11 Minutes To Read

COVID-19, Political Movements and the Need to Re-examine Racial Thinking for Future Change

11 Minutes To Read

Sai Latt highlights the need to investigate racial thinking for political and social change in Myanmar.

This article has been adapted from a Burmese language version titled “Race-Class, COVID Politics and Future Change,” first published in the COVID-19 Special Series No. 2 by the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP-Myanmar) on May 1.

On March 23, Myanmar reported its first positive cases of COVID-19. Within two months, there were over 200 cases. More than 60 have been linked to a Christian religious gathering. A majority of initial positive cases were Myanmar re-pats, former Burmese citizens visiting the country temporarily, western tourists, and their local medical and travel service providers (and their family members).

In March and April, many thousands of migrant workers returned from Thailand and China through border crossing points. Around the same time, factory workers organized several protests against the factories for laying off workers and not allowing leave-with-pay during the Thingyan holidays.

As the news stories and images about foreigners, Myanmar returnees, religious gatherings, migrant workers, and factory workers were circulated in the media and on Facebook, people began to see the COVID-19 pandemic through racial, xenophobic and discriminatory lenses. They viewed COVID-19 as a foreign disease, imported by foreigners and Myanmar returnees. A senior government official said the lifestyle and diet prevented the people of Myanmar from getting the disease. Such a response is not new to Myanmar; it is a recurring socio-political dynamic that further divides an already divided nation.

Political Movements and Racism

For decades, Myanmar’s political problems have been defined in terms of armed conflicts, ethnic conflicts, ethnic politics, and identity politics. Accordingly, political struggles have been framed as movements for democracy, peace and federalism against authoritarian regimes. None of these ways of looking at political challenges in Myanmar are unfounded or wrong, but one key problem at the heart of the country’s political crisis is missing from political discourse: racism.

The reason for this absence is partly because of a lack of proper definition of racism in Burmese that corresponds to the Myanmar context. The Burmese word for racism that most people are familiar with, at least until very recently, is အသားအရောင်ခွဲခြားခြင်း (A Thar A Yaung Kwe Char Chin, literally, “skin colour discrimination”). It is a direct translation of western experiences of racism and how it is framed culturally and linguistically based on skin colour, but experiences of discrimination and oppression in Myanmar are primarily based on ethnoreligious difference, with skin colour representing just one element of this. Despite this, terms such as လူမျိုးဘာသာခွဲခြားခြင်း (Lu Myo Bar Thar Kwe Char Chin) which reflect discrimination based on ethnicity and religion have been coined more recently but are not as commonly used.

Racism and race relations are not merely about ethnoreligious discrimination but also reflect the foundational organization of political structures. Racial thinking or Lu Myo Yae thinking shapes, and is shaped by, conceptions of sovereignty, territorial rights, the hierarchy of privilege, access to resources, legitimate rights for political decision making, wealth accumulation, gender and class relations, and so on. Racial thinking, like other types of thinking that influence political structures, determines who the state is obligated to serve and protect and who it is not (therefore making other groups vulnerable).

A good example of this is a narrative in Myanmar that the majority Burmese Buddhists are the “homeowners” (i.e. the owners of the country), and the rest are “guests.” While the popularity of this specific narrative is recent, the idea has existed for a long time. It explicitly means that the homeowner and the guest do not have the same political and socio-economic rights. Within the identity of “guest” is the implicit duty to respect the host (and their rights and privileges) by behaving properly — as good guests should, while the homeowners embody an implicit paternalistic duty to look after the guests (Note: This narrative became popular in the context of the Rakhine State violence, with references to the Rohingya as guests. Since then, this narrative has been used in different contexts and locations in Myanmar.)

Despite this, contemporary social and political movements in Myanmar rarely utilize anti-racism as a lens to look at politics and political crises. For urban political movements that still revolve around the politics and narrative of the 1988 uprisings (and the NLD), democracy is the main goal; issues of discrimination and equality are marginal. Rhetorical mottos that urge compassion and empathy only serve as abstract ideals and often produce condescending narratives towards minorities and victims of oppression.

For the interfaith and social harmony movements that are mostly taking place in Yangon, Mandalay and provincial towns, tolerating religious and ethnic differences is a goal. They have not aimed to challenge or eliminate the racism that underpins intolerance in the wider political and economic systems.

