Ethnopolitics in Myanmar Destabilize the State

Want to help publish more stories like this one? Truthout is powered by reader support – click here to make a tax-deductible donation now!

Aubrey Belford of Reuters recently described the politics of Rakhine state in Myanmar as “an anti-Muslim apartheid.” In 2012, I visited Rakhine state and I found – bizarrely – that many local putt putt riders were wearing low-cost, plastic Nazi-style crash helmets (complete with swastikas) – obviously a job lot meant for a chapter of Chinese Hells Angels that had found its way into Myanmar. The irony was not lost, as I began to uncover the creation of ghettos for Muslims not dissimilar to those created by the Nazis for Jews in Poland in 1939. The fortunes of Muslims in Myanmar scream out the intimate relationship between so-called communal violence and the politics of separation. They are also a stark demonstration of the long-term instability “ethnopolitics” can nurture across the world, one that is now beamed to us every day on our tablets and iPhones from Syria and Iraq.

Ethnic and religious identity (the two are often inseparable in the ethno-politician’s mind) has been used as a justification to deny citizenship to many of the Muslim community since independence in 1948. The violence against Muslims – which has continued since 2012 – has exacerbated this state of affairs and created a new and disturbing reality for Muslims in Rakhine state and Myanmar more widely, one in which hundreds have been killed and the majority of the urban Muslim population driven out of the cities and into rural ghettos (maybe 140,000, according to UN estimates) where they remain dependent upon meager charity. But unlike in Syria, Myanmar’s government is a new friend of the West, and Western governments themselves may be complicit, by omission, in helping these people to disappear from political, and eventually, perhaps, corporeal life.

What is ethnopolitics? It’s a way of seeing the world in which people are encouraged to seek representation not as equal citizens, but as members of an ethnically defined hierarchy of peoples within the population. As such, it is very difficult for individuals to peacefully or cooperatively coexist so long as they are led to believe that their lives and cultures are mutually incompatible. It’s a common phenomenon – from the anti-immigration parties of the extreme right in England and France, to the religious mafias in Syria and Iraq, folks are told that their very right to life is determined by their ancestry and so-called historic “values” rather than the reality of their actual presence as sentient beings on the good earth of our tiny planet.

How are such politics countered? Answers must lie in the construction of a more direct and ethnically-blind relationship between citizens. Yet even with political will, in places like Myanmar, this could be a long process. In the interim, and in the context of political and economic liberalization in Myanmar, every effort needs to be made by both the government and their regional and international supporters to affirm the notion of an aggregate diverse national citizenry. Simultaneously, to ensure that ethnopolitics are not the harbinger of further pogroms and internecine warfare (as they have consistently been since independence), work is required to de-emphasize the notion of Myanmar as a fragmented and hierarchical ethnic patchwork, especially where this is used as a justification for determining the rights and freedoms of individual citizens.

Language is central to the ethnopolitical worldview. The words used to describe different peoples and territories are themselves politicized. Each ethnic claimant uses or creates their terminology to enhance that claim. In Myanmar, it’s barely possible to utter a word without signaling an ethnopolitical viewpoint, and the possibility of describing a Myanmar without ethnopolitics is denied by the language itself. Politicians use both Myanmar and Burma depending upon where they stand – because each term suggests a different political perspective. Similarly the terms Magh (Bengali), Arakanese (Arakanese) or Rakhine (Burmese) for the Buddhist population, Rohingya (self-appellation, derived from the Bengali word for the Arakan region), Bengali (used widely by Rakhine and Burmese people) or Arakanese Muslim (a historical term used by the colonial administration) for the state’s Muslims, and Arakan (Arakanese) or Rakhine (Burmese) for the state itself – are all political signposts to different viewpoints in the world of ethnic politics.

If Myanmar as a whole is an ethnopolitical territory, Muslim and South Asian populations remain the most vulnerable to forcible exclusion (the two are conflated in the Myanmar ethnopolitical mind). Racial discourse, evolved through colonial precedent and actions during World War II and the immediate post-war period to clear Muslims and South Asians from more central regions, has placed them literally (in Northern Rakhine state) and figuratively at the very edge of society – at the point where they can easily be allowed to disappear from view. Yet other ethnicities are also close to the edge and their turn may well come in the future. During the recent violence, popular support for an anti-Muslim position has been expressed throughout society, including among the leaderships of other marginalized ethnic groups, suggesting that the racial stereotyping implicit in ethnopolitics is a strong driver throughout Myanmar politics.

