There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.
Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)
If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).
The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.
In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.
The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.
Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.
Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.
Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:
– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).
– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.
The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.
– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.
In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.
Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!
If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.
But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali, because they are not part of the world of Bengali letters.
Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.
In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.
I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.
But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring at the same time the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengal, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.
In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.