June 17, 2017 12:00 pm JST
Thant Myint-U

Myanmar, an unfinished nation

Historical tensions over identity still threaten country's future

Shan chiefs from what was then Burma at the Delhi Durbar 1903 (Courtesy of the author)

Almost exactly 80 years ago, Burma, now Myanmar, was separated from India. It is an anniversary that has passed virtually unnoticed, even though separation was one of the most important turning points in the country's history.

In 1935 the U.K. parliament passed its Government of Burma Act, and in mid-1937 Burma went from being a province of the Indian Empire to something just shy of a dominion, with its own semi-elected government, a parliament, and a governor answerable directly to London. It was meant as a step toward home-rule and a recognition of Burma's distinct identity.

Separation had come after years of heated deliberation. But problems related to issues of identity were only just beginning, and over the remainder of the 20th century would lead to war, isolation and impoverishment. Today, the same issues haunt the peace process between the government and ethnic-based armed organizations, the fate of Muslim communities, and even the country's opening to global business. They remain largely unresolved and are central to Myanmar's future.

Separation from India was a triumph for Burman nationalism. The Burmans (now generally referred to as the Bamar) are the overwhelmingly Buddhist, Burmese-speaking majority of the Irrawaddy valley. Three 19th century conflicts, known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars, had crippled and then destroyed their empire, which at its zenith stretched from near Bhutan to the outskirts of Bangkok. In 1885 the British abolished their thousand-year-old monarchy and annexed the Irrawaddy valley to the new Indian province of "British Burma." The Burman national psyche never really recovered.

Colonial rule brought economic growth and with it the unregulated emigration of millions of people from across the Indian subcontinent. Burma was then a more prosperous land, the "first America" for many Indian families, a place of opportunity and personal reinvention. In the late 1920s Rangoon, now Yangon, rivaled New York as the world's largest immigrant port, receiving 428,300 people in 1927 alone (when the total population was around 10 million). Rangoon became an Indian city.

For the Burmans, modernity meant a society with Europeans at the top and Indians dominating the professions and business and filling out the new urban working class. Feelings soured, also against the much smaller but significant immigrant Chinese community. With the Great Depression, tensions boiled over: the first anti-Indian riots in Rangoon were in 1930, the first anti-Chinese in 1931.

Racial pride

A fresh generation of politicians emerged around this time, aiming to restore racial pride. One of the more radical groups named itself Do Bama or We Burmans, inspired in particular by the Irish nationalism of Sinn Fein. Their song, which is today's national anthem, includes the refrain: "This is our land." In other words, it is not yours. Many viewed foreign corporations as naturally exploitative and were attracted to Europe's far right as well as far left. Some saw Buddhism as endangered, and communal violence by 1938 began to take on an anti-Muslim complexion. Burman nationalism started as what we might today call an anti-globalization and anti-immigration movement.

It was not always like this. Burman kings in the 18th and 19th centuries had claimed descent from the Sakiyan clan of the Gautama Buddha and saw India as a sacred land and center of knowledge. Right up to the fall of Mandalay in 1885, Indian ways were viewed as something to be emulated. That year, a Brahmin from Benares named Govinda was invited to review and, as necessary, correct royal rituals.

This May, Facebook banned the word Kala as a racial slur, a form of hate speech. But not long ago, to be a Kala suggested high status. There was though, even in the pre-colonial era, a rising anxiety about the Kala. To the Burman court, the word Kala was an ethnonym that incorporated all similar looking (in local eyes) peoples from the west: Indians primarily, but also Persians, Arabs, and Europeans, including the Kala of Bilat (or England, from the Urdu Wilayat, the same as "Blighty"). But by the 19th century a notion had entered Burman thinking, that they were the race of the Buddha and that the Christian and Muslim Kala were interlopers in the holy land. In 1855 King Mindon told the visiting official Sir Arthur Phayre: "Our race once reigned in all the countries you hold. Now the Kala have come close up to us."

Colonialism turned respect mixed with anxiety into racial animosity. With separation came curbs on immigration. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, hundreds of thousands of Indians fled, fearing Burman nationalist violence, never to return. Many more left at independence, and again in the 1960s when both Indian and Chinese businesses were nationalized as part of the "Burmese Way to Socialism." By then xenophobia had become official policy.

Divided lands and loyalties

The 1935 Burma Act also reinforced internal divisions. Burma before colonialism was always a place of different peoples and kingdoms, rising and falling, as anywhere else. The map of modern Burma is new. But late colonial rule did nothing to integrate this new country, instead hardening ethnic categories and political partitions.

