Political transition and communal violence in Myanmar: Five Lessons from my Thesis

Rather than solving communal problems, democracy can often provoke existing divisions and encourage violent conflict.

James T. Davies is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Canberra, Australia. His research is concerned with the relationship between political transition and communal violence in Myanmar.

1. Rather than solving communal problems, democracy can often provoke existing divisions and encourage violent conflict. This is particularly true for the early stages of transition, when uncertainty is high, and institutional mechanisms for resolving conflict peacefully remain weak. This does not make democracy an unworthy goal. By understanding why violence occurs during transition, steps can be taken to avoid violence.

2. Political transitions open questions about the national community and which groups are included. During Myanmar’s transition, questions over the constitution and citizenship have been forefront. The boundaries of who is involved in the national community, and their role in it, have been under examination. While the case of the Rakhine State may be the most obvious example, these questions are also pertinent elsewhere in Myanmar. These questions are fiercely contested and can contribute towards the emergence of communal violence.

3. Decentralisation of power, the emergence of local politics, and elections create incentives for local leaders to appeal to nationalism. Nationalism and divisive rhetoric is a powerful tool that politicians and other elites can use to win political power. While communal violence does have national and even international aspects, my research found that communal violence is primarily a local phenomenon and in many cases was related to the maneuvering of local politics.

4. Hate speech is effective when it is framed to reflect existing dispositions or mindsets. If someone holds a prejudice against a certain community, they will be receptive to new information which presents that community negatively – regardless of the factual content of the information. This suggests that it will be difficult to change mindsets or challenge hate speech simply by presenting factual information and debunking rumours.

5. A wide variety of people are involved in communal violence, with various reasons for becoming involved. In my research, I came across people who justified their involvement on the grounds of defending their community, as well as instances of people exploiting opportunities for personal gain. These events are complicated, and groups of actors should also be appreciated as such if we are to understand them.

photo: CSM