Western Money and Social Dilemmas in Myanmar

Myanmar seems to be making efforts to improve its image on the international scene before the year ends. This week, the Ministry of Information announced that the BBC, along with three other international news agencies, had been given official permission to open a new bureau in the country.

“It is hard to overstate the significance of this news, nor the astonishing pace of change in a country which has long been a byword for media repression and censorship,” said Peter Horrocks, director of BBC's Global News, in a statement to the press.

Repression and censorship, along with recurring ethnic clashes, have been important obstacles in Myanmar’s long road toward democracy.

In a meeting between European Union and Burmese officials, the EU pledged assistance of up to €90 million per year for rural development, education, governance and peace-building from 2014 to 2020.

“The development taking place in Myanmar is unprecedented and needs to be acknowledged,” the European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs told the Democratic Voice of Burma, “But we must not forget about the challenges ahead, for which the EU, as one of the main donors, will stand by with further support to continue the necessary reforms in the country. This will be done in coordination with EU Member States and other donors, and in harmony with the government’s own plans.”

Assistance from the EU to Myanmaris already underway. The EU has been implementing a €10 million police reform project. EU Ambassador Roland Kobia said that the 18-month-long pilot project, which got underway around two months ago, will provide some 4,000 police in Myanmar with training in community policing and "crowd management best practices", in addition to promote police accountability by engaging civil society and the Parliament.

Strategic Interests It is not surprising that the EU would provide this type of assistance to Burma; anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalism has been a prominent catalyst for violence since the ouster of the military junta in 2011 and the accompanying constitutional reforms. However, throughout these instances the Burmese government has attempted to portray their domestic situation as being very stable, in an attempt to project a sense of security and progress to the international community, and in particular to multinational corporations.

Over the past two years, the country has opened its doors to a number of industries, which led to large-scale tenders originated largely from foreign firms. As Myanmar hopes to develop the presence of foreign investors, the government will surely attempt to mitigate the attention being given to instances of ethno-religious violence.

Social Influences Nevertheless, despite improvements in the country's economy and infrastructure, some groups are raising concerns that the government is not keeping up with its obligations towards human rights. The United Nations human rights committee passed an annual resolution on Myanmar last Tuesday, welcoming the release of scores of political prisoners and Thein Sein's promise that all "prisoners of conscience" would be freed by the end of the year, but also expressing "concern about remaining human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions of political activists and human rights defenders, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

In addition, reports by Ethnographic Edge have noted that deep-seated ethnic and religious tensions are difficult to hide, despite the authorities' best efforts. There has been a trend in many conflict-prone countries to hide their issues with minorities in an attempt to keep a stable face toward the international business community. However, if the underlying grievances are not address, cosmetic changes do little to stop sporadic violence from flaring up.

This is especially true when the underlying tensions are being exacerbated, not quashed, by the very reforms that the country is going through. To make space for the incoming factories, ports and plants, Myanmar's government has confiscated precious land and displaced a significant number of people – often moving people of one religious/ethnic group into areas of another.

This leads us to consider that the good news reported above, of money and media flowing in from the West, may actually be bad news for those sections of the population that have been most unsettled by the latest reforms. There is yet another social dilemma developing in Myanmar that researchers at Ethnographic Edge point out, and which might lead to more tensions down the line.

Buddhists represent roughly 90 percent of the country’s population, and the country’s post reform governance structures reflect this large Buddhist majority. Furthermore, Buddhist organizations and belief systems were the guiding force in the anti-government protests and reform movements that two years ago brought the military dictatorship down.

Activist monks are viewed as both the country's moral leaders and the nation's political liberators. They hold gravitas in and out of the country, as even the international community is beholden to them.

Now, however, they seem to be targeting their energies against the minorities living in the country, specifically the Rohingya Muslim minority. While their grievances, as we have seen above, may well be legitimate, their charges and galvanizing tactics have been largely expressed on ethnic grounds.

This risks turning them from human rights heroes, to human rights anti-heroes. The dilemma also risks becoming progressively more uncomfortable both for Myanmar's new elites, as for the international community.

(Ethnographic Edge is a crisis forecasting project that uses a combination of Data Analytics technologies from Recorded Future and Ethnographic methods in order to anticipate possible developments in international crises in Asia and the Middle East.)