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Eugene K B Tan: National unity is crucial for Myanmar

With its first democratically elected government taking over the reins of power on April 1, Myanmar's political transition can be likened to her rebirth as a nation-state. Like any new beginning, her fledgling civilian government's vision for the divided country is crucial. The choices made at this critical juncture will significantly impact her development, progress and democratic evolution.

     For a country long and deeply scarred by the scourge of sectarian conflict and violence, the challenge of national unity and cohesion is fundamentally about Myanmar's soul. Notwithstanding the dominant ethnic Burman majority, there must be strong political will to genuinely embrace her rich diversity, promulgate laws and policies that are fair and equitable, and resist ethnic discrimination and persecution.

     Here, overcoming fear of the "other" is crucial. Fear has a paralyzing effect as it entrenches society in ethnic fault lines. As State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, also the de facto leader of the civilian government, remarked in 2013, "If people are frightened that they would be killed, or that their houses would be burned down above their heads, you would not be able to persuade them to sit down and sort out their differences."

Five key points

Freedom from fear was her rallying cry as the iconic political dissident; in government, she now has to make that a lived reality. As Myanmar embarks on its arduous journey of rebuilding the nation, there are five key considerations the new government should bear in mind. 

     The first is the centrality of a nation's founding vision and its inclusiveness. With 135 recognized racial categorizations, the military junta's tight grip on society between 1962 and 2011 had been justified on the need to keep sectarianism at bay and to maintain stability and unity. However, given the deep-seated suspicion and distrust, top-down regulation alone is manifestly inadequate and unsustainable in nurturing trust among the ethnic groups and of the government.

     Integrating the majority and minorities is central to Myanmar's political and economic transformation. The visceral loathing of and pogroms against the Muslim Rohingyas, who bear the brunt of ethnic discrimination and persecution, is the litmus test of the government's nascent national reconciliation and integration efforts. Fair and equal treatment of various races is a sine qua non for national cohesion.

     Second, notwithstanding the dominant Buddhist majority and Buddhism's special constitutional position, Myanmar's new leaders must govern the multiethnic, multireligious society with a strong secular bent. This does not mean confining religion to the private domain, even as the sacred and the secular are not distinct realms.

     To this end, Myanmar should meaningfully harness the goodness of faith communities for nation-building. In enjoining these communities to seek the transcendental good, religions can contribute to the betterment of society. Religion, like education, is a powerful socializing platform for social transformation.

     Third, religion and security of the state, government, society and individual are intimately interlinked. They are indivisible as the insecurity of one negatively affects the security of another. It is vital to protect religious freedom as a fundamental right, especially when faith is integral to the identity and values system of the people of Myanmar.

     In turn, trust and confidence are necessary building blocks for a harmonious and cohesive society requiring top-down and bottom-up commitment as well as action. Trust and confidence cannot be "taught," instead they are "caught." Urgency should be accorded to establishing adequate and meaningful platforms for continual engagement, understanding, open-minded dialogue and trust-building between the state and the various faith communities -- a vertical relationship -- as well as among the faith communities -- a horizontal relationship.

     Fourth, citizens have multiple identities. These different identities need not undermine the central precept that one's civic identity and loyalty must take precedence over one's subnational identities. Otherwise, insecurities at the various levels would proliferate in a downward spiral.

     Fifth, the introduction of democracy does not miraculously transform people into fair- and open-minded citizens. Similarly, opening markets can exacerbate the democratic deficit through enriching already-dominant groups.

Appeal to all

To win popular support in a divided society, politicians find it tempting and expedient to appeal to populism stoked by primordial connections. Blood ties reinforced by religious loyalties and insecurities are powerful levers to instill fear, provoke confrontation and intimidate. This must be resisted.

     Tolerance is necessary but insufficient for the sustenance of a multiethnic society. Understanding, empathy, an appreciation of differences are needed. Incentives have to be urgently developed to inspire commitment by which political and religious leaders and ordinary citizens subscribe to moderation in the profession, practice and propagation of one's faith as the best way forward in engendering greater security and freedom for all.

     Legislative fiat cannot will to life ethnic harmony. But neither is harmony an exception that requires explanation or justification. On the collective action challenge confronting her government, Aung San Suu Kyi put it well in 2013: "No transition of any kind can succeed in Burma unless we can forge unity out of the great diversity which is the richness of our country." The civilian government cannot remain silent on the arbitrary discrimination and persecution of the minorities and speak of national unity in the same breath.

     Myanmar's successful reincarnation hinges on bold, visionary leadership. Winning the hearts and minds of every person in Myanmar to national unity is a monumental task the government and people of Myanmar cannot afford to fail. The alternative is the specter of even more conflict, violence and division -- to Myanmar's collective peril.

Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law. He has participated in religion and rule of law training programs in Myanmar since 2013. He served as a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore's 12th Parliament between 2012 and 2014.

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