Illustration: Sun Ying
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 1991, and delivered a long-overdue speech in Norway on Saturday. The heads of some European countries also met with her, and held state-level receptions for her.
The enthusiasm of these European leaders is more like a demonstration of their "victory," rather than hospitality for Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi belongs to Myanmar, but she belongs more to Europe. In the eyes of these European leaders, without the political and economic pressure they helped exert, Myanmar wouldn't have witnessed the changes it's undergoing today.
However, at this stage, what most deserves attention is probably not Suu Kyi, but the complex ethnic and religious conflict taking place in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and the tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya refugees who live there.
After the clash between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine people, some Muslims in Rangoon visited Suu Kyi, in the hope of getting suggestions from Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. But Suu Kyi didn't seem to have a solution either. She briefly talked with them, and asked them to turn to the government to get the problem solved.
In fact, more than a few ethnic minority groups in Myanmar do not have enough trust in Suu Kyi and the NLD under her leadership. The NLD also lacks the capability to communicate and coordinate in this regard. If the NLD really hopes to achieve ethnic reconciliation, they have to set up more direct contacts and establish mutual trust with ethnic minority groups.
The violent conflict in the Rakhine state disclosed again the soft spot of Myanmar, its ethnic conflicts. This is directly related to the legacy of British colonial rule. In the frontier regions of Myanmar, local ethnic minority groups have never built up a sense of "national identity." And the Rohingya people have never been recognized as an indigenous ethnic group, and have thus become stateless refugees.
The reforms being carried out by the current Myanmese government, especially since the government has achieved a ceasefire agreement with the independent armed forces from many minority groups, are bringing unprecedented hope for the nation's prospects.
However, Myanmar's complex ethnic problems cannot be fixed either in the short term, or by the appearance of one or two opposition leaders. It is a political, economic, social, and cultural issue.
In fact, some Southeast Asian countries have already started to practice the Western-style democracy, but their ethnic conflicts remain. The problems of ethnic integration are still haunting these countries.
What's happening in West Asia and North Africa is also an example. The elections in Egypt may further split the society and even trigger more religious conflict.
True, there are indeed differences between countries in Southeast Asia and those in West Asia and North Africa. One of the differences is that Southeast Asian countries have better conditions of economic development.
Most Southeast Asian countries have already occupied a certain position in the global industrial chain, which provides an economic basis for them to solve ethnic conflicts.
However, a more severe challenge facing Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar is that if they are too heavily influenced by the West and excessively stress Western models during their system transformation, they may face long-term turbulence in the future. A weak, divided government isn't able to solve complex ethnic problems.
What's worse, situations in border areas may get worse and run out of control. Excessive and hasty democracy may bury the fragile reconciliation which has just been achieved.
John Funston, an Australian scholar and expert in Southeast Asian studies, wrote in his book Government and Politics in Southeast Asia (2001) that better governance, including more democracy, is widely seen as progress, but it's not the universal elixir that some believe in. More democracy may provide chances for all kinds of extremists.
The author is a senior editor with People's Daily. He is now stationed in Bangkok. firstname.lastname@example.org