Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

Some thoughts on the construct of race

The Burmese government has been very successful at propagating the myth of the 135 ethnic groups in Burma, or the myth of the 8 “national races.” Anybody who delved into the actual list would realize how arbitrary this “counting” is.

Yet this myth continues to be propagated by international media and the Burmese alike. It’s pure ignorance.

The Economist’s article “The idea of Myanmar”:

Ever since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, the country, which has more than 100 recognised minorities, has faced secessionist rebellions on its periphery from a score of mostly ethnically based insurgencies. These people are much more than a few recalcitrant hill-tribes. Huge tracts of the country, holding perhaps one-third of its population, are “minority” areas. Many have a long history of bitter war with the army and some are heavily involved in producing narcotics.

A lot of Burmese folks have argued that DNA tests to prove that the Rohingyas aren’t native to Burma. But this is in spite of the fact that “race” is a purely social construct, not one based on genetics or science. Genetics can offer only a possibility of ancestry. I remember swabbing myself for a genetics course in college and found that my ancestry was “Indian” for 9 out of 10 markers.

History has shown time and time again that an ethnic identity can be constructed by an tiny elite. In pre-colonial Burma, ethnic consciousness wasn’t a prevalent idea. Localism prevailed. For instance, “I’m a native of Bago” had a more powerful meaning than “I owe allegiance to the Konbaung dynasty” or “I am Mon.”

As late as the 1800s, lower Burma, especially the delta region, was not populated by Burmans. It was when lower Burma was subsumed as a part of British India that large-scale migration southward occurred, with Burmans leaving central Burma by the droves because of the Burmese monarchy’s sheer incompetence (high taxation, forced enlistment, etc.). This merging of the migrant Burman population and the indigenous Mon and Karen populations inevitably led to assimilation of the latter groups. It’s also one of the major reasons the Mon language has all but vanished from its former heartland.

Also, the formation of the “national races” as we know it today is a fairly recent invention. Take the case of the Karens (Kayins), who, until the 1800s, were a disparate group of tribes speaking a mutually unintelligible languages (they still do). However, British colonialism and policy nursed into being a Karen-speaking elite (still deeply divided at the local level, because of linguistic and cultural differences) who gained an ethnic consciousness that prevails to this day. By using their newfound pan-ethnic identity, they were able to consolidate political power. In this sense, the construct of “Karen” is just as artificial as that of the “Rohingya.”

This silly piece of propaganda, entitled “National races never ever think of hatred” by Weekly Eleven is just one example of how this myth continues to thrive.

National races who remain faithful to the land for thousands of year could not demand the loss of their rights over 50 years. However, illegal migrants are bursting out and some foreign sources are beseeching on behalf of them for their unreasonable rights by exaggerating the recent issue. Well! I have no idea what to say more.

While I do believe this article (“Burma’s Misled Righteous“) is a bit sensationalist, it does reiterate my own views:

The government will see the flood of nationalist sentiment as a gift. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that officials may have had a role in whipping it up, as they did prior to the anti-Chinese riots of 1967 and the bouts of communal unrest involving Rohingya in 1978 and 1992. According to a Human Rights Watch report, security forces are actively persecuting ethnic Rohingya during this most recent bout of violence. The current riots serve to distract from ongoing ethnic conflicts in the north, public anger at rising electricity prices, and industrial workers’ strikes in Rangoon, all of which have threatened the government’s standing in recent months.

Today, both Burmese and non-Burmese no longer understand the nuances that shaped the “ethnic” identities of the Karens, Kachins, and a variety of other ethnic groups. Many Burmese see these 8 “national races” as having existed since time immemorial, which is far from the truth. It’s shameful.

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2 comments on “Some thoughts on the construct of race

  1. Wagaung
    10 July 2012

    Francis Wade appears to be waging a crusade, or rather a jihad, if you look at this article in Pakistan’s The Nation, and another in Al Jazeera. The one in Foreign Policy quoted above was originally titled “High Minded Bigots”.

    But I agree like you with the highlighted comment, of which Bertil Lintner wrote a good analysis in The Week.

    It’s common knowledge that a nation state and the races that comprise one is a human construct. From time immemorial is a figure of speech not to be taken literally I don’t think. And they have certainly been around for a lot longer than the Chittagonians in the Arakan even if they were scattered in disparate groups.

    You will however find that Burmese will by and large say,” I am Burmese and Buddhist”, before they say,” I’m from Monywa (or Pathein)”. Admittedly a DNA test is pretty moot; they say 16 million men today were found to possess the genes of Genghis Khan (circa 1162-1227).

    The current scenario is similar to Southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, also Sri Lanka albeit not a Muslim entity, This is one territorial issue the Burmese across the board will unite against – an autonomous Muslim state.

  2. Adrian Htet
    1 January 2014

    Interesting read. Extreme nationalism and self-righteous belief in Buddhism is quite a problem here.

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This entry was posted on 8 July 2012 by in Burma, Culture.

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