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Identity, Power and Politics: Re-examining the crisis in Rakhine


Conflicts surrounding racial and cultural identity have been present in Myanmar (Burma) for the seventy years of the country’s post independent existence. But a recent and violent flare-up of long simmering sectarian tensions has brought the need for deeper analysis of the identities and political values of Myanmar’s people to the fore.

As a member of one of Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups, I bring a unique perspective to a narrative otherwise dominated by Burman voices. I am ethnically Mon and was raised in Mon State. What I offer here are my own observation based on what I consider an objective assessment of the human conflict and humanitarian crisis that has befallen the country. I argue that this clash of racial and cultural values can only be addressed thorough personal liberty, security and human dignity for all people, regardless of race and gender.

At issue is racial discrimination, which many observers have asserted has progressed to the point of ethnic cleansing. Western media have reported that organizations like the United Nations have called the situation in Rakhine a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” in violation of international norms of human rights. Amnesty International has called the situation genocide, a charge that the Myanmar government vehemently denies.

The international media have been consistent in covering the enormous outflow of refugees into Bangladesh. The cover story on the October 2 edition of TIME Magazine entitled “Myanmar’s Shame” by Elizabeth Dias is one such example, featuring a cover picture of refugees desperately crossing the border. The Myanmar local press, especially Online TV, Radio and Social media has focused much more on the victims of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), especially those of other minority ethnic groups.

A clash of racial identity and values:

The situation has been made even more murky by conflicting accounts in local, national and international media. Even the terminology is different. International media refer to the Muslim population as Rohingya (as do those people), while the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar press call them Bengali or Muslims in Rhakine state. What is abundantly clear, though, is that the loss of lives, displacement of communities and destruction of property is enormous and beyond the scope of local or national humanitarian capabilities. I believe that Myanmar’s political writers and reporters have a responsibility to further investigation both ARSA and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) if justice and security is to be established for people of all races and religions. That half a million people were displaced in one week is not a question of political or racial values, but basic human security and welfare.

Not only in Rhakine but throughout the country, Myanmar is a long way from meeting the standards laid out under the International Bill of Human Rights. The rights and freedoms that Myanmar’s peoples demand will not be realized unless a concerted effort is made to address the economic, social and cultural realities of Myanmar’s diverse communities. In fact, the question of social and cultural rights has never been addressed by the political establishment, but has been used instead as a wedge to maintain power.

Historical context:

The current crisis erupted when, on August 25, ARSA members attacked local police stations in the Maungdaw district of Rhakine state, killing at least eleven people. The news shocked the nation and the world. It is clear that the Tatmadaw and the NLD government failed to act on intelligence that it allegedly had about the attack.

Government security force responded with a heavy hand and killed more than three hundred people it claimed were ARSA militants. However the Tatmadaw responded with only an overwhelming military action, at the expense of dealing with the underlying communal tensions and humanitarian crisis. Many Burman people unconditionally applauded the action taken by the Tatmadaw and police to defend local people but were seemingly indifferent to the widespread allegations of abuse. The declaration of a “security zone” by the Tatmadaw denied reporters access to the crisis area and reduced much of the reporting from inside Myanmar to rumors.

Cyclical violence has been a part of Myanmar and Rhakine society for over two hundred years. The Arakan (Rakhine) Mrohaung dynasty, which would be the last, was destroyed by royal Burmese soldiers in 1785. Not long after, the British invaded and after the first Anglo-Burmese war from 1824 to 1826, occupied Rhakine.

Following the collapse of the Mrohaung dynasty, many Arakan people fled to India and into the Burmese heartland, but many other immigrants, especially from India, arrived to work in agricultural labor. The movement of peoples and the stoking of tensions between them was an integral part of the British colonial model, then operated by the East India Company (EIC). The EIC had vast commercial interest in colonial Burma and was happy to exploit local tensions for profit.

This clash of racial and cultural identity with political values among Myanmar’s races, major and minor, has been present since before independence. But the years of military rule between 1962 and 2010 only served to inflame tensions. For a long time, assimilation and Burmanization were the vigorously pursued policies of the Burman-dominated military regimes, not just in Rhakine, but throughout the country. For example, to be registered or enrolled in a hospital or school, children must have Burmese names. The government also tried to destroy ethnic languages by preventing their use in schools.

Addressing racial harmony:

With the advent of a semi-democratic government in Myanmar, we are in a critical moment. While many hoped that democracy would bring freedom and development for the country, those goals seem challenged by the communal acrimony affecting Myanmar’s peoples, indigenous and immigrant alike (especially in Chin, Rhakine and Shan States). Social security, personal safety and human welfare must be placed ahead of political and racial identity in any society for people to live without fear regardless of race, religion and ethnicity. The military-dominated social, cultural and political establishment must be reexamined through the lenses of social justice, personal liberty and universal application of the rule of law. A participatory and responsive peace should be the central agenda of the NLD government and ethnic leaders, even in spite of the agenda established by the military-dictated 2008 constitution. Stakeholders to the peace process must widen its scope to include racial and communal tensions that otherwise only see an outlet in violence.

The fifty million people of Myanmar share the same water, land, climate and environment, so we all need to share the common burden of responsibility for our own cultural and national heritage. The only way that humans can co-exist in peace, is for all minority cultures to be protected and celebrated, and all people given real avenues for political participation. That is the only way for a nation of diverse races, religions and cultural practices to exist without discrimination based on race, gender and faith.

Human rights is a reasonable framework for the world, but it can sometimes ignore the complexities of human society. Where we must be clear though, is in rejecting racial violence anywhere and towards anyone on earth. It is a moral and political responsibility of everyone in power and privilege. Myanmar’s history is filled with ugly chapters. Let us not let the same be our future.

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