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Peace and war in Myanmar

A visitor to Myanmar can easily spend two weeks seeing the main tourist destinations and depart with the impression of having been in a peaceful nation. Within its borders, however, rages the world’s longest continuing civil war. It began at independence in 1948 and no end is in sight. This is the conundrum of Myanmar today: the coexistence of peace and war.


The first national election in 20 years was held in 2010, at the end of five decades of repressive military rule. This election produced a government led by former General Thein Sein that unexpectedly moved quickly to adopt far-reaching political and economic reforms. The longtime leader of the democratic opposition and world-famous icon of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest shortly after that election. In 2012, she won a seat in the parliament in a by-election. In the 2015 election, her party — the National League for Democracy (NLD) — won in a landslide against the military-supported party.


The euphoria internally and abroad produced by the Thein Sein government’s reforms began to dissipate under the NLD-led government. The Myanmar military retained much power independent of the elected government under the constitution it had drafted and got adopted in a rigged referendum in 2008. It resisted the political reforms Aung San Suu Kyi sought, including amending the constitution to remove the provision prohibiting her from becoming the country’s president. The economic reforms her government sought came slowly as her cabinet ministers, with no bureaucratic experience, struggled to understand their mandates and to motivate their agencies to implement new policies. Many of her supporters became disillusioned.


Then a self-made tragedy occurred: the ethnic cleansing operation by the Myanmar military against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine State in August 2017. The operation produced an exodus of some 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh and left another 100,000 confined to internal refugee camps. Economic advancement stalled as foreign investors and aid agencies responded by suspending or cutting back their activities.


Now the NLD government is getting ready to defend itself against a charge of genocide in a case that will be heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague in the second week of December. Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that she will personally lead the Myanmar delegation to the ICJ. Compounding the pressure on Myanmar, the International Criminal Court announced in mid-November that it is launching a separate investigation into the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya.


The normalcy in the central heartland of Myanmar is largely explained by its majority population: the Burmese ethnic group, locally called the “Bamar” and overwhelmingly Buddhist, accounts for almost 70% of the country’s approximately 54 million people. The battles between the Myanmar military and more than a dozen ethnic-minority forces are taking place in the mountainous borderlands with India, China, and Thailand — with one exception. A relatively new insurgency has emerged in Rakhine State, the jurisdiction from which the Rohingya were expelled, pitting the Rakhine Buddhist minority against the Bamar Buddhist majority.


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