Over winter vacation, taking a break from blizzards and work, I sat down with my father to watch several old World War II movies. Amidst the nasally drone of the Messerschmitts and Spitfires, the eery thuds of boots storming the beaches of Normandy, and the inspirational “fireside chats” of Roosevelt, a relatively quiet film, set in the steamy green jungle of Burma, was actually my favorite.
Bridge on the River Kwai depicts a Japanese POW camp tasked with building a bridge to connect Burma and Thailand in order to help the Japanese transport supplies. The commander of a group of British POWs, the flinty-eyed Alec Guinness, obsessively pours all of his hard work into the bridge, intending to prove to the Japanese the superiority of British organization, discipline, and engineering. In the heat of the jungle, far away from Hitler and Churchill, the commander soon finds that he is so focused on his short-term goal of quickly building his bridge that he is ignoring the larger, seemingly far off problem—he is aiding the enemy in their war effort!
Today’s Burma looks quite different. Renamed Myanmar, the country experienced one hundred years of colonial rule under the British until 1948, followed by further military rule until 2011, when it began its transition to democracy. Although the structure and control of the military government remain intact, Myanmar has taken positive steps towards democracy. For example, the government allowed the release and parliamentary inclusion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a political activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who lived under house arrest for fifteen years. The Myanmar government has also initiated new reforms, including free speech and press.
Yet, as the new Myanmar government—now with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi involved—pursues its reforms and hopes to improve its relationship with the West, a larger problem remains: the new Myanmar is still racked with its old Burma problems, so to speak. Ethnic and religious strife, a booming illegal narcotics trade, warlord territorial fights, and border disputes all continue to plague Myanmar. Unfortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and government are ignoring these issues, in hopes of keeping the focus on bolstering Myanmar’s relations overseas.
Myanmar neighbors Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and China, and all of these borders serve as focal points for most of the ethnic and religious strife that takes place within the country.
The border with Bangladesh is called the Rakhine region, home to the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Buddhist majority in Myanmar has had a long-standing conflict with this minority community. A United Nations report in late January 2014 revealed that the clashes had escalated, leaving up to four dozen people dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Furthermore, human rights groups—who have often been denied access to this troubled region—allege that official government security forces participated in rioting with the Buddhist mobs. Predictably, the Burmese government vehemently denied the report, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided commenting on the issue.
On the border with China lies the Kachin region, home to the mainly Christian Kachin minority. This regional, ethnic, and religious dispute has been continuing for decades with the Burmese Army constantly trying to subdue the Kachin Independence Army. The result has been violent clashes with reports of massacres, rape, and use of land mines and child soldiers.
Geostrategically, Myanmar is very important in Southeast Asia, as its proximity to the Malacca Straits makes it a major sea route connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As protestors rally for and against the monarchy in Thailand, Bangladesh eases its way into functioning democracy, and China seeks to dominate the region, bloodshed like that seen in the ethnic and religious conflicts of Myanmar can easily destabilize the entire area. Recently, Myanmar has sought to project itself as a major player in Southeast Asia, chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hosting the Southeast Asian Games.
However, in the future, it would be far more useful for Myanmar to tackle domestic issues before looking outward. First, the government can adopt a November 2013 resolution by the United Nations to grant citizenship to the Rohingya people. Given her strong support within the majority Buddhist community, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can strengthen her image as a role model for peace by extending a friendly hand to minority leaders, and by publicly opposing violence directed against their communities. She can thus help alleviate these conflicts, and can report human rights violations of minorities. After all, she too was an oppressed minority leader, deprived of human rights by the Myanmar government.
Bridge on the River Kwai ends on a relatively positive note—the bridge is destroyed and the Japanese cannot transport supplies to the front-lines. Yet, the British POW commander could have saved many more lives(by ensuring a quicker Japanese defeat) had he thought ahead, rather than simply trying to impress locals by building the bridge expeditiously. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi should be able to do the same by aiming for long-term peace and stability rather than the immediate improvement of the country’s image. Myanmar should work to end religious and ethnic conflict rather than ignoring or violently suppressing it.
Build bridges rather than burn them? I think I have exhausted all possible bridge metaphors.