Some macrohistorical context about Myanmar

For whatever reason The New York Times has been putting out many articles on Myanmar recently. For example, Buddhist-Muslim Tensions Spread as 8 Detainees Die in Indonesia. Second, Ethnic Rifts Strain Myanmar as It Moves Toward Democracy. I’m a subscriber to The New York Times, so I think the paper of record is worthwhile. But quite often its international pieces lack historical and cultural context, and don’t impart the heart of the matter to readers. (see: The New York Times flubs basic facts about Islam) First, the simple part. The “religious conflict” in Myanmar is really just an ethnic-racial conflict. Demographic statistics from Myanmar are pretty woolly, so one can’t say anything with any great confidence, but it seems likely that the majority of Muslims in that nation are ethnic Rohingya. These Rohingya derive from agriculturalists who emigrated at some point in the last few centuries from eastern Bengal, and, that is the region which has always been predominantly Muslim. There are two giveaways as to their origin. First, their language (from Wikipedia):

The Rohingya language is the modern written language of the Rohingya people of Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar). It comes from the Indo-Aryan sub-branch of the greater Indo-European language family and is closely related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma. It is not the same language as or even similar to Bengali as is often proposed in the Burmese national narrative. Rohingya scholars have successfully written the Rohingya language in various scripts including Arabic, Hanifi, Urdu, Roman, and Burmese, where Hanifi is a newly developed alphabet derived from Arabic with the addition of four characters from Latin and Burmese.

Whoever wrote this entry is probably of Rohingya origin, and they hold to the position that the Rohingya are indigenous and not migrants. The reason for this position is that the Burmese national movement does not grant that the Rohingya are one of the indigenous people of Mymamar, a recognition given to minorities like the Shan, Karen, Mon, Kachin, etc., who have their own states. But the fact is that the language which the Rohingya speak is very closely related to standard Bengali. I can understand a fair amount of Chittagongian (I’ve been to Chittagong) because I can understand standard Bengali. By the rule of transitivity then Rohingya is very close to standard Bengali (also, my family knew a man once who was born in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, and it was trivial for him to pick up standard Bengali as a second language).

To be fair, I think part of the issue here is that the Rohingya left Bengal before and during the period when Bengali, and specifically Bengali Muslim, national identity was coalescing. Part of this is identity is the Bengali alphabet and standard Bengali language, which unites the Hindu and Muslim intelligensia of both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Until the 20th century the Muslim elite of Bengal traditionally aspired to speak Urdu, with Bengali nationalism being relegated to the Hindu middle and upper classes. Bengali Muslim national identity, which balances an Islamic religious orientation with an ethnic-national solidarity with Bengali Hindus is to some extent a function of the language movement of the 1950s, which arose due to West Pakistani domination. It seems likely that the Rohingya simply did not partake of this crystallization of a new identity over the past century or so, and remain Burmese Muslims in their own self-conception, rather than part of the Bengali Diaspora (the fact that they do not use an Indic alphabet also suggests their peculiar historical background, as this is more common for Northwest Indian Muslims and Urdu speakers).

But the clear evidence that the Rohingya are related to Bengalis is that they look Bengali. Google images for Rohingya. And Bengali people. You can’t tell the difference. This racial distinction is important, because the Burmese have a prejudice against dark skinned South Asians, and the Rohingya are easy to mark out as different because of their phenotype. It is important to note now that Rohingya are not the only Muslims in Burma. There are ethnic Burmans who are Muslim. The kingdoms of Burma were at times influenced by Islamicate civilization. The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves Sultans, and employed the forms of the Turco-Persian Mughal court. Islamic cultural influence resulted in Muslim communities all over Burma descended from diverse groups of merchants, soldiers, and bureaucrats. Unlikely the Rohingya these are not racially distinct, as they intermarried with the native populations. I have read that Aung San Suu Kyi is in part descended from assimilated Muslims.*

Let me end with a quote from The New York Times:

In 2009, a Burmese diplomat who was then consul general in Hong Kong sent a letter to local newspapers and other diplomatic missions calling the Rohingya “ugly as ogres.” The diplomat, U Ye Myint Aung, compared the “dark brown” complexion of Rohingyas with the “fair and soft” skin of the majority of people in Myanmar.