For ethnic armed organizations, with goals of equality and federalism, anti-racism is not a framework, narrative, or strategy that guides the pursuit of these goals. Close observation of the peace process over the past seven years demonstrates that negotiations based around the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and political dialogue have not touched upon fundamental issues related to race relations. Several articles within the NCA (Chapters 1 & 6) and the Union Accord (Part 1, Annex 1) focus on diversity and equality. Although written in highly convoluted language, these articles mention equal political rights as well as the rights to preserve and protect minority customs, traditions, languages and literature. However, the actual political negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups have failed to discuss the very racial thinking in the political system that has led to the oppression of minority groups. They have also failed to discuss how such racial thinking is reproduced in schools, religious teachings, and state-sponsored films and literature, all of which have collectively normalized racist perceptions of minority populations as “guests” who, by default, are not supposed to be equal with the majority. As a result, these discussions and statements that champion equality, non-discrimination, and diversity come across as artificial and the language of equality in the agreements is little better than the Burmese-centric state propaganda about ethnic unity, which people are already familiar with due to decades of indoctrination through the school system, books, television, and movies. (It is worth noting here that racial thinking in religious and ethnic minority groups is also problematic that needs to be addressed.)

For the handful of urban “educated” elites, nationalism and discrimination are serious issues. Still, their priorities are to cap nationalism, complete nation-building, and foster national identities encompassing the country’s diverse cultures, however contradictory these ambitions sound.

Because of failures by the political movements to challenge racism on the one hand and the relative success of state propaganda on the other, the racial thinking that is deeply embedded in the fabric of the political system is left unexposed. Possibilities for vibrant intellectual and political investigations into this matter have not advanced and people thus continue to look at political and social issues through a racist lens (albeit often inadvertently), even when they are talking about reconciliation and unity.

A recent example is that of a state-level government minister in Shan State who wrote on Facebook that charging 300 MMK (0.20 USD) extra for noodles to non-Shan customers was extremist discrimination and shameful. Some ethnic Shan responded that he might have misunderstood the matter and that the price difference was not due to the ethnicity of the customer but due the difference between types of noodles such as “Shan noodles” or “Tofu Nwe” (Tofu with noodles). To many, the NLD minister’s accusation was an insult to the whole Shan ethnicity. He later deleted the post and apologized. But the apology letter caused another problem as it condescendingly lectured people to put aside differences, focus on COVID-19 prevention, and forgive/yield to others (even when he was the one whose initial statement sparked the row).

COVID-19, Racism & the New “Portable Outsiders”

Another example of this specific to COVID-19 is that of a Christian pastor David Lah, who tested positive for the virus. A video surfaced in which he said true Christians are immune to the coronavirus. Despite government restrictions against group gatherings, he continued his services, exposing more than 270 people. This caused a sharp jump in the number of COVID-19 figures in Myanmar. His religious delusion is not the only problem as his anti-Muslim, anti-Buddhist and anti-LGBTQ videos have also spread online. All this has led people to criticize the pastor and his group in a way that easily goes beyond finding fault with the group’s public health misconduct to insulting Christians and mocking the patients and their religion. The government has sued him for defying a ban on public gathering, while the nationalists have campaigned to charge him as well for insulting Buddhism. They accuse the government of protecting the pastor, pointing to his relations with the family of Vice President Henry Van Thio who is also a Christian. Since the pastor is a Myanmar-born Canadian citizen, the homeowner narrative was also used against him — not only by the nationalists but also by a well-known human rights lawyer.

Myanmar is quite comfortable with the psychology of blaming poor, vulnerable and marginalized populations for its social ills and is well-versed in scapegoating those who do not fit Myanmar’s standard definition of what Liisa Malkki calls the “national order of things.” Traditionally, those who do not quite fit are ethnic and religious minorities, while foreigners and INGOs are also considered threats. But the way that public information about COVID-19 cases has been released has now extended this perceived threat to a small group of Myanmar re-pats, former citizens who are now the citizens of western countries, and migrant workers who have recently returned to Myanmar.

The impact of official narratives and subsequent media coverage is significant. After the news broke about the first few confirmed cases of COVID-19, people started seeing the returnees as disease carriers. Quarantine measures, medical certifications, and rational medical justifications did not placate many; these returnees were seen as social outcasts, wrongdoers and threats to the community. The Burmese term Pyi Taw Pyan (meaning those coming back to the country), which used to have a symbolic political meaning referring to the return of exiled political figures, became a common word to disparage Myanmar re-pats and migrant returnees. The origin of this repurposing of language to vilify others was a senior government official who, perhaps inadvertently, insensitively used the word.

