As society liberalizes after 60 years, new strains appear, writes Asia Sentinel’s Sai Latt

The continuing strife in western Burma signifies a dangerous future for an ethnically diverse country that has experienced ethnic conflicts for more than 60 years. It is not simply a campaign against the minority Rohingya as a group. It is a reflection of a tragic political hangover of the nation-state system that operates through an ominous and troubling nationalism.

Burma Arakan conflict

A house is seen engulfed in flames in Sittwe, Burma last month during sectarian violence involving Rohingyas and Arakan Buddhists. Pic: AP.

The Arakan conflict is about nation-state building and state territorialization, which are being articulated by mainstreaming a singular ethno-religious identity – Buddhist Burmese, the basis of official nationalism. The root cause of the historical antagonism between the dominant Burman leadership and ethnic groups has been reactivated.

Politics of identity and difference

The first danger the anti-Rohingya campaign poses to ethnic harmony at the national level, not just at the Arakan (also known as Rakhine) state level, relates to the politics of identity and difference. Historically, ethnic Rakhine were antagonistic to ethnic Burmans for ‘destroying’ the Rakhine kingdom in the 18th century despite the fact that the majority of both ethnic groups were Theravada Buddhists. Nationalists now have mobilized Buddhist Burmans for their campaign against the Rohingya by presenting Arakan state as the western gate of Buddhist Burma against ‘flooding’ Muslims from Bangladesh.

As the anti-Rohingya campaign began to intensify in November 2011, Buddhism became the common ground for fostering an alliance between the Rakhine and Burmans. Discourses of anti-Rohingyas came to be constructed in term of protecting amyo barthar thartana — race/nation and religion. Religion refers exclusively to Buddhism.

In this situation, the already unclear definition of amyo (race/nation), and the elements that constitute this category, further blur the boundary between ethnic Rakhine, Burmans and Burmese citizenry. But it takes the general categorical form of ‘Buddhist and/or Burmese’ where ‘Burmese’ generally refers both to the country’s citizens as well as the majority ethnic Bumans. They also blur the boundaries between Rohingyas, Islam and Burmese Muslims. Ethnic Burmans, with or without the Rakhines’ mobilization, joined the campaign in the name of “safeguarding the nation.”

Therefore, differences and historical antagonism between ethnic Rakhines and Burmans have temporarily faded into a common “Buddhist Burmese” identity vis-à-vis the Rohingya. This merger is obvious as the Burmese government as well as senior opposition leaders from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party including Tin Oo, Nyan Win and Win Tin jumped on the bandwagon to speak out against the Rohingyas. Well-known celebrities, scholars and well-respected writers agreed.

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