Monday, June 9, 2014

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The People vs. The Monks

JUNE 6, 2014

One of the darkest aspects of Myanmar’s political transition is a surge in religious intolerance, especially toward Muslims. Liberalization has lifted the lid on many pent-up grievances, and old-timers in the government and the monkhood are stoking these sentiments.

Last week the government proposed a law that would require anyone who wants to change religion to first seek permission from local authorities; it would also penalize proselytizing through “improper influence and persuasion.” This is one of four bills the government has drafted at the instigation of a powerful group of radical Buddhist monks called Mabatha, backed by a petition with 1.3 million signatures. The other three bills contemplate restricting interfaith marriage, birth rates and polygamy. Though phrased broadly, all are a veiled attack on Myanmar’s religious minorities, especially its 2.2 million Muslims.

A coalition of almost 100 civil society groups, led by well-known women activists and ethnic minority leaders, immediately protested the president’s endorsement of the discriminatory laws. The Mabatha denounced them as “traitors,” but that only prompted more civil society groups to oppose the bills. Facebook lit up with posts and comments like, “Count me in; I am a traitor, too.” The publication The Voice criticized “crony monks” for trying to advance the government’s authoritarian agenda.

                               Mitch Blunt, the illustrator

This reaction is unprecedented. Myanmar’s Buddhist order is arguably one of the clergies in the world that commands most deference from its followers, and never before have so many lay Buddhists pushed back against the monks for political reasons. Buddhist sects have had disputes among themselves about the tenets of monastic discipline: Should a monk’s robe cover both shoulders or just the left? And there have long been conflicts between the order and the state. Many monks opposed British colonial rule, with some joining the armed struggle against it, and from the 1980s through the late 2000s, monks rallied students to form the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement.

Intellectuals have sometimes criticized monks, but typically it was for falling short of their own rules, not for political reasons. We were taught to think of any corrupt monks as deviant, keeping intact our faith in the virtue of the robe and the wisdom of the Buddha.

But now a gap is growing between a significant segment of the monkhood and a significant segment of society over the issue of religious radicalism.

Buddhist nationalism took a turn for the extreme in mid-2012, when riots broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, killing 300 people and displacing about 140,000, mostly Muslims. (The government refuses to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group, and many people in Myanmar consider them to be intruders from neighboring Bangladesh.) When the violence spread to other parts of the country and to non-Rohingya Muslims, who were thought to be better integrated, it seemed that natural bigotry was being manipulated.

Two radical religious groups, Mabatha and the 969 Movement, have emerged since the political transition in 2011. Like Mabatha, the 969 Movement — named after the nine qualities of Buddha, the six qualities of his teaching and the nine qualities of monastic community — wants to ensure that Myanmar remains a majority-Burman and majority-Buddhist state. It is led by the firebrand ultranationalist Ashin Wirathu.

Mabatha and the 969 Movement have run a broad anti-Muslim campaign, from organizing economic boycotts against Muslim businesses to, some charge, inciting pogroms. During a visit by a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation last year, monks marched through Yangon with banners calling Islam “a faith of animals with uncontrollable birthrates.” Other monks have even been accused of instigating killings early last year in the town of Meiktila, in central Myanmar, where Buddhist mobs destroyed Muslim neighborhoods, killing at least 44 people, including 20 students and several teachers at an Islamic school.

These extremist monks are proving to be valuable political allies for the ex-military leaders of the pseudo-civilian government. Ashin Wirathu’s camp criticizes the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for being too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. (The other side criticizes her for being too weak in her defense of minority rights.) The radical monks oppose amending the current military-drafted Constitution to let Myanmar nationals with a foreign spouse or children run for the presidency, which would open the way for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 election. Meanwhile, some monks are pushing to obtain the right to vote, which the Constitution also bans.

But this rise in religious radicalism has created a countermovement bringing together over one hundred civil-society actors, including the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group; popular monks like Metta Shin U Zawana; Muslim and Christian groups; ethnic minorities; associations of intellectuals like PEN Myanmar; much of the mainstream media; and young bloggers like Nay Phone Latt. Together they have launched an anti-hate speech campaign, released official statements of protest, petitioned the legislature and lobbied the international community to condemn discrimination in Myanmar.