Next, what’s this about minorities in general in Myanmar? Why so many? Why the tension? I want to highlight one portion of the second piece I linked to above:

Like other minority groups in Myanmar, the Kachin have relatively little in common with the Burman. Their languages are not mutually comprehensible. The Kachin are mostly Christian, while the Burmese are overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Kachin inhabit hills and the Burman the lowlands. They celebrate different holidays. The Kachin were only loosely governed by the British during colonial days, while the Burman areas were integrated into the British empire.

Manam Hpang, author of an English-Kachin-Burmese dictionary, said the Kachin had an acute sense of persecution as Christians in a Buddhist land. During military rule, the government built Buddhist pagodas across the state and tried to censor a Burmese version of the Bible, including a ban on the Burmese word for “Proverbs,” because it was the same word used in Buddhist texts.

“We have different background, different culture — we’re incompatible,” Mr. Manam said. “We have no connection with these people,” he said of the Burman.

“The Kachin have realized that we must have independence. Without it, we will be swallowed up,” he said.

Let’s stipulate here that all the ethnic minorities in Myanmar are not equivalent. The Rohingya stand at the furthest remove from the Burmans, the core ethnicity which sets the tone for the national identity. They are racially and linguistically South Asian, not Southeast Asian. They are also religiously distinct from the Theravada Buddhist system of beliefs which has been the bedrock of civilization in Myanmar for the past ~1,000 years (depending on how you define Myanmar). I say civilization here for a specific reason: the Theravada Buddhist system which is inextricably interleaved with the ethnic identity of the Burmans, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan ethnicities did not encompass some of the “hill tribes” who remained outside of the pale. In this model the Mon, an Austro-Asiatic people, were the Greeks to the Romans of the Burmans. The Shan are relatively newcomers from the hills of southern China. Their cousins the Thai overwhelmed the Khmer society of the Chao Phraya basin, and produced a linguistic and ethnic shift (though the Thai abandoned Mahayana Buddhism for the Theravada Buddhism of the Khmer whom they absorbed). In contrast the Shan were unable to break the Burman kingdoms, and were absorbed into the Theravada Buddhist order, albeit with their ethnic identity intact.

But toward the northwest of Myanmar the situation was very different, and civilization as such had little impact. Though one might notionally draw lines of influence which circumscribed the territories inhabited by the Kachin, the reality was that lowland Burman civilization had little influence upon these hill people. The situation was very similar in other areas of Southeast Asia. The Hmong and Montagnards in Laos and Vietnam were not part of the lowland system. In Indonesia many of the eastern islands were only lightly (if at all) touched by Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic, influences. In the “normal course of affairs” it seems likely that over time these peoples and regions would have been assimilated into the system of the lowlands. This occurred in fact several times. In India the Tripuri people, who are Tibeto-Burman, are orthodox Hindus by and large. Though they are ethnically alienated from other South Asians, they have integrated themselves more or less into the mainstream of South Asian culture. Their neighbors, the Mizos, also speak a Tibeto-Burman language. But as they are Christian they are much more alienated from any Indian identity besides that which an arbitrary line drawn on a map might give them.

In India these racially distinct and culturally alienated tribal peoples in the Northeast do not intrude on the central narrative of national identity, because the are numerically trivial. This is far less the case in Myanmar, or Laos, to give two examples. What occurred with the arrival of European colonial powers over the past few centuries is that European Christianity offered up an alternative civilizational affiliation for the hill tribes of Southeast Asia. One that gained them powerful allies against the lowlanders, and, which allowed them to maintain their own ethnic-national identity. The analogy here might be to black American Muslims, who originally converted to this religion in the 20th century for racial-national, rather than religious, reasons. Conversion to Islam broke even the nominal fellow feeling that should have been engendered by a mutual Christian identity across white and black communities.

This is where knowing some history is helpful. Though nationality and the nation-state have an ancient pedigree (e.g., the Greek resistance to the armies of Darius and Xerxes), the modern template seems to derive from the history of Europe between Westphalia and Vienna, with a last supercharged infusion of institutional heft given by the French Revolution and the responses which it triggered in other states. The problem for Southeast Asia is that in terms of ethno-religious complexity it far more resembled the Europe of 650 than 1650 when the Westphalian system was gifted to the new nation-states upon independence (or in the case of Thailand/Siam, it had to adopt European standards and norms to maintain its independence). In the year 650 Western European Christendom was the dominant narrative. In fact it was arguably the only civilizational narrative on offer, with the expiration of the last relics of late antique paganism in the 6th century (and truly, the classical pagan alternative died between 363 and 400). The national cores of what became Spain, England, and France were already espousing Western Christianity. And yet vast areas of Europe remained outside of Christian civilization, and were “heathen.”

