Inside Story
Myanmar's minorities: Crying for help
As the country moves towards reforms, is this the chance for the government to address the plight of the minorities?
Last Modified: 31 Oct 2012 14:46

Myanmar wants to end its global political and economic isolation but international attention is also casting a spotlight on a bloody cycle of ethnic violence. 

"The government understands that this is a very important issue and that internationally it has attracted a lot of attention … but the Arakanese Buddhists are really on a rampage at the moment because they feel they are misunderstood and that the growth of the Rohingya ... [is] pushing them out of their own land."

- Larry Jagan, South East Asia specialist

The latest unrest in western Myanmar has displaced tens of thousands of people and left more than 80 dead. And the victims are blaming the government for failing to prevent it.

The island state is one of the most diverse countries in South East Asia - a patchwork of more than a 100 different ethnicities - but its economy has suffered through decades of military rule and international sanctions.

Nevertheless, foreign investors are queuing up to get a foothold in the country, formerly known as Burma - which has vast resources of every sort and all ripe for investment.

It boasts substantial deposits of gas and oil, coal, gold, precious stones, timber and is home to rich marine life to support fisheries.

The government is also planning to revive the rice trade and double exports over the next five years after it was once known as the world’s top rice exporter.

"I think these are long term problems that are going to be part of the story of nation-building project for decades to come. It has been part of the issue since the birth of the nation that you have, in many ways, all the different communities competing for and arguing over what it is to be part of this nation or what it is to be part of a separate type of community."

- Maitrii Aung-Thwin, modern Southeast Asian a historian

While standing at the crossroads as it embraces sweeping change, it does remain criticised for political repression and racism.

The country’s population largely constitutes of:

  • The Bhuddhist Burmese people, who form the largest group and historically lived in what were then Burma’s central and upper plains
  • Among the many other ethnic groups in Myanmar are the Shan, the Karen and the Kachin, all of which have fought armed insurgencies against the Burmese junta
  • And the Rohingya form one of Myanmar's smallest minorities - their harsh treatment by the government has drawn international attention and condemnation.

So, as Myanmar moves towards more reforms, is this the chance for the government to address the plight of the minorities? And will reforms help the nation’s minorities?

Inside Story, with presenter Teymoor Nabili, speaks to: Maitrii Aung-Thwin,a historian of modern Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore, and author of "A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times"; Larry Jagan, a southeast Asia specialist and former BBC World Service Asia editor; and Brian Joseph, the senior director for Asia and Global programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a member of the Burma Donors' Forum.


  • Economists are predicting Myanmar could become the next economic frontier in the region - but it needs to undo the effects of five decades of military dictatorship that has made it Southeast Asia’s poorest nation.
  • The Asia Development Bank predicts the country could have GDP growth of 6.3 per cent next year because of its vast reserves of natural wealth.
  • Myanmar's per capita gross domestic product is just $857 compared to that of neighbouring Thailand's $9,500.
  • The country ranks 149th out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index - that measures life expectancy, education and income.


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