Misconceptions: The Politics of Ethnicity in Myanmar Today

Food for thought: depolicitizing ethnicity in Burma

Robert H. Taylor, a prominent Burma studies scholar, has penned an excellent article on the emotive ethnic-based political troubles that Burma is currently mired in. I’ve written before about the man-made construct of ‘race,’ and the transformation of regional affiliations to ethnic-based ones during the colonial period.

The op-ed article is available on Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ website, “Refighting Old Battles, Compounding Misconceptions: The Politics of Ethnicity in Myanmar Today.” He provides important context political machinations we are observing in Burma today.

Misconceptions: The Politics of Ethnicity in Myanmar Today

Taylor recommends depoliticizing the prominence of ethnicity and race in the country’s politics:

“Only by depoliticising ethnicity and race will it be possible to maintain political order and reasoned politics. As human rights are confused with group aspirations in modern discourse, this will be extremely difficult but if an effort to remove race from discussions of public policy is not attempted, the result could be disastrous for the development of the constitutional order.”

He also presents a strong case for designating the Rohingya issue as a rightly international issue, where regional countries, especially Bangladesh, bear responsibility for the displacement of Rohingya populations:

“People who consider themselves Rohingya live on both sides of the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Migrants arriving in Thailand and other countries stating they are Rohingya, as is well known, come from both Bangladesh and Myanmar. The language of the Rohingya ‘is similar to Chittagonian, which is closely related to Bengali.’45 Not only people calling themselves Rohingya seek asylum in foreign lands; many Bangladeshis do, also. The problem of the Rohingya has been treated up to now as essentially a Myanmar problem. It is not. It is an international problem and Bangladesh and other countries should not be allowed to avoid their international human rights obligations by pretending that the ‘Rohingya’ reside only in Myanmar or that Bangladeshi asylum seekers are Rohingya. India and Pakistan accepted responsibility for thousands of their nationals who chose to return to the lands of their and their parents’ and grandparents’ birth when their businesses were nationalised in the 1960s. Why should Bangladesh be allowed to evade its own obligations toward a people divided?

On a return to pre-colonial localist and regionalist allegiances:

“Ideas of race and ethnicity will continue to be a motif in Myanmar politics for as long into the future as we can see. The existence of the ‘big eight’ ethnic groups is implicit in the names of the seven states of the union. However, in time these can become rights which stem from residence in a given territory or jurisdiction, not derived from the social construct of ethnicity. Just as residents of Scotland and Wales vote for their own legislatures not as indigenous and immigrant (Scottish or Welsh and Indian, West Indian, etc.) persons, so in time perhaps people will come to realise that many differently identifying persons live in any state and division of Myanmar. Acknowledging the identical powers of the states and regions by referring to all 14 as either states or regions would also help end a distinction without a difference.”

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