Moving Beyond the Racial Lens

By Violet Cho 13 June 2012

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.