Moving Beyond the Racial Lens

As has been widely reported, western Burma is suffering from continuing communal violence. This has been primarily talked about in racial and/or religious terms: Arakan versus Rohingya. Buddhists versus Muslims. Indigenous people versus illegal migrants. At best, this ethno-religious lens simplifies the conflict. At worst it enflames it.

Uncritically viewing the conflict, and Burma more broadly, through a racial lens can prolong current and future instances of violence. Some of the taken for granted assumptions central to discussions about the conflict need to be unpacked.

Ongoing civil war, often justified by ethno-nationalism, has been a key feature of post-colonial Burma. Before that, race was almost obsessively used by the British to categorize and govern the population. Burma’s official “national races”—including many of the racial category terms and ethno-nationalist histories—have their roots in the colonial period.

In Burma, the British spent a lot of time and effort researching and defining race, using now discredited quasi-scientific practices such as measurements of facial features. Racial profiles of Burma were extensively written up in colonial census reports and other documents.

The effects of this large body of colonial knowledge on race and demography endures. Karen, my own official race, is an example of this. Karen is an English term, an equivalent of the Burmese term Kayin. There is no equivalent word for Karen Race indigenous to any Karen language. The idea of race, defined as something biological (blood, skull size, levels of intelligence), is scientifically invalid. Rather, the idea of race is socially constructed. Knowing that, how should we talk about Karen? As a language group? As a group that shares a common tradition of textiles?

I think there needs to be public debate about the meaning of race and some redefining of old racial categories. This necessarily involves a reexamination of colonial legacy, which can be deep and personal.

Along with race, Burma’s modern borders are a recent colonial legacy. The geographical map of Burma is new and pre-colonial kingdoms did not keep subjects from moving, particularly in peripheral areas, like the towns and villages that have seen the worst of the conflict. It is therefore unsurprising that more recent lines on maps have not been able to stop people’s mobility.

Karen are also subjected to unnatural borders, being spread throughout the eastern periphery of Burma and northwestern Thailand. These are hill areas with only a recent history of being subject to central governments.

The murders, destruction of villages and hate speech going on now therefore needs to be seen in the context of more than a century of colonial and post-colonial Burmese history, in which problematic ideas of race and nation have been dominant.

Burma is in a process of democratization. Diversity is a key feature that needs to be maintained. That involves human rights for all, including the right to identity, be it religious, ethnic, gender or sexual. The recognition of one identity must not be equated with the denial of another.

Western Burma is one of the poorest regions of the country. The significant investment that exists is primarily in resources, which hardly benefits local people. Poverty and state repression leads to intense frustration that does not have an easy outlet and can be seen as a common root cause of communal violence around the world.

Class and the experience of state repression also form a key commonality amongst those involved in the violence, both perpetrators and victims. In everyday life, people involved in the violence arguably have a lot more in common with each other than rich, urban-based members of their respective ethnic groups and/or religions that they may identify with. This is often drowned out by nationalist talk, fear and hatred. We should be looking at these and other commonalities rather than emphasizing difference and division.

So what are we afraid of? In talking about this conflict, Islamophobia is a feature. This is linked to post-911 global terrorism discourse that has been imported into Burma. For example, one friend recently argued that the Rohingya should not yet be recognized because of fear that western Burma could become like southern Thailand. Then there is the argument that Rohingya are not a national race. There is also a popular fear of losing sovereignty, of the need to protect Burma’s colonial borders from those marked as other.

If we dig below the surface, we can see that western Burma’s communal violence is rooted in wider and very complex historical, social, political, class and cultural processes. Perhaps we should start redefining outdated categories, such as race, and look through alternative lenses that can help lead to more productive analysis.

Violet Cho is a former Irrawaddy staff reporter currently based in Australia. The views expressed here are her own.


14 Responses to Moving Beyond the Racial Lens

  1. Very, very good article that acknowledges complexity of ethnicity an religion in Burma.

  2. One and only the best impartial and engaging analysis I have ever seen since the eruption and escalation of violence of astronomical order in Arakan.
    In order to have meaningful “Law & Order” as well as prevention of long running ethnic conflicts and communal violence, I believe preconditions need to be achieved first. The new government should :
    Advocate and create environment such a way people’s inclination to live in peace, whether Bhama, Karen , Rakhine or Muslims.
    “Empathy (to put one’s self in another’s shoes)” towards minorities is critically lacking. Rohingya or Bengali or Illegal or Guest too deserve empathy as they are already within the territorial boundary.
    The previous governments attempted unity by force but failed to build “trust”. The new government should attempt TRUST before unity.
    The successive governments have been good to make law and strict enforcement. The new government needs to motivate and educate people from different background to understand and respect law and social justice.