Their approach has a distinctly Burmese feel. They are rejecting extremism without entirely embracing Western values. Wholesale secularism hardly features in their calls; religiosity and spirituality are still prevalent in Myanmar. But local prejudice does feature: Some leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group also refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group.

Critics of Mabatha and the 969 Movement tend to couch their objections without reference to human rights. Instead they challenge the radical monks for staying silent about deepening poverty throughout the country and, say, the crackdown in late 2012 on Buddhist monks protesting a Chinese copper mine. In other words, they are mostly criticizing the extremist monks for doing the ex-military’s bidding.

The unprecedented chasm between the monkhood and the people is for now a source of tension and turmoil. But it augurs well for the country’s political and social development in the long term. The advent of a countermovement to Buddhist extremism suggests that the people of Myanmar are emancipating from traditional elites and taking a major stride toward modernity and democracy.

Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 7, 2014, in The International New York Times. ntinue reading the main story

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Lady Rallies the Masses Once Again

Aung San Suu Kyi wants to change the Burmese constitution. But will the military really go along?


The big question in Burmese politics these days is whether the military will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency. The current constitution, which was drafted and passed by the old military regime, bars her from the job. Article 59F of the constitution states that any Burmese who has a foreign spouse or children who are foreign nationals can't become president or vice president. Aung San Suu Kyi's two sons (from her marriage with the deceased Oxford professor Michael Aris) have British citizenship, so she needs to change that rule before she can qualify for Burma's highest office. Burma's military rulers included that rather peculiar condition precisely in order to prevent her from taking power.
During the third week of May, Aung San Suu Kyi's supportersgathered for two mass rallies in Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's two biggest cities. (The demonstration in Mandalay, the most important commercial city in upper Burma, drew an estimated 25,000 supporters.) Both rallies called for amending Article 436 of the 2008 constitution, which essentially gives the military a veto over any amendments. The article stipulates that any amendments require the support of more than 75 percent of members of the parliament, where unelected military representatives control a quarter of the seats. Aung San Suu Kyi's camp have to get rid of this provision before they can amend the article that prevents her from holding the presidency.
There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed.
There's no doubt that Burma's constitution is deeply flawed. The excessive power that it grants the military and the obstacles it places in the way of amendment are only two of the most obvious problems. Ideally, of course, these provisions can be changed or abolished. In reality, matters are a bit more complicated. The 2008 constitution was the result of an effort to reduce the military's direct control of the state as part of the country's transition away from the previous military dictatorship. For all its flaws, the constitution has enabled the political opening that continues in Burma today.
At the rallies, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters called for replacing the 75 percent requirement with a simple majority parliamentary vote. After spending the past two years lobbying for a constitutional amendment, the Lady (as the Burmese often refer to their revered opposition leader) has finally lost her patience with the military, which failed to respond to her request for a formal meeting with key political players, including President Thein Sein, House Speaker Shwe Mann, and Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking to thousands of supporters at the rallies, she ultimately resorted to some highly charged, shame-and-name rhetoric: "I challenge the military..." "Soldiers must be brave enough to face reality... "The military was founded as the Burma Liberation Army, not as the Army for Repressing Burma."
The crowds were suitably fired up. They also applauded her decision to team up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential activist group in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's own party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to organize these mass rallies and launch a nationwide campaign to petition for constitutional reform.
The question is whether this show of political influence will achieve its professed goal. The short answer is "no." 
In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections.
In all likelihood, the campaign will end up serving merely as part of the broader political effort to garner support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, ahead of the 2015 elections. There are at least three reasons to assume this outcome.
First, what is the Lady's broader game plan? What will she do if the military rejects her call for constitutional reform? Will she launch a campaign of street protests? Judging by her statements to date, she has no plans to go that far. She insists that she's planning to reform the constitution in compliance with parliamentary procedure. Will she boycott the 2015 elections? Also unlikely. Such a move would leave her and her supporters in the political wilderness once again.
