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Where is the good news about Myanmar?

The country is making progress despite global media focus on the sectarian divide

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos
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A man works at the site of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone project in Myanmar.   © Reuters

Myanmar has the distinction of being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, clocking more than 8% annual growth for 2016, according to some estimates. The country's growth trajectory is likely to continue upwards, thanks to a low economic base (roughly $65 billion), a young population (at about 54 million), and an abundance of natural resources. It is a frontier economy at the forefront of its peers as it breaks out of a dark and authoritarian past.

But the world's view of Myanmar has recently focused on a single issue: the persecution of Rohingya Muslims who live mainly in Rakhine State, in the western region bordering Bangladesh. There is no doubt that Myanmar's "Rohingya problem" is grave. It reflects ethnic and racial animosity caused by religious tensions between Buddhism and Islam that have resulted in communal violence. This situation has been worsened by economic deprivation in the country's poorest state. Even so, a broader perspective is needed. There is more to Myanmar than the Rohingya.

The latest bout of violence has grabbed global media attention since Oct. 9, when several hundred lightly armed Muslims in the Rakhine region attacked police border posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, killing nine policemen and looting some 50 guns along with ammunition. The Myanmar authorities locked down much of northern Rakhine in the aftermath for an operational sweep, targeting Muslim suspects allegedly supported by networks in the Middle East.

The government's swift and brutal reaction has generated allegations of wanton violence, including killings, torture and destruction of villages by Myanmar's security forces. Nearly 30,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and humanitarian relief workers and reporters have found access to the region difficult. By early December, claims that the Myanmar army was pursuing a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya dominated global media coverage of the country.

Malaysia, with its Muslim majority population, sought to politicize the situation for domestic reasons to distract attention from the corruption scandal threatening the government. Prime Minister Najib Razak accused the government of Myanmar's de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, of presiding over genocide of the Rohingya, and called for a review of Myanmar's membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, took a more low-key approach but expressed similar concerns in private talks between its foreign minister and Suu Kyi, who is also Myanmar's foreign minister. In the aftermath, Suu Kyi convened a special informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers. While the meeting, held on Monday in Yangon, provided a forum for discussion, the deep-seated Rakhine crisis will likely not be resolved in the foreseeable future.

The Rohingya issue

The Rohingya issue runs deep. Even the use of language is instructive. Myanmar officials avoid the term "Rohingya", and insist that the estimated 1.1 million Rakhine Muslims, who identify themselves as "Rohingya", should be called "Bengalis". This nomenclature reflects the fact that the presence of the Muslim population in Rakhine state is also a matter of historical dispute.

Myanmar's Buddhist Burmese, who make up 88% of the country's population, claim that British colonial rulers imported Bengali workers from India into what was then known as Burma from the 1820s. Their descendants settled in Rakhine state, where two-thirds of the population remains Buddhist. The Rohingya say they migrated to Burma before the British conquered the country in a series of 19th century wars.

The Burmese interpretation of history is meant to assert that the legacy of British colonial rule is largely to blame for the Rohingya "problem." This reflects a nationalist narrative that the Burmese Buddhists, who dominated mainland Southeast Asia between the 16th and 18th centuries, were forced to accept the presence of the Rohingya after their defeat by the British. In addition, the Burmese Buddhists claim that they have been subject to attacks in Muslim areas of Rakhine.

The result is that the "stateless" Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, many with large families, have no prospects for a decent living or upward mobility. As they eke out a living from local farming and menial work, their plight has become a cause celebre among international journalists.

The global media once celebrated Suu Kyi when she fought for democracy and justice against Myanmar's military rulers. Now it condemns her and her government for the plight of the Rohingya.

Nevertheless, the ongoing violence in Rakhine must be effectively addressed and some mediation mechanisms introduced, not least because the controversy is undermining and crowding out the good news about Myanmar. The country has undergone spectacular transformation in the last five years, with elections and the introduction of democratic rule after five decades of systematic misrule under military dictatorships.

Since 2011, when wide ranging political and economic reforms were adopted by President Thein Sein, the previous leader, Myanmar has become a "normal" emerging economy with normal development problems. With a persistent current account deficit, the kyat, the national currency, has depreciated 10% over the past six months, with inflation rising at a similar rate, although it is markedly lower than during some periods of military rule.

But investment and growth opportunities abound in today's Myanmar, in finance and banking, transport, telecommunications, construction, utilities, real estate and retail. Still in its democratic infancy, Myanmar has had to learn basic processes that other countries take for granted, such as the workings of parliamentary committees and legislative procedures. In a recent seminar at Myanmar's ministry of foreign affairs on capacity-building related to ASEAN's evolution and challenges, Suu Kyi sat in the back of the room to ensure her young and inexperienced diplomats absorb key lessons.

Notable achievements

Myanmar's gross domestic product is on track to double over the decade 2011-2021. Thousands of political prisoners have been freed. The central government is negotiating a peace agreement with most of the country's armed ethnic insurgencies, although several holdouts remain like those in northern Kachin state. Military generals are still entrenched but a civil-military compromise and power-sharing is underway between Suu Kyi and Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the armed forces commander in chief.

But while Myanmar's democratic transition and growth trajectory provide lessons for other economies emerging from poverty and dictatorship, perceptions matter. The onus is on Suu Kyi to be seen to mitigate the misery and persecution of the Rohingya. When Myanmar is not in the news, it should be taken as good news for the country. But even when it is in the news, it should be acknowledged that there is much good work and progress on the ground which is often ignored.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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