  3. A race is race and whether the British classified them or not it is a known fact and nothing is wrong. The conflict in many cases is not racial in particular but the failure of different community leaders to deal with the cases justly in a timely manner. Another problem is sometime different communities have different values that it is difficult to reach a consensus. The beauty of a country is enhanced when there are many races living in peace. No race should swallow up another race. Then there is peace.

  4. An excellent piece, thanks Violet Cho for your contribution.

  5. Really excellent peice of article. Thanks lot. All we can read about Arkan current affairs is bias and full of hatred. Recently govement arrested some Rohingyas for possesing weapons, daggers and empty bottles.The type of the daggers and weapons are not familiar or not used by any Rohingya. These weapons are only used by Rakhine. This is quite interesting news and wonder how these weapon reached in Rhingya’s hand.COOKED!

  6. Thank you Violet!

  7. Rakhine Buddhist wants SArkan as Independent State, but Muslims want to stay with Burmese Government, this is reality. So those who claim Arakanese ( Rakhine ) are not really Rakhine, they come from Awa-kyun, belong to Bangladesh. These kind of self made Rakhine peoples they nver visit native Rakhine monastry and they never ever participate with other real Rakhine Buddhist festival, where as some parts of Rakhin e Muslims are participating Buddhist festival as socially for peaceful co-existance. Religion is for self individual properity no body can take another person to heaven, what Buddah said what you do you will get it. Let us wrok for PEACE in ARAKAN.

  8. it could not be more true. Nice article with excellent insight! Thank you Violet Cho.

  9. Violet Cho, you are right. However, we still need to distinguish the distinctions of mankind, nationality, citizenships and human rigths. By saying very simply as a layman, we all are mankind and entitled to live with human dignity. Mankind coexist together and establish groups with the same culture, tradition,language, etc … become national group in different areas or regions of the world. The emergence of city state to country, different kind of national groups need to be recognised as nationality of certain areas that confers them” entitlement of citizenship.” Citizenship confers the national groups to establish various kind of developments in the country. However, national goups are organised with human being and they must respect ” human rights.” There will be different levels and degrees of recognition to human rights according to different kinds of Constitutions and political system. However, every country of the would must recognise ” human rights” even though they can not confer or give ” entitlement of citizenship.” Since Independenc, the Burma Govt has been keeping ignorance on those thing and suppress ” national groups” and try to establish one language, one culture and religion in the present day.
    “Buddha is Nepalese, Jesus Christ is Israel and Mahamad is Arabian. Non of them are from Burma. They are not Kachin, Kayah , Karen Chin , Bamar , Mon , Rakhine and Shan either. For the say of ” internal peace ( after this life)” we believe in one of them for after this life. No ones should be proud of being Buddhism or Christian or Islam because, safety to say, religions can not save if you hate, kill or murder or even you lie to the other. So, who create these conflicts? It is very clear. ” The Burmar Goverment.”

  10. Violet cho wrote that “Western Burma is one of the poorest regions of the country. The significant investment that exists is primarily in resources, which hardly benefits local people. Poverty and state repression leads to intense frustration that does not have an easy outlet and can be seen as a common root cause of communal violence around the world.”
    Chan mon wrote “No ones should be proud of being Buddhism or Christian or Islam because, safety to say, religions can not save if you hate, kill or murder or even you lie to the other. So, who create these conflicts? It is very clear. ” The Burmar Goverment.”
    Cheer Violet cho and Chan mon for this page. Do not count on the eligibility to be citizenship upon Rohyingya issue. When late U nu needed Rohyngya vote , he introduced the recognition. When late paranoid Ne win(former u nu’s follower) hated Rohyingya, Ne win said they were illegal immigrants. When than shwe and thein sein wants natural resources to occupy lands, they need to divide western Burma by any means(racial, border dispute, illegal immigrants) to create lack of peace so than shwe and thein sein could place their more smart bama army and maps with the claim of illegal immigrants. They can cheat Arankanese easily and readily to divert their claim of independence upon Pinglong or whatever agreement. Let the navies to discuss sovereignty, border disputes, nationalism, racial issues, citizenship’s right(different versions of histories from different researches in centuries and centuries). The ancient existent of Muslim temples in Arankan state until now is not enough evidence as well. 88 Generation, Ko Ko Gyi is poisoned by thein sein’s group after talking about ethnic issue(ie Rohygya is not Burmese ethnic). If Buddhism dominated bama has true Buddhism teaching mindset, use this concept to solve out this Rohingya issue. I respect Australia people and their government who granted the citizenship’s right to all illegal immigrants long long ago after counting on their length of stay and lack of criminal activity simply. Australian classified mainly that issue as the humanitarian ground and value of multiculture apart from voting right. Pitifully, nobody will vote USDP voluntarily.