So what's left? The 2008 constitution does not provide any path for translating public opinion into policy apart from regular parliamentary elections and the right of voters to recall elected officials. (A controversial bill that would translate the latter principle into law remains on hold.) So long as Aung San Suu Kyi is committed to pursuing constitutional change according to the military's rules, it's hard to see how her strength on the streets can translate into actual reform in the parliament.
Meanwhile, the military and its associated political party are becoming savvier in dealing with the challenges posed by the opposition. Consistent with their strategy of co-optation, the ruling elites do not reject anything outright. They typically respond to opposition demands by making partial concessions and preventing full-blown confrontation. On May 21st, the parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC) announced that its members had agreed to amend Article 436, saying that they will submit a proposal to parliament for a final decision. Though the incumbent-dominated JCRC did not reveal details of the proposal, it almost certainly won't do anything to help the opposition get what it wants. Moreover, the military chief recently made it clear that any constitutional changes have to be passed according to the existing amendment procedures. In short, even if the military agrees to make concessions, the opposition will find it virtually impossible to pass a corresponding amendment.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to resort to full-on street protests or election boycotts, the main effect of her current campaign for constitutional reform will be to motivate her base to vote for her party in the 2015 elections. Even so, the effort does come with a substantial risk. The campaign could spark conflict with pro-government activists such as the Buddhist nationalists who have already declared their support for the incumbent president and Article 59F. More importantly, military leaders might view Aung San Suu Kyi's call for soldiers to sign the charter reform petition as a ploy to divide the military. It's precisely such fears that fuel continuing suspicion of the democratic forces among the officer corps. The Election Commission, for its part, issued a warning to Aung San Suu Kyi, chiding her for using language "challenging the army."
Whether or not the Lady has the stomach to pick another intractable fight with a new generation of military generals is a question that has to do with a second concern: the credibility of the constitutional reform campaign.
Given the country's complex ethnic makeup and its continuing civil war, minority groups are among the most important actors in Burmese political conflicts. So far, however, their representatives have been conspicuously absent from the stage at Aung San Suu Kyi's public rallies (even though the Lady has paid lip service to the federalist cause in her speeches). This seems odd, considering there's no way to build enough support to reform the constitution that bypasses the ethnic groups (whether inside or outside parliament). So the exclusion of the ethnic groups from the current campaign merely reinforces the conclusion that the NLD constitutional reform campaign is really just a way of preparing for the 2015 elections. Instead of the ethnic groups, the Lady has brought in her informal sidekick, the 88 Generation group. Observers agree that most of the group's leaders do not entertain electoral ambitions, so they have no plans to field candidates against Aung San Suu Kyi -- at least in the 2015 elections. 
Finally, even if Aung San Suu Kyi throws all of her energy and resources into the campaign, the current political context does not seem to favor her. The current government's liberalization process might appear inclusive, but the reality is quite different. 
While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy.
While the new regime has accepted Aung San Suu Kyi as a valid spokesperson in certain areas, it still refuses to give her any real power over policy. And there is little she can do to change that now, having given the government her blanket endorsement early on. The lady's public announcement of trust in President Thein Sein and his "genuine wishes for democratic reform" in 2012 granted the new regime much-needed domestic and international legitimacy; she may well regret that decision now, but what's done is done. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim nationalist movement is preparing to push back if the Lady dares to launch a full-scale confrontation over the issue of constitutional reform.
The promise of the Arab Spring has ebbed. Turkey's once-promising democracy is torn between chaos and rising authoritarianism. And now Thailand has once again succumbed to military rule. Under such conditions, it's hard to imagine that the international community will wholeheartedly throw its weight behind the unpredictable Lady. The countries of the West, who have generally taken Aung San Suu Kyi's side, insist on categorizing Burma as a success story not only because of the presumed success of its "democratization," but also due to geostrategic interests. Here, for example, is what President Obama, said about Burma in his recent speech to graduates of the U.S. military academy:
...[W]e have seen political reforms opening a once closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.... If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.
Given its ambiguous endgame, its weak credibility, and the changing domestic and international context, the opposition's amendment campaign is likely to fall short of its declared goal before the 2015 elections. The leader of the campaign, however, may have a very different perception of what counts as success.
Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Let's Face It: Democracy in Burma Is Not Inevitable

BY MIN ZIN APRIL 3, 2014 - 05:04 PM

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder recently posted an interesting analysis of one of my recent articles on Foreign Policy. I generally make a point not to respond to criticism of my work unless there's a chance for meaningful dialogue. This is definitely one of those chances.