Through the imperial censuses, conducted every 10 years from 1861 to 1931, the British tried to make sense of the ethnic mix. In India, people were differentiated by caste. And for a while, Burmans, Arakanese, and some others were listed together in caste tables as "Semi-Hindooised Aboriginees." By the early 1900s, however, the British began categorizing peoples in Burma by language, drawing on fashionable ideas in comparative linguistics. This dovetailed to an extent with pre-colonial conceptions that also listed distinct Burman, Shan, Mon and other "races" (lu-myo or "kinds of people").

But it was in the 20th century that ethnicity became seen as something immutable and linked to state policy. Some races were seen as indigenous, others not. Some were recruited into the army while others, like the Burmans, were largely left out.

There was a geographical division as well. The lowlands of Burma were placed under direct colonial administration and then granted increasing self-government. This was the Burma of globalization, immigration, anti-colonial politics and rising Burman nationalism. The biggest "indigenous" minority were the Karen, with their own Christian leadership and their own rising nationalist aspirations; together with Indians and "Anglo-Indians" they were given communal seats in the 1937 parliament.

In the approach to independence, Karen leaders asked London for their own ethnic homeland within the Commonwealth. They had fought loyally with the British during the war, and felt betrayed when this was politely refused

But there was an altogether different Burma, the "Frontier Areas," comprising half the country, ruled indirectly, through their own hereditary chiefs, and excluded entirely from economic modernization and from the political reforms of the 1930s. In 1947 with the British rushing for the exits, the Shan and other chiefs opted, somewhat tentatively, to join the rest in a new republic. Autonomy was promised and in this way, ideas of ethnicity and territory were fused.

The decades since have been a time of failed nation building, a failure to overcome colonial legacies, war linked to ethnicity, and self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

At the heart of the challenge is Burman or Bamar nationalism and its relationship to a potentially inclusive national identity. The Burman nationalist focus has been to unite and protect the country from what it sees as the existential threat posed by outsiders, especially the big neighboring peoples, the Indians and the Chinese. Integrating minorities accepted as "indigenous" is for many Burmans an obvious aim.

For other "indigenous" peoples though, the challenge is Burman nationalism itself, inequality in the post-independence republic, exclusion from economic opportunities, and fear that their own identities will dissolve in a Burman-dominated process of modernization.

Remaking identities

And who is indigenous? Drawing in part on the 1921 imperial census, Myanmar's military overlords in the early 1990s published a list of 135 indigenous "nationalities." Included at the margins were the Kaman (a Muslim people descended from the bodyguard of a 17th century refugee Mughal prince), and the Chinese-speaking Kokang (whose ancestors fled the Manchus in the 1600s). The old ethnonym Myanmar was rebranded to include all those deemed indigenous (taing-yin-tha).

Excluded were the descendants of 19th and 20th century Indian and Chinese immigrants. Also excluded was the Muslim population in Rakhine State - now accounting for about one third of the state's 3.1 million-plus population. Burman (or "Bamar") and Rakhine nationalists view them as the product of colonial-era migrants from Bengal, or more recent illegal immigrants. They themselves have increasingly adopted the name "Rohingya," implying that they, too, are indigenous. It is this implication of indigeneity that is so hotly contested and makes the very word "Rohingya" a centerpiece of fiery debate.

The upsurge in violence since 2012 is to an extent a local ethnic conflict going back to World War II, but the pathology that fuels discrimination is tied to the anti-immigration roots of modern politics. And on all sides are views of ethnicity as never-changing, of "ethnic groups" that must be included or excluded from the emerging nation.

And what of the future? Myanmar is a country changing fast. People are moving around as never before, both abroad and within the country, mixing and inter-marrying. Urbanization is gathering pace and soon most will live in a few of the bigger cities. Myanmar's leaders say they are marching toward democracy, peace and economic integration with the outside world. But the country carries with it the baggage of colonial-era ethnography and post-colonial nativism that can readily feed further ethnic conflict and renewed xenophobia.

In this respect, Myanmar's biggest threat is not the return of dictatorship but an illiberal democracy linked to a negative nationalism. It is time for an honest and critical reexamination of history and a fresh search for a more inclusive, 21st century Myanmar identity.

Thant Myint-U is a historian and an author, most recently of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia (2014).

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

Resubscribe now to continue reading.
BEST OFFER:
Only US$ 9.99 per month for a full-year subscription

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.