The point here is not that the returnees pose no risk – some may be carriers of the virus – but that the way the problem has been explained to people has served to reinforce xenophobic attitudes. Instead of encouraging concerned citizens to use reason and see the larger picture, public information (and the media coverage) led people to see the issue as yet another case of “insiders versus outsiders” — i.e., people who “belong” in the country versus those who are bringing problems from abroad. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, former Myanmar citizens, re-pats and migrant returnees are the new outsiders. Or, perhaps, they are “portable outsiders” in the sense that they get plugged into and unplugged from the “national order of things” depending on the context.

This new public attitude has gone so far as to criminalize them, especially migrants. There are reports of migrants going into hiding (instead of reporting to local health authorities) to avoid being seen as social outcasts, and “locals” who band together to “catch” the migrants. Likewise, there are cases of residents in Yangon who were forced to leave their neighbourhoods after family members were “suspected” of having the virus. Stories like these reveal how social relations in communities can come undone in a matter of days.

Framing “outsiders” as a threat comes with a price. First, it prevents people, including otherwise progressive and educated ones, from thinking more deeply about the society for the purpose of social and political change. Second, it forces them to follow those blaming the vulnerable, or at least say nothing, and thus distracting from real problems. Migrant returnees are easy scapegoats because they are in no position to do anything about their situation, and because they fit into the familiar narrative of “outsiders” as the source of all that ails Myanmar. The overall outcome of this scapegoating is that the real political issues, key decision making, implementation, and accountability, as well as the inadequate emergency response and social welfare systems, are all overlooked.

This, in turn, worsens fragile social and political relations among different groups of people, exacerbates existing racial thinking, discrimination and xenophobia, and makes a mockery of every attempt at national reconciliation.

Re-examining Racial Thinking for Future Change

To sum up, despite the continued oppression of minority and vulnerable groups that has persisted for seven decades, Myanmar’s political movements have not seriously tackled the deep-rooted racial thinking (Lu Myo Yae thinking) at the heart of the country’s political system. Different actors have tried to achieve peace, equality, non-discrimination and social harmony through the narratives of democracy, social justice, federalism and reconciliation. But they have bypassed racial thinking that leads to discrimination, oppression and many of the country’s social and political problems in the first place.

Because of this, racism continues to shape the political landscape from the shadows. Narratives such as ethnic politics, identity politics, and ethnic conflict cannot bring racism out of the shadows; instead, they only further obscure it.

To address the problem, new types of thinking and movements are needed. The starting point is to recognize that the English language idea of racism encompasses all forms of division that the Burmese terms “Lu Myo Yae” or “Lu Myo Barthar Kwe Char Chin” express. Racism is not only about ethnoreligious discrimination, nor is it is only a narrative of foreigners versus Myanmar or discrimination based on skin colours. It is all of this and more.

In the Myanmar context, Lu Myo Yae thinking is at the heart of Myanmar’s institutional politics and everyday social practices. It shapes state ideologies, political structures, processes and societal organizations. It informs state actions and public responses to every issue, be they COVID-19, armed conflict, gender inequality, migration or social welfare.

Lu Myo Yae thinking is also not just a static conception of who belongs to the country – it is a fluid and context-specific conception (and misconception) of what rights insiders have to be protected from threatening outsiders. The narrative about the homeowner and guest and the case of Myanmar re-pats and migrant returnees (or even factory workers) who became the new portable outsiders in the COVID-19 context is related to the discriminatory Lu Myo Yae thinking — not in terms of ethnicity and religion, but in terms of “normal” citizens versus threats to the community, nation and sovereignty.

Thus, every time a new political crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic emerges, racist reactions are activated instantly, and more societal cracks are created. But existing political movements do not readily have the corresponding anti-racist lenses, language or framework to approach, investigate and counter racism and the social and political problems that come with it.

Therefore, it is time that the political and intellectual movements in Myanmar seriously investigate contemporary racial thinking in a way that captures racism, racist practices, discrimination and oppression not just in terms of ethnicity and religion but more broadly in terms of divisions that render minority and vulnerable people as the “guest” (in different ways) who, by default, cannot expect equal rights.

More importantly, these movements need to shed light on existing power structures, dominant narratives and the machinery that reproduces them. These include, among many, the education system (both secular and religious) and the culture industry that not only sustain old divisions but also manufacture new ones to undermine the ability of any movement for just and non-discriminatory political and social change.

Sai Latt received his PhD from Simon Fraser University. He is an external research affiliate with York Center for Asian Studies at York University. He can be reached at sai_latt@sfu.ca. Twitter: @sailatt