In his post, Ulfelder argues that it's premature to say that the current political transition in Burma is "on the wrong track" unless we've figured out precisely what the nature of that transition is. He cites O'Donnell and Schmitter's classic distinction between "liberalization" and "democratization." Ulfelder believes that what's happening in Burma more readily fits the liberalization template, and he correspondingly cautions against imposing a wishful democratization narrative on a reality that doesn't bear the weight of such an assumption.

I think that the difference between us has more to do with the focus of analysis rather than substance. While Ulfelder insists on the importance of drawing a conceptual and analytical distinction between liberalization, which "involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others," and democratization, which "entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability," I've found myself scrutinizing a possible relationship between liberalization and democratization, noting that democracy is one of many possible destinations as a society sets off on the journey away from an authoritarian regime.

I do not at all dispute the important contribution that O'Donnell and Schmitter have made to the transition literature. It's worth noting that I've sometimes characterized Burma's transition as a liberalization process in some of my previous posts for FP. At one point, back when the new government took power in 2011, I even described the process under way as a "regime-led and supply-side-driven political transition." My recent field research in Burma has even convinced me that the junta initially wasn't even aiming at liberalization when it made its decision to open up the political system in the aftermath of mass protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. In fact, it appears that the original plan merely foresaw removing the military from direct political control and placing power fully in the hands of the military-backed party while allowing the military to maintain its veto-wielding power. Liberalization took off only six months after the transition began. The liberalization process that has taken place since then can be characterized, in my view, as an accident, an unanticipated outcome deriving from the complex interactions of rival claimants to the throne. One can even speak, I believe, of the paradox of "liberalization without liberals."

Since I first returned to Burma in late 2012 after 15 years in exile, however, I've experienced so many new on-the-ground realities that I've found myself compelled to shift the focus of my analysis. I've moved away from trying to define the nature of the transition (i.e., liberalization versus democratization) to analyzing its possible direction. Although doing my best to avoid political science jargon, what I've tried to argue consistently in my articles is that we really do need to take a closer look at the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The empirical evidence that I've observed in Burma's recent political and economic development strongly supports the conclusion that there is no linear or teleological process from liberalization to democratization.

Liberalization can end in multiple regime types, each characterized by different adjectives. The initial liberalization process often leads to what Fareed Zakaria termed "illiberal democracy" (i.e., a diminished subtype of democracy), as in many Latin American countries in the early 2000s, to "oligarchy" in Russia, or to electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia and Cambodia (i.e., an enhanced subtype of authoritarianism). The question is whether liberalization will reinforce the military's dominant role in Burma, leading to one of the regime types mentioned above, or whether it will inevitably lead to democratization. I have to confess that I'm quite skeptical about the likelihood of the latter scenario.

In domestic politics, the ruling elites still resort to coercion, but they prefer containment and co-optation: two carrots, even three or four, and then a stick, if necessary. This has been the case, for example, with the Sino-Burmese mining project in Central Burma and recent land rights protests in Yangon. The continuing ethnic conflicts in northeastern Burma, the anti-Muslim riots, and the brutal killings of Rohingya are other obvious examples of how the state is still willing to use coercion to enforce its discriminatory policies. (In the photo above, police provide security as census takers survey a village near Sittwe.)

