Even as the world smiles benignly at the democratic opening up of Myanmar and the extended foreign tour of its leader of the Opposition, Aung San SuuKyi, the country’s complex domestic dynamic, hidden for years, has surfaced. The spill over of the sectarian violence that began in early June has simultaneously exposed the difficulties of democratisation and the plight of Myanmar’s many underprivileged ethnic minorities.
The clashes between Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population — backed by the border security force, the Nasaka — and the 8,00,000-strong Rohingya Muslim community, locally referred to as Bengalis, highlights the issue. The violence is the culmination of nearly half a century of government-sanctioned discrimination against the Rohingyas who are not accepted or recognised as Myanmarese citizens. They aren’t the only ones. Almost never discussed is the plight of third and fourth generation Indian and Chinese immigrants who have lived in Myanmar for decades but like the Rohingyas, are considered illegal settlers.
There are two separate groups of minorities vying for recognition in Myanmar. One is composed of numerous ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, whose allegiance to the state, not their nationality, is in question. Frequent military reprisals have caused large sections of this group to flee to Thailand over the years, where they have settled in camps along the border. The second group comprises those who have lived in Myanmar for generations but are simply not recognised as citizens — like the Rohingya Muslims, and those of Indian and Chinese origin.