The West’s perception of Myanmar’s problems is often limited to the image of Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle for political opening against the country’s ruling military junta. But Myanmar, or Burma as it is still known by many in the West, is ethnically and religiously complex, and the inability to reconcile those many differences led to decades of civil war with multiple ethnic insurgencies. While outright hostilities have for the most part ebbed, the grievances that have historically driven these conflicts are by no means resolved.
As Myanmar now emerges from isolation, the challenges facing it are numerous and can appear overwhelming. Its top-down transition has turned the country around in a way not imagined even three years ago, but it is beset by problems as it tries to shake off years of military rule. Its weak economy is run by a bureaucracy lacking capacity. Its often distracted political class has its eyes already on the 2015 elections. In the past 18 months, as authoritarian rule has actually lifted, new freedoms have triggered a wave of anti-Muslim violence across the country.
Addressing these serious challenges will be necessary but not sufficient: If Myanmar cannot also achieve peace with its armed ethnic groups and thereby end Asia’s longest-running civil wars, then its grand project of building the country anew and becoming a democracy will never be reached.