Meanwhile, the new Burmese government and the military, unlike Than Shwe's junta, are more sensitive to international donors and investors for many reasons. So the costs that the international community (the "West") can impose on the government and the army are relatively and unprecedentedly high. The government is more sensitive and responsive (at least symbolically) to the international players, who have strong incentives to view Burma's reforms as a success story amid the chaotic failures of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and the rest of the world. So the West rewards the government and the military to keep it on "right track," lifting sanctions against the military's business cronies.

Generally speaking, Western policymakers and observers dealing with Burma tend to speak in terms of "wait and see" or "give them a chance," "some progress is better than nothing" or "don't exert too much pressure." Meanwhile, the Burmese people continue to experience an overwhelming sense of their own powerlessness. This is an irony of the current hybrid regime in Burma: In some respects we see a high level of popular participation, yet many people still feel that they're really lacking any sense of genuine political efficacy.

In my reports, I'm trying to offer readers more empirical facts from the ground and analyze them in the light of possible trajectories ahead. I'm increasingly convinced that the process of political opening in Burma is heading towards a particular brand of hybrid regime. In short, it's high time for us to call a spade a spade: We need to get over the hopeful talk of "democratization" in Burma and recognize that the country is, in fact, undergoing a liberalization process that doesn't necessarily lead toward liberal democracy.

As I see it, there are three basic groups that have three fundamentally different views: In the view of the authoritarians (the Chinese and old regime hardliners), the predatory state under the old dictator served their interests well, so they long for yesterday. The liberalizers (including both Burma's current business cronies and Burma's friends in the West) welcome the space afforded by liberalization, so they live for today. Then there are the ordinary people of the country, who desperately yearn for more find that their path forward is still blocked. So the people of Burma feel that tomorrow does not belong to them.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Why Burma Is Heading Downhill Fast


For the past few months, I've been unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track. There are two main reasons for my anxiety. First, Burma is undergoing a leadership crisis. Second, the possibility of large-scale social unrest is increasing.
Eight months ago, I wrote a post explaining why the deepening divisions within the country's political elites were undermining my previous feeling of cautious optimism. I tried to describe a general state of anxiety caused by rising communal violence, widespread hate speech against religious minorities, worsening poverty, and intensifying political rivalries. Back then, however, the substantive reasons for the disagreements within the troika of President Thein Sein, House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi weren't entirely clear. 

But now the contenders have taken off their gloves, and their fundamental political differences are starting to come out into the open. 

Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling parties managed to work well together during the initial reform period. In 2011, a historic meeting between the Lady and President Thein Sein paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, to run in the 2012 elections. That dramatic development encouraged the countries of the West to lift their sanctions on Burma. But now the two have fallen out, quite publicly, over whether and how to reform the 2008 constitution, which was written by the then-ruling military junta. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi made constitutional reform one of her party's priorities, although even then it wasn't entirely clear what changes she wanted to make. In June of last year, she announced that she wanted to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections, noting: "For me to be eligible for the post of the presidency, the constitution will have to be amended." Aung San Suu Kyi was clearly referring to Article 59 (f) of the military-drafted constitution, which states that the president or vice-president cannot have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Aung San Suu Kyi had two sons with her late husband Michael Aris, and both are British citizens.

So far, Thein Sein has not deigned to respond to Aung San Suu Kyi's reform demands. In November 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi made an official demand for a meeting with key political players, including the president, the speaker, and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss constitutional reform. The president rejected her request, however, and his move seems to have sharpened the sense of lingering antipathy towards him that the Lady has been expressing in her meetings with foreign dignitaries and local political elites ever since late 2012.
In his latest speech to parliament on March 26, Thein Sein urged parliamentarians to pursue constitutional reform delicately and gently in order to avoid a political deadlock. Though he did not mention any possibility of top-level dialogue, the president noted, "The army still needs to be present at the political roundtable talks where political problems are solved by political means." If by these talks he means something more substantive than the usual parliamentary formality, it could signal that he is, in fact, open to the dialogue Aung San Suu Kyi requested, as long as members of the army are also at the table. Aung San Suu Kyi will need the military's support to get the amendment through parliament, and she believes Thein Sein is the only one who can persuade the military to bring its representatives to the table. In a press conference following the president's speech, the Lady insisted that "only the president can make it [military cooperation] possible." Organizing top-level talks might allow Thein Sein to win public points without having to striking a deal with Aung San Suu Kyi directly.
Political heavyweight Shwe Mann -- who is not only House Speaker but also chairman of the ruling party and, reportedly, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's allies in the establishment --has said that amending Article 59 (f) is not "the only priority" that his party will pursue. The ruling party has also proposed dozens of changes to the constitution, including Article 59. Meanwhile, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remains tight-lipped -- though many insiders believe that the army agrees with the president. This unresolved situation presents the risk of a leadership vacuum as Burma heads toward the 2015 general election. Who will qualify -- both in terms of constitutionality and popular support -- to run for president?

