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After two years of generally positive headlines about the political and economic transformation occurring in Burma, the harder realities of transitioning from autarkic military rule are becoming clearer. A recent cover of Time magazine’s international edition features a Burmese monk, U Wirathu, behind the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The xenophobic Burman-Buddhist nationalism that this monk and others in the 969 Movement are preaching has produced deadly anti-Muslim violence that the authorities have been unable or unwilling to stop. While key members of Burma’s political leadership have denounced the violence and some of the more extreme policy proposals meant to marginalize certain communities, most have avoided criticizing the underlying prejudices out of consideration for the powerful role that the Buddhist monks, or sangha, play in Burmese society.


This latest rash of sectarian violence comes as yet another challenge to a society undergoing wrenching changes as it seeks to rejoin the community of nations. Burma’s nation-building and state-building processes have been virtually suspended since the 1962 coup that brought dictator Ne Win to power. As a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional polity whose borders were drawn during British colonial rule, Burma was never going to have an easy time. But blessed with a well-educated population, a strategically important location and abundant natural resources, it was expected in the 1950s that Burma would be one of the early success stories in the developing world. Instead, military rule left its population relatively poorer, less educated, and more isolated than when Ne Win and his colleagues seized power. The ethnic nationalities on Burma’s perimeter have suffered even more: Burma’s military, or Tatmadaw, has been a relentless occupying army in their homelands for the past 50 years.


Today, as Burma’s uneasy alliance of former military men and the democratic forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi tries to navigate a path forward, there are major risks. The risk of large-scale ethnic conflict is high on the list, as is a failure to address the systemic economic and political imbalances resulting from decades of extractive military governance. But a broader sectarian conflict is perhaps the gravest threat. While Burma’s Muslim communities—including the much-disparaged Rohingyas—are only seeking equal treatment and basic human rights, there have already been attempts to internationalize the situation in unhelpful ways, including radical Islamists from Indonesia calling for jihad against Burma’s government. The nature of the violence has fueled rumors that hardliners within Burma may be organizing these acts to derail the transition.


While this may or may not be true, the broader legacies of military rule are low levels of societal trust and a lack of mediating institutions that could diffuse conflicts before they become violent. These problems will take time, leadership and broad-based participation from society to address, and they could be exacerbated by rapid, inequitable, unsustainable economic growth. As the world surges forward to help Burma with its transition, recent events have shown the need to proceed with caution and a sense of humility about the challenges ahead.


Kelley Currie is a special contributor to the Freedom Collection blog. Kelley is a Senior Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, Kelley served as an advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.