One Championship

‘The issue of ethnicity in Myanmar politics is now not being resolved but rather encouraged’

Professor Robert H. Taylor, Associate Senior Fellow, ISEAS, Singapore


Veteran specialist of Myanmar politics Professor Robert H. Taylor has made a timely and dispassionate contribution to the discourse over race and religion stimulated by events since the change of government in 2011. In Refighting old battles, compounding misconceptions: The politics of ethnicity in Myanmar today, a monograph published last month by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, where he is an Associate Senior Fellow, Prof Taylor writes that a failure to depoliticise ethnicity and race could be “disastrous for the development of the constitutional order”. Prof Taylor, who became interested in Burma in the 1960s as an undergraduate at Ohio University, where one of his lecturers was Professor John Cady, has a PhD from Cornell University and his career has included positions at Sydney University, the School of Oriental and African Studies and as Professor of Politics at the University of London. Mizzima Weekly’s Geoffrey Goddard interviewed Prof Taylor by email.

Why was it important for you to write this monograph now?

There are a variety of reasons. I have written on ethnicity and Myanmar politics in scholarly publications but few read these. The question of ethnicity in Myanmar politics has obviously been revitalised with the return to open politics and a free press since 2010. Much of the discussion is highly emotional, not grounded in history, and conceptually misleading. I thought perhaps I could encourage people to think about the implications of the revitalisation of the ethnicity question now in a more reserved and considered atmosphere. Also, I thought it was important that people consider what they really mean when they demand their rights and the basis in theory and law of rights in reality as opposed to in too often emotive political discourse.

What are some for the reasons the politics of ethnicity being so entrenched in Myanmar?

I think I suggest these reasons briefly in the monograph. From the times of the kings, when communities were isolated and kings ruled through clients, various ethno-linguistic groups developed, from mere villages to larger groups. During the colonial period, these came to be reified, made to feel more consistent and important than in the past, and in that age of racism and racist thinking, attached to political and social values. Myanmar is an extreme example of this phenomenon and whereas most Southeast Asian societies ended the discourse of ethnicity at or soon after independence, Myanmar has continued with it. As ethnicity had become imbedded into political institutions, it became an enduring feature of politics.

In addition, ethnicity entered Myanmar political discourse for another reason. Because Myanmar was treated for more than a hundred years as an appendage to India, immigration and foreign economic domination came also to be added to the extensive discourse on race and ethnicity.

Whereas there are no Mon or Kayin political parties in Thailand, though Mon and Kayin live in Thailand, they persist in Myanmar. While Indonesia is more ethnically diverse that Myanmar, there are no ethnically-grounded separatist movements which do not have a pre-independence territorial basis politically or militarily demanding what they deem to be their “rights”.

Ethnicity since independence has mixed into a political cocktail from which demagogues drink and politicians, rather than providing the public guidance and leadership, do little to drain off except by appeasement. The period of BSPP rule attempted to emphasize the equality of all citizens but that was attempted in a compromising manner. The issue of ethnicity in Myanmar politics is now not being resolved but rather encouraged, thus detracting public attention from other concrete issues such as the economy or administrative and legal reform.

Do you see the politics of ethnicity as being one of the biggest challenges to the transition process?

Yes, I do. The politics of ethnicity, along with so-called student politics, was one of the many causes of the failure of the attempt at open constitutional government in the 1950s and early 1960s. I would think it must be disappointing for many older Myanmar to see that politics today looks like the politics of their youth.

What is needed to resolve this challenge?

Clear thinking, time and rational discourse. More precision in the use of language is essential and people need to understand how ethnicity has become reified in Myanmar. There is little appreciation of the way in which concepts of ethnicity have changed because there is little understanding of what ethnicity it. Ethnicity is a social construct, it is made by men and women through a process of socialisation, learning, and interaction with others. There is, of course, only one race, the human race, but the human mind creates distinctions which some believe to be real, when they are but fictions.

We can think of reification rather as the Buddha taught about the cart by the side of the road. He said, “Take the analogy of a cart. A cart may be broken down into its basic components – axle, wheels, shafts, sides, etc. Then the cart is no more; all we have is a pile of components. In the same way ‘I’ am made up of various elements or aggregates: form, perception, conception, volition and consciousness. Upon death these elements do not vanish from the face of the universe, they form new combinations elsewhere.”

