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More on Myanmar Unrest

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 12, 2013

People carry weapons during riots in Meiktila on March 22, 2013. People carry weapons during riots in Meiktila on March 22, 2013. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

On the CFR site, I have an expert brief up on the surge in ethnic and religious unrest in Myanmar. You can read the expert brief here.

The anger seems to be building, despite some efforts by the government, Muslim leaders, and Buddhist leaders to cool tensions. (Aung San Suu Kyi, who had said virtually nothing about the violence for two weeks, did finally step forward and say that Myanmar needs to promote a stronger rule of law to prevent future violent outbreaks, a somewhat mealy-mouthed response.) One of the leading militant monks—a phrase that just sounds bizarre—this week gave an interview to the Irrawaddy in which he was essentially unrepentant about the attacks on Muslims. Other militant Buddhist leaders have been similarly unrepentant, and I would not be surprised to see a new wave of attacks after the quiet of Burmese New Year. It seems that the security thus far are primarily going to blame Muslims for the violence, having now arrested and charged the Muslim owners of a gold shop in Meiktila without doing much to investigate Buddhists involved in the violence there.

In thinking about the role of foreign donors and investors in Myanmar, and how they could help reduce the violence, I had several other prescriptions beyond the expert brief. For one, donors should more thoroughly scrutinize the backgrounds of people who come to the numerous new mediation and peace-building efforts in the country that are designed to facilitate better interethnic and interreligious relations. Not a few times, religious leaders involved in these efforts have now turned out to be some of the same ones promoting violence, which delegitimizes the entire mediation/peace-building efforts. Second, as donors did with some success in Indonesia, major donors to Myanmar should shift away from military-military cooperation to focusing on rebuilding the Myanmar police force, including creating entirely new, effective units trained in the latest methods of nonviolent crowd control. Far too much time has been spent by U.S. diplomats and officials from other Western countries now engaging with Myanmar on military-military cooperation; the military is critical to the transition, but at this point close cooperation is not practical and risks supporting the most recalcitrant members of the armed forces. Instead, creating a better police force will reduce the power of the military and avoid the need for military-dominated martial law in conflict areas. This new police force should necessarily include recruits drawn from all of Myanmar’s main religions and ethnic groups. Finally, donors and investors are going to have to be more vigilant about where their funds go, to avoid perceptions that money is being directed primarily to Burman-dominated areas.

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