Bernard Minn discusses the role of ethnocentrism in peace agreements and the refugee crisis.
In 1948, Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence after more than a century of rule under British colonialism. Its independence from the British allowed for Myanmar to begin the process of nation-building as an independent nation-state. However, more than seven decades since its independence, Myanmar continues to struggle with the concept of national identity.
In Myanmar, an individual’s identity is often derived from one’s ethnicity, culture and language. Often in introductory greetings in Myanmar, a common enquiry to a fellow countryperson is, “bar lu myo lae?”, which asks in Burmese, which ethnic group one belongs to. However, this fixation with ethnic identity has also been a source of Myanmar’s seemingly insurmountable challenge of establishing a cohesive and coherent national identity.
The inextricable linkage between ethnicity and national identity in Myanmar is a consequence of path dependency instigated by British colonialism and its discriminatory practices. British rule incited anti-colonial sentiments and ethnocentricity that pervaded after Myanmar’s independence and influenced the political ideology and legislative reforms in the latter half of the 20th century. More recently, the path dependency of Myanmar’s ethnocentric narrative of identity has manifested in the government’s recent approach to peace and conflict management.
During colonial rule, discriminatory practices by British colonisers on the Myanmar people established a clear demarcation between the two groups, inculcating the norm of Caucasian colonial rulers as superior to the locals. Such discriminatory practices not only contributed to racial consciousness (which is defined as the intuitive awareness of common heritage shared by members of the same race or ethnic group), but also fostered resentment against colonial rulers. Moreover, British colonisers leveraged racial and ethnic differences amongst the people of Myanmar to quell the risk of a united rebellion. Discriminatory practices included the exclusion of ethnic Bamar people from serving in military and administrative roles and instead favouring ethnic minorities and Indians from British India to serve as soldiers and government civil servants. Decades of British rule and discriminatory practices fomented anti-colonial sentiments that pervaded in Myanmar’s post-independence power struggle in the early 1960s. The power struggle ended in a coup d’etat in 1962 led by General Ne Win who adopted the political ideology known as the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ which would define Myanmar’s policies in the latter half of the 20th century. The ideology set the framework for a centralised command economy and the eradication of foreign influence in Myanmar’s businesses, a reaction epitomising the anti-colonial sentiment of General Ne Win’s government.
An underlying strategy of the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ was the establishment of a national identity amongst Myanmar’s disparate ethnic groups. However, as a result of the racial consciousness caused by British colonialism, the construct of national identity came to be centred on ethnic Bamar nationalism despite Myanmar’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. Two defining policies – the 1966 Basic Education Law and the 1982 Citizenship Law – were introduced that shaped the ethnocentric narrative of Myanmar’s national identity.
The 1966 Basic Education Law centralised the education system, abolished the use of English from schools and mandated the use of Burmese as the sole medium of instruction, despite Myanmar’s lingual diversity and the lack of literacy in Burmese amongst ethnic communities. The history curricula would also be rewritten to centre on Bamar patriotism and deliberately exclude ethnic groups. This policy not only instilled racial consciousness between Myanmar’s ethnic groups, but also forced the ethnocentric narrative of national identity in which the Bamar ethnicity superseded the superiority of the Caucasian British colonisers.
The 1982 Citizenship Law inextricably linked ethnicity with national identity by instituting national races. The national races were defined by Myanmar’s political elite as ethnic groups who settled in Myanmar prior to 1824, the year in which British occupation commenced. Many scholars have argued that the 1982 Citizenship Law intended to dissociate Myanmar from its colonial past. A striking feature of the Law was the exclusion of citizenship rights to people of races resembling South-Asian heritage as they represented remnants of British colonialism, a consequence of the British’s use of human resources from British India for military and government administration.
Myanmar has struggled with armed conflict for decades as ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) battle for autonomy and self-determination against the Myanmar Government. Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, ethnic minorities have suffered from millions of displacements and thousands of deaths at the hands of Myanmar military. In 2011, the Myanmar Government embarked on major political reforms towards democratisation which paved the way for the Myanmar Government to make amends with ethnic minority groups.
The institutionalisation and inculcation of the ethnocentric narrative of national identity has shaped the Myanmar Government’s approach to managing ethnic conflict post-2011. Many EAOs that identify with national races defined by the 1982 Citizenship Law have been able to engage in peace negotiations with the Myanmar Government. A major milestone in peace negotiations was the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between several EAOs and the Myanmar Government in 2015. Since then, the NCA has served as a platform for EAOs to progress political concerns such as greater autonomy through federalism.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an EAO representing the Rohingya, has sought to establish a liberated area similar to those controlled by other larger EAOs. However, the Myanmar Government’s handling of ethnic conflict with the Rohingya, who are not recognized under the 1982 Citizenship Law, significantly contrasts with the peace negotiations enjoyed by other ethnic groups. The Rohingya conflict is different in that the Myanmar Government portrays the Rohingya as illegal immigrants that threaten national security. The Myanmar Government uses this portrayal to justify its heavy-handed approach to the conflict, which the United Nations has described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. An ARSA uprising between 2016-2017 was met with a brutal military crackdown which has led to the mass displacement of Rohingya communities.
The strength of national identity relies on the extent of commonality amongst members of the nation. Throughout the history of nation-states, the source of commonality has derived from primordial characteristics (such as ethnicity, culture and language) or constructed ideology (such as moral values and political ideology). In a nation-state of ethnic, cultural and lingual heterogeneity, associating primordial commonality with national identity is not only irreconcilable but also detrimental to building a coherent and cohesive national identity.
Arguably, the biggest misstep by Myanmar’s political elites in the post-independence era was their attempts to inextricably link ethnicity with the construct of national identity. This misstep has been the source of decades of conflict between ethnic groups and the military government. Whilst democratic reforms have paved the way for reconciliation, ethnocentricity and racism remain pervasive in the Myanmar Government’s approach to peace and conflict. This is evidenced by the extent of polarity between the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with recognised ethnic groups and military operations against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
As Myanmar continues its journey of nation-building in a time of ongoing political, economic and social reforms, greater attention needs to be directed towards building its national identity. In order to build a cohesive and coherent national identity, Myanmar will need to move past the existing ethnocentric narrative and instead derive its national identity from an ideology that connects all of Myanmar’s people. As a nation once touted as the wealthiest in Southeast Asia during the mid-20th century, a stature eroded by successive corrupt military regimes who were responsible for the current state of the nation’s ethnic divisions, perhaps a new national ideology could rest in the reclamation of prosperity for all of Myanmar’s people.
Bernard Minn is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. His background includes a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Melbourne and a career in risk consulting for the State Government of Victoria in Australia. He is a member of the Australian Myanmar Institute (AMI) which strives to create and strengthen collaborative platforms for capacity building partnerships between Australia and Myanmar.