Exclusive extract from new book by Francis Wade exploring the persecution of Myanmar’s religious minorities
Not so long ago, a visitor to an immigration office in Myanmar will have encountered a signboard on the wall, its inscription rendered in bold lettering, that warned of a particular peril facing the country: “The Earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will.” It had become the slogan of the Ministry of Immigration during the long years of military rule, when the country retreated inwards, walling itself off from the outside world. Like much of the rhetoric of that age, it was abrupt and deliberately stark, and the message it contained was simple: save for strong borders and the vigilant offices of the state, the country would be overrun by outsiders. In time, the national race might cease to exist.
I only learnt of the slogan some time after the signboards had begun, bit by bit, to be taken down. As the transition progressed, these remnants of military rule, though still present, appeared less frequently. Now, with hindsight, there seemed an eerie prescience to the slogan, a warning of what might, with the right forces awakened, happen when those vigilant offices came under new management and the society around them began to shift. The military may have stepped back, but the violence of 2012 and thereafter showed that the fears it encouraged did not depart with the men in green.
The junta that ruled Myanmar in various guises for nearly half a century did so with a particular vision in mind, taken from a motto used by the independence movement: “One voice, one blood, one nation.” On giant red bill- boards planted at intersections of busy roads it spoke of the “People’s Desire,” imploring loyal subjects to “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” They implied that there was an undercurrent of existential anxiety running throughout the population, common to all the people. Or perhaps, where that anxiety wasn’t present, it could be cultivated. Fear has always been a powerful unifier, and if the authors of these slogans could sell the idea that a threat to the nation lurked just beyond its borders, or perhaps even within them, then the project to bring disparate peoples under one flag might bear fruit.
In the decades after the coup of 1962 that brought Ne Win to power, a narrative developed which saw the military not so much as nation builders but nation restorers. They would return Myanmar to its supposed pre-colonial glory, when a Buddhist order thrived, uncontaminated by foreign influence, and all subjects of the king enjoyed an abiding sense of national unity. It saw that past as a blueprint for the future, one that fed much of the propaganda circulated in the decades after the coup that carried an underlying warning of the dangers of cultural diversity. The billboards and signboards had a particular bluntness to them, not to be easily forgotten, but others were more lyrical. They evoked a fanciful picture of what had been, and what, with some work, could be.
“Moving about in the manner of whirlpools,” so began one passage in Minye Kaungbon, a text issued in the mid-1990s by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the successor to Ne Win’s regime, “racial groups have assimilated to a large extent and just as one major [one] was about to emerge, Myanmar fell under imperialist rule. Some currents of water that had not yet completely assimilated with others were prevented from reaching the journey’s end and were left half way.”
The British sabotaged that project, so the story went, and drove a deep wedge between the different racial and religious groups of the country.
“They spread false tales of differences in race and in culture as if they were merely defending minority rights … Let all national groups have complete faith, trust and love among themselves. They are blood-brothers and let them be united just like water is united and indivisible.”
The quest the military embarked upon was to restore that sense of purity and homogeneity to the country. But of course it never existed. King Anawratha may have achieved a degree of unity of the valley peoples that none before him had managed, but after the fall of his dynasty, the country’s centre was embroiled in centuries of conflict between rival kingdoms, as the power of the Bamar kingdoms waxed and waned greatly.
There was, however, some truth to the accusations. Myanmar has always been a nation of innumerable porous and interchangeable identity groups, each with divergent loyalties. Yet Britain imported its obsession with racial classification, one that had been used to such deleterious effect in its colonies elsewhere in the world. Boundaries were drawn between peoples where they hadn’t previously existed, and over time, the human landscape in Myanmar began to change. Once fluid notions of ethnicity calcified into hard distinctions between groups. Myanmar emerged from colonial rule with an emboldened sense of diversity, but it was of a sort that was imposed, rather than having developed organically. The colonial administration’s carving up of the population meant that allegiances, and all that came with them – competition and conflict – were directed along ethnic lines, and for a military elite consisting almost solely of the Bamar Buddhist majority that sought to control every inch of the land, this posed a particular problem. It would be the job of the post-independence rulers to re-build the nation. They would construct from this mosaic of groups a single identity and bring together those currents of water as they headed towards the journey’s end. What began after the coup in 1962 was a process of forced assimilation of different identity groups into the ethnic majority sphere, and the banishing of those that would never conform to the ideal nation. In doing so, the dangers posed by other races, internal or external, to the “national race” would lessen, and the sense of unity and harmony that had been so disrupted by foreign rule would be finally returned to the country. Or so the logic went.
It is from this starting point, of illuminating the broader processes of statecraft in Myanmar over the past half century that have affected all communities, not just Muslims, that the violence of the transition is perhaps best understood. The mobs that began visiting Muslim neighbourhoods in 2012 may have done so long after these processes had started, but they signalled that the project of national unification was by no means finished.
Extract from ‘Chapter 3: The art of belonging: a peculiar transaction in Yangon’ in Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade
Visit Zed Books here to buy a copy: https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/myanmars-enemy-within/.
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.