Mayhem dominated much of last week. In Myanmar, that is, not during spring break (though that undoubtedly happened as well). A tenuous peace was restored in Myanmar days ago by the military, after a week of fighting in the town of Meikhtila that affected thousands of residents and killed more than 30.
The incident undoubtedly proves a blow to the country’s internal stability, always a question mark as a result of ethnic and religious tensions endemic in Myanmar’s social fabric. Yet the solution – military intervention – provokes a rather newer reflection on how a once-divisive and oppressive political force appears to have come good. Subordinated to a civilian government as part of a series of political reforms Myanmar has enacted in recent years, the Tatmadaw (as it is known by the Burmese) has, at least for now, managed to quash the violence in Meikhtila without causing outrage in the local and international communities.
Certainly the people of Myanmar are not accustomed to embracing authority with open arms. For instance, the police in Myanmar, themselves a target of internal reform, are regarded with skepticism and consistently beset by allegations of corruption and cronyism. In past decades, this might have been the case too for the military. But today the military still wields power similar in practice to that which it possessed (and used, to brutal effect) in the demonstrations of 1988 – and has paradoxically allied that power to unprecedented levels of restraint. In releasing three of the foremost leaders of the demonstration last January, there is perhaps more hope than ever among citizens that the military has found an acceptable role in Myanmar’s changing political landscape.
The question then is: will they stay in their place? That hinges very much on the burgeoning levels of hope among ordinary citizens. Their sheer mass has, in an ostensibly less oppressive political climate, made their opinion impossible for the government of Thein Sein to ignore. That voice currently speaks, in light of the success at Meikhtila, for a goodness latent within the military; but next week it might sing a different tune if the old ways of brute force return. The academic community, meanwhile, are for their part ever skeptical on the military’s potential for permanent, long-term reform. To them, one straw is all it takes to break the camel’s back – and Myanmar undeniably sits on a powder-keg of internal political struggles: both among generals shorn of their old powers, and between a civilian ruling government and opposition parties.
Right now, however, those struggles lie in the shadows. The chaos at Meikhtila – started by a disagreement between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owner of a gold shop – revealed a menacing and relatively dormant centrifugal force until now: religious strife between ethnic Burmese communities. Instances of violence in Myanmar in the past few decades, broadly speaking, was definable by its geographical location. Violence in the center meant a military crackdown on dissident ethnic Burmese; on the periphery, hill tribes such as the Karen and Shan groups bore the brunt of military violence. Now that Burma’s erstwhile agent of violence seems to have reformed itself to play a legitimate role in protecting national stability, the spate of intra-Burmese and religiously motivated violence that has taken its place is rather harder to contain. At all cost, the Burmese military needs to maintain peace legitimately; it needs to support the civilian government, and not override it. For the alternative – renewed military crackdowns, political coups, the reversal of reforms – is possibly the grimmest yet.