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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Demographic Bumps Along Myanmar's Road to Democracy

This week's Economist has a special report on what they call Myanmar's "Burmese Spring," the rather sudden and unexpected--albeit certainly welcome--transition to democracy after decades of military dictatorship (during which time the country's name was changed from Burma to Myanmar). So important is this top-down transformation that the new leader was in Washington, DC, this week to meet with President Obama. But, there are some obstacles to progress, and the Economist notes that ethnic strife is one of the biggest.
The murderous attacks by Buddhists on Muslims in Rakhine state in June and October last year, which spread to central Myanmar this year, reflect a hatred of non-Burman incomers of a different faith dating back to early colonial times.
If these outbursts of racially and religiously motivated killing are not dealt with they could spiral out of control. An archaic law passed in 1982 denies any form of citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya, the victims in Rakhine state, on the ground that they are not an “indigenous race” like the Kachin, Karen and others. The other ethnic minorities have suffered the same sort of discrimination at the hands of Buddhist Burmans for being Christians as the Rohingya have for being Muslims, but in practice the Rohingyas are in the worst plight because as non-citizens they have no rights at all.
In what can only be seen as a step back, authorities in Rahkhine state this week passed a law imposing a two-child limit on Muslim families. Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that:
Local officials said Saturday that the new measure would be applied to two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations in the state. The townships, Buthidaung and Maundaw, are about 95 percent Muslim.
The unusual order makes Myanmar perhaps the only country in the world to impose such a restriction on a religious group, and is likely to fuel further criticism that Muslims are being discriminated against in the Buddhist-majority country.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said the new program was meant to stem rapid population growth in the Muslim community, which a government-appointed commission identified as one of the causes of the sectarian violence.
Although Muslims are the majority in the two townships in which the new policy applies, they account for only about 4 percent of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
Stay tuned--this seems like a recipe for even more disaster.

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