As long as the military continues to control the presidency rather than handing power over to a civilian leader like Aung San Suu Kyi, the legitimacy and stability of the political transition will be incomplete.

The looming leadership vacuum raises an important question for the country's troubled transition. To be sure, Burma has plenty of other constitutional problems that need to be addressed. (Foremost among them: the broad, veto-wielding power of the military and the lack of ethnic rights.) But it's the question of reforming Article 59 that inspires the most passion these days, precisely because of Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing popularity among the majority of the population. People tend to believe that having the Lady as president will automatically lead to the resolution of all the other problems that the constitution poses. The uncertainty surrounding the 2015 elections has created a sense of insecurity among the top players, prompting each of them to regroup, mobilize their own constituencies, and prepare for the fights that lie ahead.
Aung San Suu Kyi has become increasingly vocal in her criticism of the president. In so doing, she has resorted to her time-honored strategy: Pushing for change by wielding international and domestic pressure. She continues to urge her western supporters to pressure the government for constitutional reform. Since early 2013, she has been using her foreign trips and meetings with foreign leaders at home to ask them to urge the Burmese government to accept reform.  Recently, she teamed up with the 88 Generation Group, the most influential force in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi's party, to use the "people's power" to change the constitution. In a speech at a mass rally on March 22, 2014, she called on the public to join nationwide protests for constitutional reform.

There is, however, a growing Buddhist nationalist movement that could serve as a counterweight to Aung San Suu Kyi's reform attempt. Radical Buddhist monks have now succeeded in pressing the government to enact laws that prohibit interfaith marriage. Though President Thein Sein might not be responsible for organizing the movement, he adopted its cause by asking parliament to consider the interfaith marriage ban a few weeks ago. Reliable sources tell me that Thein Sein is in regular contact with the nationalist movement, including Ashin Wirathu, a self-styled "Burmese bin Laden" who is one of the movement's most controversial leaders. Some of the movement's leading monks have indicated that they would not support amending Article 59 (f), fearing that it might make Burma vulnerable to the threat of a Muslim or other non-Buddhist president in near future. Of course, these monks urge their followers to vote for Thein Sein instead of Aung San Suu Kyi, since they view her as too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. It is ironic to see Thein Sein, who was once reportedly tipped to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his reform efforts, slip into the embrace of ethno-nationalists.

None of this seems to impress Burma's ordinary citizens much -- which hardly comes as a surprise, given their continuing poverty and lack of rights.They are left to cope with the daily reality of unemployment, illegal land grabs, official corruption, ethnic tension, and the inevitable outbursts of violence when government forces step in to suppress the resulting protests. (In the photo above, protesters pray during a demonstration against land grabs in Yangon.) Given the general atmosphere of tension, it is not hard to imagine how power struggles at the top might lead to partisan political protests, religious riots, or even terrorist attacks. Since the general level of trust and tolerance is so weak, and the capacity of the state so fragile, society could easily find itself in a situation even worse than Thailand's recent bout of political polarization. No wonder the Economist projected that Burma is at high risk of social unrest in 2014.

Unless Burma's leaders manage to reach a basic consensus about the speed and character of the transition, these risks will only mount. A few weeks ago I described the current situation in our country to some of my friends as a "slow-motion train wreck." As one of those listening put it: "Yes. And we, the people of Burma, are inside the train."
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images