Burma’s Next Chapter

Will the collapse of Burma’s oppressive junta bring democracy or ethnic turmoil?

Americans see world events through their own historical prism. Because our history has been a happy story about the triumph of the individual in a liberal democracy, we constantly seek the same for other nations. The idea that freedom could unleash violent ethnic and sectarian forces falls outside our own experience and takes us by surprise whenever it happens.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall was not supposed to lead to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny was not supposed to lead to civil war. And, likewise, we now look forward to the toppling of the oppressive junta in Burma as the successful end of the story there, when it really may be just the beginning—ushering in turmoil for years to come.

As one area expert who has spent years on the Thai-Burmese border told me: “It’s not about democracy; it’s about tribes.” While the media concentrate on marching monks in Rangoon, ethnic minorities in the north of Burma, far from the television cameras, are slowly being annihilated by the Burmese military.

A third to a half of the Burmese population, and seven of the 14 Burmese states, are made up of ethnic minorities: Shan, Karen, Rohingya, Mon, and others. The junta sees these groups as threats to the state and thus is at war with them. There are even reports of the Burmese army using chemical weapons against these hill tribes. On any given day in Burma, more than half a million people are internally displaced. I interviewed Rohingya refugees from Burma this past summer in Bangladesh, and their stories were all about ethnic conflict. The junta contends that it alone can hold Burma together, which is its rationale for power.

On the other hand, there’s a strong argument to be made that the junta’s war against the hill tribes is what’s fueling Burma’s descent into chaos.

So far, most of the news about Burma has been centered on the big cities, Rangoon and Mandalay, where ethnic Burman monks have been demonstrating against an ethnic Burman military. At the moment, the country’s minorities support the monks and the democratic movement of Aung San Suu Kyi, the ethnic Burman who has been held under house arrest almost continuously since 1989. But if the junta loses its grip on power—which is what everyone across the political spectrum in the United States and much of the world seems to desire—a struggle could then ensue between the Burman and non-Burman segments of the population.

That struggle may well be peaceful. A government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi may stop the military violence against the hill tribes in the north and make peace with the non-Burman parts of the population. Nevertheless, the ethnic minorities fear that they will continue to be marginalized in a democratic Burma run by ethnic Burmans.

The stakes are immense. Like Iraq, Burma is rich in oil, as well as in natural gas, hydropower, minerals, and precious stones. International corporations are heavily invested in Burma. China covets Burma’s strategic position astride the Bay of Bengal, near the main shipping lanes of world commerce, and is building a deepwater port in southeastern Burma. India needs Burma to stop allowing separatists in eastern India from using Burma as a rear base. Whoever rules in Rangoon will have access to great wealth, power, and influence.

Right now, both ethnic Burmans and minorities are singing from the same sheet. But they may not do so after the junta is toppled. An ethnic alliance in the form of the Ethnic Nationalities Council is vying for equal status with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The fall of the junta in Burma may unleash a power struggle between the two and threaten the disintegration of the country.

Don’t get me wrong: The United States and the rest of the world must continue to take a firm stand against the junta and support the Burmese democracy movement. But if we succeed, we will have to work even harder to help the Burmese resolve their ethnic conflicts. Burma should benefit from the lessons we’ve learned in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

In ethnically and religiously diverse societies in the developing world, the longer the oppression, the worse the turmoil once such oppression has been lifted. Even if the junta falls tomorrow, the Burmese drama is just beginning.