The last extensive pagan regions of Europe, along the southeast shore of the Baltic, remained so into the 14th century, illustrating just how long the process of religious acculturation could take. A dynamic with relevance to the Southeast Asian case is that Christianization was often associated with an ethnic shift. Across much of Eastern Europe Christianity was initially termed the “German religion,” and it seems that it resulted in an ethnic assimilation of many west Slavs to German identity. Later on when the Lithuanian nobility converted to Roman Catholicism they were operationally absorbed into the Polish nation, resulting in a situation where Lithuanian nationality quickly became a folk identity.

But what if there was an alternative? Here the obvious alternative is Islam. But geography being what it is, the only real option for many tribal populations on the fringes of European civilization was Christianity, of the Western or Eastern variety (it is often neglected that for a few centuries there was a scramble up and down the center line of Europe between the Western and Eastern varieties of Chalcedonian Christianity; the fact that the Croats became Western while the Serbs were converted to the Eastern tradition is well known, but there are suggestions that Eastern Christians were active in Scandinavia around ~1000, to the displeasure of Western churchmen such as Adam of Bremen). The importance of geography is illustrated by the marginal instance where geography was not a barrier. Where religion other than Christianity was an option among pagan peoples because they were not encircled by Christendom it was sometimes taken. Khazaria was famously multi-religious, with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and pagan elements, though the elite may have been Jewish. The standard legend is that the choice of Jewish identification was a way of balancing between the Greek Orthodox Christian civilization to the West and the Islamic Empires to the south and east. Further north the Volga Bulgar state adopted Islam. In contrast the Bulgars who emigrated to what is today modern Bulgaria converted to Orthodox Christianity. While the Muslim Volga Bulgars became the ancestors of the Chuvash, the Christian Bulgars were Slavicized. This highlights the fact that across much of the Slavic world conversion by Turkic peoples to Christianity (e.g., the Pechenegs) resulted in their absorption into a Slavic ethnic identity. In contrast, when there was a religious difference ethnic differences were maintained.

The relevance of this to Southeast Asia, and states like Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia, is that the post-colonial Westphalian nation-state ideology has been grafted upon societies which do not have the same historical experiences which gave rise to the Westphalian system. Both England and France marginalized their religious minorities (Catholic and Protestant) before coming into the fullness of their national identity in the 18th century. It is no coincidence I think that the one part of the United Kingdom which separated to form its own polity were the provinces of Catholic Ireland.

We live in a globalizing world where international forces of capital and a trans-national cosmopolitan Herrenvolk are attempting to enforce the same cultural currency across all domains so that transaction may be more fluid across boundaries. The problem with this is that different nations have different histories, and it is not just a single variable problem, such as economic development. No matter how wealthy or poor Bangladesh or Myanmar are in the near future, Bangaldesh is 90% Bengali Muslim, while Myanmar is 50-75% Burman Buddhist. Additionally, Bangladesh is 98% Bengali. The national project in a nation with the same sense of self, the same elite narrative, is necessarily easier to unfold than in a situation where you have radically divergent and unassimilated histories. Despite their strident differences from the English the Welsh now have nearly 1,000 years of rule by sovereigns from Anglo-Saxon England. Rulers of Welsh ethnic origin (the Tudors) have ruled over England. Wales and England are united by a common Reformation experience as Protestant nations. None of this binds the Kachin and the Burman together (though such historical affinities do exist between the Burman and the Mon, as a contrast).

And that is what I think the superficially informative articles which The New York Times is commissioning on Myanmar are mising.

* Though most of Myanmar’s Indians, who dominated the large cities at independence, were expelled, informal surveys seem to suggest that most of those of Hindu background have re-identified as Buddhists. This is likely possible because of the fact that Buddhists and Hindus share common cultural currency, with Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar being particular Indic in its flavor. This suggests that the Rohingya difficulties are driven by the combination of racial and religious distinction. An analogy that presents itself is the situation of the Chinese in Thailand as opposed to Indonesia.  Though there have been tensions with the indigenous communities in both nations, Thai Chinese have assimilated and intermarried to a far greater extent, possibly because the cultural distance between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is far less than that with Islam. In fact in Indonesia the Chinese have tended to convert to Christianity, rather than become Muslim.

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