While state fragility is unlikely to be the direct cause of either conflict or poverty in Myanmar, this atomization of society through ethnic division certainly is. The absence of political settlement between these groups may be less important than the ethnopolitical rules of the political game, which nurture division. That is, the politics of ethnic distinction have become much more important than the politics of crafting a better direct relationship between the state and its citizens.

Most Myanmar citizens have been led to believe that the Muslims of northern Rakhine are recent immigrants from Bangladesh – and therefore illegitimate. While it is likely that the creation of the Muslim rohingya ethnicity is a recent phenomenon – taking place during the 1950s in order to allow Muslims to speak of themselves in a world where language is denied to those without an ethnopolitical alignment, my research suggests that it is equally likely that Rakhine Muslim populations have coexisted with Buddhists for many generations and have much greater linguistic and cultural ties with Myanmar than Bangladesh. Muslim residents of Rakhine state have been forced to create a distinct ethnic identity in order to become visible within the politics of Myanmar. As a result, and as in other ethnopolitical states – Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia, for example – politics is mediated at the abstract aggregate level, rather than between real living and breathing people, an instable political settlement reliant upon dangerous centrifugal forces that can easily tear communities apart.

The history of ethnopolitics (but not of ethnicity) in Myanmar can be traced back to the colonial period, when ethnic classification provided a useful scientific and non-political tool for managing the colonized population. Although pre-colonial issues are often suggested as drivers of ethnic nationalism (e.g. the pre-colonial Burmese occupation of the Arakanese Kingdom), it is more likely that these events spurred elite rather than popular ethnic politics, and have only retrospectively been incorporated into the modern ethnonationalist narrative. The Japanese occupation, World War II and the immediate post-independence period saw these classifications gain popular political meaning in both the context of the global contest fought out on Burmese territory and the national struggle for self-determination among Burmese peoples. The time between 1942 and 1944 marks a period without colonial government in northern Rakhine, when both Muslims and Arakanese peoples committed atrocities against one another with the support of the Japanese and British military, a process that led to the expulsion of Muslims from much of southern Arakan state, and the expulsion of Arakanese people from the Mayu River border area.

Between independence in 1948 and the coup d’état of 1962, there was a significant Muslim insurgency in Rakhine state, while most Muslims failed to achieve citizenship. During military rule, force was used to contain the ethnopolitical genie in Rakhine in an ill-fitting bottle – at least partially – but in 2010, the bottle was uncorked once more in Rakhine state, and maybe Burma more widely, with the onset of elections. It was the issuing of voter registration cards to Muslims that may well have created expectations that Muslims would be given full citizenship in due course, a process that alarmed “Rakhine” people and emboldened Muslims. These heightened tensions were probably the real trigger for violence in 2012.

And the issuing of these cards may have been part of a broader government strategy to ensure that “Rakhine” ethnic secessionists did not gain a majority in a state with important oil and gas resources. Whatever the causes, conflict in Rakhine state has not been checked, and unless the ethnic foundations of Myanmar politics are diluted, Rakhine may yet become a harbinger of future racially motivated conflict across the country, if the greater expectations of economic and political representation that all ethnicities will demand from the reform process are not met equitably.

The implications of these rules of the game for Myanmar are that, firstly, ethnopolitics is concerned with a spatial hierarchy of controlled access to limit the territorial expansion of rival peoples – especially to urban areas and areas which have access to resources. Secondly, ethnopolitics focuses political concerns on controlling demographic expansion; thus, finally, punitive measures such as controlled access, ruralization, expulsions, denial of citizenship and ultimately pogroms or even genocide become useful options for political action.

The creation of a politics in Myanmar around the idea of a de-ethnicized citizenry is urgently required. Bringing together the myriad separate peace processes under this banner could be an excellent starting point, and one that the international community could help catalyze. A single overarching peace umbrella under which the same terms form the basis for each individual peace process between different ethnopolitical groups (there are 24 at the moment!) could help both build longer term stability and create a context in which people could coexist as real people and not abstract words.

Yet even in the context of concerted government, opposition and international action to bring about change, escaping its ethnopolitical past will be a difficult task for Myanmar. Ultimately government policy will need to place new emphasis on providing universal access to the benefits of the state. A focus on universal citizenship benefits such as social insurance provisions – perhaps learning from models elsewhere in Southeast Asia – and equality before the law may be good places to begin.