  11. 88 Generation politician, Ko Ko Gyi is in critical state after poisoned by than shwe’s group. Let see how DASSK will react this complicated issue after arrogant military, promoted ye myint Aung claimed that Rohyngya skin is dark to be seen as ogre. His Burmese skin is fair to be good look but all dermatologist say most Burmese skin are in typ 3,4 brown to dark. Why Ye myint aung has European fair skin(type1 or 2) after eating Hong Kongese pork. I am surprised how ye myint aung is promoted from Hong Kong consul general to Switzerland. The racial remark appears on the newspaper/journal is forced to close down in Rangoon recently. If the journal want to appeal, consult ye myint aung. While in Hong kong, Ye myint aung continued to say DASSK has American boyfriend-swimmer Yatthaw. Please, DASSK , be careful to drink the coffee or tonics offered by than shew’s group. Giving the health reason to avoid to attend thein sein’s dinner as well in the meantime.

  12. All citizens that want to belong to a democratic nation must have very similar values in terms of social customs, which include avoiding some practices such as a Muslim officially marrying up to 4 wives, which is unfair to or unequal for the ladies. That also makes a Muslim producing larger numbers of children per family compared to a Buddhist family. Demographic composition is very essential to bring about trust and confidence among different ethnic groups within a democratic nation. If one group of a particular religion has reproductive rates higher than other groups, that former group will have larger number of voters and thus will control the state executive and legislative power through elections promoting its religious and social customs at the expense of other ethnic groups.

    The Buddhists fear that threat can arise decades or centuries later if not now or in near future

    • Come on! Who can prove that Muslims in Myanmar are more productive than non-Muslims there? How many Muslims in Myanmar have more than one wives? Actually, Islam only allows up to 4 wives based on history or context. How about Buddhism? Can’t you marry as many women as possible? Don’t you look around? Study your family trees of three or four generations ago. I can say that most families in Myanmar had at least 5 children three or four generations ago. It is demographic change according to development. When people are agricultural farmers, they are more productive than city dwellers. You will understand it if you compare the productivity of Bamar Buddhists in Yangon today with that of Bamar Buddhists in Irrawaddy. Come on! Open your eyes. Don’t forget that Muslims in Rakhine and Myanmar as a whole are a minority like always. If they were very productive, they would have been a majority. Can’t you see that they are still a minority in Rakhine State? Don’t just look at Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Look at the whole Rakhine State. You will understand the truth.

  13. I personally believe that, it is extremely dangerous to pull out just part of history or scientific studies and to write an article. When you are at the time of Charles Darwin and on the British voyage, what will you do? Does people that time understand what action is moral or immoral?

    Since old history, humanity philosophy, politic, idea of race, national believes have change enormously, but I did not dispute that there are large amount of population still living in centuries old believes. I personally think author should write more clearly. My last comment on this article was scensor, but hopefully this one is not. My intention is not to offen to anyone but to gain knowledge by arguing from my point of view. One wise man once wrote “Why does some one has to have power to stop the legitimate questions and who give them authority to decide which question is appropriate for the the whole humanity”?

    Only when we can asked questions openly than we may be able to find the best answer and gaining knowledge. We should not be fearful of some subjects that are hard to debate. Why not author debate about “Nation” and core believe of “Burmese Natinalism”? If we can find core believe of “Burmese Nationalism” hich include everyone within Burma, we may have better tomorrow. I am not agood writter but I read alotand I study alot, I may be able to share some of my study to support a better future for Burma. Any way I thank to Irrawaddy for many years to deliver legitimate news and opinion pieces.

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