Myanmar (formerly “Burma”) is a majority- Buddhist nation in Southeast Asia, and home to more than 135 different ethnic groups, each with its own history, culture and language. The majority Burmese ethnicity is the Burmans, making up approximately two-thirds of the population. The 2014 census, the first in three decades, put the population at 51.5 million, but accurate numbers are elusive; the government categorizes people into ethnic designations based on geography, not all of which were counted in the most recent census. The country is divided into seven regions, mostly inhabited by Burmans, and seven states, each named after one of the minority ethnic categories: Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.1 Approximately two million Rohingya people, living mostly in Rahkine and in neighboring countries, are not officially recognized by the Burmese government, and as a result, 1.2 million people in Rahkine were not counted in the census. Both recognized and unrecognized religions include Buddhism (approximately 89%), Islam (4%), Christianity (4%), and other religions (3%) including Hinduism, Bahai, and indigenous Nat worshippers.2 The number of Muslims in Myanmar is disputable; most recent figures have been withheld as of this writing due to the government’s concern that releasing the data would inflame existing ethno-religious tension.
Modern hostility between the Burmese state and their ethnic minorities is a direct legacy of British colonial policy. The British used indirect rule to empower minority leaders as a means of controlling peripheral states while majority Burmans suffered the collapse of traditional structures of power and authority. Burmese religious nationalism grew out of a reassertion of Burman Buddhist identity, a worldview that regards ethnic diversity as a threat to Burmese unity. As a result, ethnic minorities— particularly non-Buddhist ethnic minorities—have had a tenuous relationship with the state since independence. While conflicts are typically framed as “ethnic” or “religious,” they must be understood in the context of British colonialism and its impact on Burmese identity, which is experienced differently based on one’s ethnicity. Ethnic conflicts are frequently driven by a desire for greater autonomy, control over local natural resources, and issues around education, culture, religion, and language. Violence against the Rohingya, however, is almost uniformly depicted and experienced as a religious conflict between Buddhist nationalists and minority Muslims.
Historically, political authority and power have often been expressed through patronage of Theravada Buddhism, especially in relation to the monastic community known as the Sangha. This expression has remained a constant through pre-colonial kingdoms, Burmese nationalism and resistance to British colonialism, socialism, military rule, and, most recently, civilian democracy. Throughout these historical periods, the Sangha has sometimes legitimized and sometimes challenged state power. As such, successive Burmese governments have cultivated close relationships with the Sangha, while also seeking to contain it through reform.
Politically, Myanmar is emerging from five decades of military rule which began after a short-lived democracy following independence in 1948. Although it was the richest country in the region when it attained independence, it is now one of the poorest in the world.3
Poverty is disproportionally concentrated in rural areas and less than one-third of the country has access to electricity. Political isolationism, fears of foreign intervention, and economic mismanagement have contributed to diminished access to health care, low- quality education, and severely limited social mobility.
These challenges began to be addressed after elections in 2010, and in 2012 a new, partially democratic civilian government came into power. The new regime took steps toward full democracy, inspired national and global praise, relieved Myanmar of international sanctions, and prompted visits by Barack Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar; William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary; and regional leaders including Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Still, international human rights organizations and political leaders remained deeply concerned about the treatment of Burmese ethnic minorities, especially the Muslim Rohingya. Violence against Muslims, often with apparent and sometimes with explicit sanction of political leaders and members of the Sangha, has continued to this day, extending the country’s long legacy of ethnoreligious conflict.
In 2015, Myanmar elected its first civilian president after 50 years of military rule. The historic elections effectively put National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who is barred from the presidency by the constitution—in place as the unofficial voice behind her top aide and ally, newly elected President Htin Kyaw. In the spring of 2016, the government created a new position, “State Counsellor” for Suu Kyi. The position, similar to that of a prime minister, is widely believed to be designed to give the office holder even more power than the president.4 The new NLD administration has vowed to create a more ethnically inclusive government, but a resurgence of military violence against the Rohingya in 2017 has provoked international condemnation.
- “Ethnic Nationalities of Burma,” Oxford Burma Alliance, http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/ethnic-groups.html, accessed March 14, 2016.
- Matthew J. Walton and Susan Hayward, “Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar,” (2014): 4-5.
- Barbara Tasch, “The 23 poorest countries in the world,” Business Insider, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-23-poorest-countries-in-the-world-2015-7, accessed March 10, 2016.
- Jonah Fisher, “Hundred Days of Myanmar’s Democracy,” BBC News, July 8, 2016, accessed August 1, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36732270.