Last December, President U Thein Sein recommended that holders of temporary citizenship documents called white cards be eligible to vote in a referendum due later this year. On February 11, he decreed that white cards become invalid from March 31, effectively disenfranchising more than a million people, most of them Muslims. Is this an example of the politics of ethnicity at work in Myanmar?

I supposed so, and also an example of how ethnicity and religion are often brought together in the discourse on ethnicity. The President faced a vocal outcry which was generated by the socalled ‘Rohingya’ issue. That issue flows from historic fears. I find it sad that the President felt forced to take the action he did rather than, in alliance with other political leaders, use his and their power and influence to educate and lead a rational discussion of problems stemming from religious diversity in the modern world. An effective politician thinks not only about the next election but also about the next generation. General Aung San did that when he insisted that politics be kept separate from religion.

What motivated General Ne Win to introduce the 1982 Citizenship Act?

We only know what he said at the time the act was introduced. Below is what I have written on the subject in my forthcoming biography of General Ne Win:

Ne Win felt moved to speak again at length in 1982, addressing the Seventh Meeting of the BSPP Central Committee on 8 October at the President’s House on Ahlone Road. His topic was the Citizenship Law which was being passed at that time. He again began with a review of history, though he insisted he did “not wish to hurt anyone” and he would “try not to do so.” “However”, he said, “the truth might perhaps hurt somebody sometimes.” Of course, what he was referring to was the unfettered immigration of foreigners, mainly South Asians, and to a lesser extent, Chinese, into Myanmar during the colonial period. This had given rise to a mixed population of indigenous persons, guests, mixed race persons, and the off spring of immigrants. After explaining the content of the two nationality acts passed at the time of independence to give “guests”, i. e., immigrants, and their offspring, Myanmar citizenship, he noted two problems with the legislation. One was that the Minister for Immigration had sole discretion on the granting of citizenship and the other was that there were many persons who had not taken action under the existing legislation to regularise their status. Also, there were now a third group, those who had arrived in Myanmar subsequent to independence. Something had to be done to regularise the status of those persons who had arrived, or were descended from persons who had arrived, between 1824 and 1948 in order to distinguish them from post-1948 entrants who came under different auspices, often illegally.

As for those to whom the 1948 laws applied, he said:

If we could do something definite to define their rights, they will be happy. We on our part must be magnanimous. In reality too we cannot be but magnanimous. . . . We are, in reality, not in a position to drive away those people who had come at different times for different reasons from different lands [before 1948]. We must have sympathy on those who had been here for such a long time and give them peace of mind. We have therefore designated them eh-naingngan-tha (associate citizens) in this law.

Associate citizens would not be allowed to be involved:

in matters involving the affairs of the country and the destiny of the State. This is not because we hate them. If we were to allow them to get into positions where they can decide the destiny of the State and if they were to betray us we would be in trouble.

He then explained, by way of example, the problem posed for the government by associate citizens who had siblings abroad. Through their networks of overseas relatives, they often became involved in smuggling to the detriment of the state. This could not be allowed. Those who had arrived and applied for citizenship under the 1948 legislation would be made eh-naingngan-tha. These persons will gradually disappear as they become assimilated into the Myanmar society with the passage of the generations.

This is the first time we are taking action to enable those who have been in our country since before independence to escape from a life of uncertainty about their nationality. If necessary qualifications are met, they can live in our county; if they live correctly and properly, their grandchildren will become full citizens. . . . I would also like to tell our true citizens, the Burmese, that they should not treat such persons arrogantly, saying that they came from abroad or they are guests, but should realise that one day they will become one of us and all will be travelling in the same boat.

What Ne Win was addressing was a problem left over from colonialism, the plural society that J. S. Furnivall described in 1948 and in which Ne Win and his generation had grown up. In political terms, that society could “be distinguished by three characteristic features: the society as a whole comprise[d] separate racial sections; each section [was] an aggregate of individuals rather than a corporate or organic whole; and as individuals their social life [was] incomplete.” [J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 306.] What Furnivall was highlighting was that the legacy of free immigration had created a polity without “the unitary society that western people take for granted.” Such a unitary society creates a national will, and makes shared sacrifice possible in times of crisis and shared wealth in times of plenty. This was the basis of a modern integrated society, a prerequisite for a democracy, which Myanmar lacked. Overcoming that condition was essential for national unity, and through the racially loaded language of the colonial period in which people discussed the question of national integration, Ne Win was proposing an end to the residues of the plural society as well as ensuring that post-1948 immigration was regulated.

