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TIME: Will Ethnic Violence Kill Burma’s Fragile Reforms?

Author: Hannah Beech
June 11, 2012


Clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma's restive Arakan state led to a state of emergency and questions over the country's fragile democratic reforms, writes Hannah Beech for TIME.

Burma is a combustible place. This month, ethnic riots have erupted in the country's far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, claiming at least 17 lives, according to Burmese state media. A state of emergency was declared late on June 10, as gangs of Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya (also known locally as Bengalis) clashed, looted and set fire to hundreds of buildings, according to local news reports. Curfews were set in the most affected towns.

A crossroads nation sandwiched between India and China, Burma is composed of a patchwork of fractious ethnicities that were bound more by colonial diktat than by any historic sense of community. Tensions between the country's majority Bamar (or Burman) population and various ethnic groups—the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, the Mon and the Arakanese, to name just a few—have for decades driven civil insurgencies in the country's borderlands. Other internecine strife, like conflagrations between the Arakanese and the Rohingya, is also depressingly common.

Still, the news coming out of Burma over the past couple months has been surprisingly positive. The country's military-linked leaders, who took power last year, have respected the landslide victory by the democratic opposition in April 1 by-elections. (The polls involved few parliamentary seats but the loss was, nevertheless, an embarrassment to the current government, which is controlled by forces connected to the military junta that ruled Burma repressively for nearly half a century.) Political and economic reforms have piqued the interest of Western governments and companies, leading to hopes that an era of punishing economic sanctions will give way to boom times, tapping the country's plentiful natural resources. Then last month, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first trip abroad in nearly a quarter century, a sign that she trusted the country's new hybrid civilian-military government enough to let her back home.

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