include the role played by the colonial administration of the past in dividing of Burmese society along ethnic lines; the distortions made to Burmese society as a result of migration during colonial rule; the manner in which some communities (such as the Karens) were seen as being treated favourably at the expense of other communities, etc.

Compounding matters is the rise of ethno-nationalism in Myanmar today that presents the country in a singular hue as a Burman-Buddhist nation that has a singular past, present and future.

Yet, any historian would question such a thesis for the historical facts show that Myanmar's society consists of many other communities as well, apart from the ethnic Burmans. There are the Shans, Chins, Karens and others who have been in the land for centuries, and who have a culture, language and identity of their own.

Crucially, historical records show that the land of Arakan was once a polity in itself, and that even as late as the 18th century, European vessels on their way to the spice islands had stopped in Arakan (Rakhine) to trade and to re-supply: thus suggesting that the people of Rakhine are not exactly new migrants as some Burman nationalists have suggested.

But why do some countries still belabour the point about their complex pasts and identities, and remain uncomfortable with dealing with plurality in their midst?

Myanmar is in need of a multicultural policy that accepts the fact that while Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist-Burman, it also consists of other ethnic and religious groups, that include Hindus, Christians and Muslims, too.

After all, predominantly-Hindu India has come to accept, and even celebrate, its linguistic-religious-ethnic diversity; as has predominantly-Muslim Indonesia.

When facing the rise of narrow ethno-nationalism in any country and in any context, we need to bear in mind that these are fundamentally political movements that seek to exclude as much as they include and, more often than not, the underlying roots of such mass mobilisation are political-economic rather than cultural or religious.

My own concern about what is happening in Myanmar today is that the campaign against ethnic and religious minorities is being carried out by a small group of extremists in the name of Buddhism, which unfortunately sullies the name of Buddhism in general, in the same way that acts of violence carried out by small numbers of Muslims damage the image of Islam in general.

As Myanmar makes its slow transition to democracy and attempts to win the support and recognition of the international community, it, too, has to learn that there are some international standards and norms that have to be met before recognition is achieved.

Among these is the need to create the conditions where a plural society can express itself via a democratic process where all communities feel they are represented in the nation-building project.

Myanmar only has to look at its own plural past to note that this is possible, for up to the late 1940s other non-Burman ethnic and religious minorities were indeed represented in government, in parties, in the armed forces and the business community.

Nation-building narratives only work when they accurately reflect the realities of society on the ground, and the reality is that Myanmar is actually a culturally rich and complex society, that has every reason to be thankful of its rich and diverse identity.

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