You write that the Act gratuitously raised the issue of the so-called national races. Why was it gratuitous?

It was gratuitous in the sense that the words added no legal value and it was a demonstration of the confusion that too often appears in discussions of citizenship, rights and ethnicity or race. Race or ethnicity are social constructs and can be the basis of the existence of social groups; citizenship is what bestows legal rights on an individual regardless of ethnicity.

Citizenship can be bestowed in three ways: by birth in a given territory or jurisdiction; by acquisition, so-called naturalisation; and by descent from your parents and grandparents. The Myanmar citizenship legislation grants citizenship by descent whatever social group you were told you were born into if your parents and grandparents were born in Myanmar. Ethnicity is irrelevant to citizenship. Otherwise naturalisation, acquired citizenship, would not be possible. Citizenship adheres to individuals, not groups.

Is part of the problem the list of 135 national races that was apparently inherited from the British?

Not really. The list that Senior General Saw Maung referred to in 1989 is merely an artefact of the confusion that surrounds discussions of ethnicity in Myanmar. The fact that few people ever ask where the list came from and why it was created demonstrates the lack of awareness of what people are talking about when they discuss ethnicity.

The UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, Ms Yanghee Lee, acknowledged in a statement on March 16 about the people who call themselves Rohingya that the focus on terminology has paralysed progress in Rakhine State. What’s the solution?

The solution depends upon what is the problem. Progress is a catch all term with no form as expressed in her sentence. If what she means is the use of the term Rohingya a help or a hindrance to clear thinking, perhaps she has a point. It is a hindrance. The term was never used when I started studying Myanmar in the 1960s or when I lived in Yangon in the 1970s and 1980s, even at the time when citizenship checks in northern Rakhine led to several hundreds of thousands people fleeing to Bangladesh. It became popular abroad probably before it did in Myanmar. When I visited Buthidaung and Maungdaw about ten years ago, no one mentioned it. It, like all ethnic categories, is created by man and probably of more recent origin than many who now claim it wish to concede. However, what people want to call themselves is up to them. Just because you belong to a group does not mean you have rights as a member of the group, you have rights as a citizen if you are a citizen. That is an individual legal determination.

Ms Lee also said that meaningful ways need to be collectively found to improve the human rights of all in Rakhine State. Is that possible?

I am not clear what she means by ‘collectively found’. If she means that every one person who claims he or she is a Rohingya should be given Myanmar citizenship, that is both impossible politically and wrong in law. That everyone who lives in Rakhine State and does not have citizenship have a right, as an individual, to be examined in order to determine whether they have a right to citizenship under Myanmar law, then she has a point.

You write that claims to group rights are ideological claims and that an ethnic group is a social construct. Do the people who call themselves Rohingya have the right to self-identity?

They can call themselves whatever they like. Anyone can. It makes no difference, however, to their status as either a citizen or an illegal immigrant. That is a legal question, not an ethnic question.

In July last year the Pyithu hluttaw approved a draft bill for an ethnic affairs ministry aimed at protecting the rights of indigenous minorities but not those of the old, established Sino-Burmese and Indo-Burmese communities. Is the politics of ethnicity also about the politics of exclusion?

It is about the politics of grandstanding and attempting to appease demagoguery. Each of Myanmar’s constitutions since 1947 has made further and further concessions to claims about ethnicity. The issue just grows and grows, and as it is a delusion, obscures concrete issues upon which reasonable men and woman can debate and compromise. One cannot compromise on an individual’s idea of who he or she is; the politics of identity is the politics of strife. Better to leave it alone and stick to the law as it adheres to individuals and their rights as derived from our common humanity.

(Refighting old battles, compounding misconceptions: The politics of ethnicity in Myanmar today, was published electronically as part of the ISEAS “Perspective” series, on March 2. Access it at: www.iseas.edu.org. Professor Taylor’s much-anticipated, General Ne Win: A political biography, is due to be published this year).

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