Building on a rich discussion, Indrė Balčaitė explores the everyday politics of race in Myanmar.
Worldwide Black Lives Matter protests stirred up discussions about race in Myanmar, giving rise to the Don’t Call Me Kalar campaign (referring to the slur used to refer to South Asian people, especially Muslims). Like elsewhere, trying to open up society’s sores for debate saw the usual backlash of explaining away and attacking the activists as troublemakers. Even the premeditated atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya in the Rakhine State and outbreaks of communal violence targeting Muslims have been blamed on the victims. Both are examples of predominantly Buddhist Bamar using their entrenched majority to determine the boundaries of public discourse rather than acknowledging the human cost of exclusions created.
As extreme as the plight of the stateless Rohingya may be, normalised and ingrained racism affects many groups in Myanmar. This article explores some structures of exclusion in the racialised Myanmar society, the enforcement of the racial hierarchy and the silencing of those it oppresses. Many statements and most of the examples cited here (attributed to individual participants where possible) originate from a roundtable discussion (see above) on race in Myanmar through the angles of citizenship, political representation, socio-economic rights and everyday racialisation. The small-scale meeting was attended mostly by early-career social science researchers of various nationalities but with experience in the country, whether currently based in Myanmar or outside. Other arguments identify patterns arising from the discussion, or build on available literature, my own ethnographic research or conversations with Burmese friends. Central to the article – as they were to the discussion – are stories told by Burmese participants about the politics of identity documents and other painful everyday experiences as racial and religious minority in Myanmar. As a white foreigner, I am not the right person to retell those stories nor is English the best medium. Yet they need to be told as the people who live through them often do not feel safe to speak out in public.
Racism is a universal phenomenon that manifests itself in locally-specific forms. Htike Htike, a researcher, humanitarian and human rights advocate of Rohingya descent, originally from Rakhine State, outlined two main divisions underpinning Myanmar society:
These divisions shape a multi-layered racial hierarchy that foreigners arriving in the country are also mapped onto (see example):
This pyramid is an inversion of the colonial racial hierarchy that had white Europeans – forced to leave the country after the 1962 military coup – at the apex and Buddhist Bamar at the base. According to Nick Cheesman, the taingyinthar discourse was also institutionalised by General Ne Win in the 1960s. Ne Win, himself of Sino-Bamar descent, popularised its antithesis – the term thwehnaw. By the 1980s, taingyinthar became an orthodoxy codified in the 1982 Citizenship Law: only taingyinthar are automatically entitled to citizenship, with all other ethnic groups regarded as settlers and required to prove family ancestry within present-day Myanmar before the start of colonisation in 1824. After the 1988 revolution, the military regime overlaid the taingyinthar discourse with ‘Myanmafication’ that conflated ‘Bamar’ with ‘Myanmar’ as described by Gustaaf Houtman. The fact that the Bamar do not normally refer to themselves as taingyinthar, leaving it for the use of recognised ethnic minorities, demonstrates their perceived superiority, as Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a former political prisoner and Executive Director of PDI-Kintha in Sittwe, pointed out.
Colour and religion cut across this hierarchy. Across Asia and beyond, fair complexion is admired, privileging groups such as the Karen or the Chinese and discriminating against Burmese of South Asian descent who are considered too dark-skinned and ‘dirty’. Colourist beauty ideals are internalised even among groups they discriminate against, entrenched in the arts and commercialised. Cinema actors with a darker complexion are shoehorned into secondary, lower-class roles such as driver or maid, whereas Myanmar TV and billboards portray fair-skinned people, Htike Htike and Kyaw Hsan Hlaing argued. In terms of religion, on the other hand, the predominantly Buddhist Mon, Shan or Rakhine come closer to the exacting Bamar Buddhist standard than do Christian Chin or Kachin. Being Muslim makes one’s belonging tenuous altogether. The fact that most of Myanmar’s Muslims are of South Asian descent leaves them in an unenviable position, exacerbated in the case of the Rohingya.
Socio-economic class and political representation are intertwined with racial stratification. Being wealthy helps to offset some of the effects of non-indigeneity in the case of some Chinese. Money gives a certain level of security, argued Siew Han Yeo, PhD candidate at the University of Toronto researching Chinese diaspora and constructions of Chineseness. However, the hierarchy also shapes one’s livelihood and career options. Whereas Muslims were explicitly excluded from government and military careers after the 1962 coup, non-Bamar taingyinthar, especially non-Buddhists, find it hard to get ahead in those fields. As raised in our and another discussion (p. 60), high school graduates from ethnic minority states (where schooling has also been more disrupted due to conflict) are not accepted into the most prestigious higher education programmes in Yangon despite their sufficient grades. The Rohingya are barred from attending university altogether, except for distance courses in Myanmar literature or history. Myanmar’s Muslims are heavily disadvantaged economically. Excluded from the public sector, most engage in business, badly affected by the 969 ‘Buy Buddhist’ campaign. Many had already lost their businesses to nationalisation in the 1960s. Even in Yangon, Muslims face difficulty buying or renting property, whereas the livelihoods of most Rohingya have been destroyed by confiscating the land they cultivated, with people displaced to IDP or refugee camps.
The main political parties – National League for Democracy (NLD) and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – are run by Bamar Buddhists. While multiple parties of recognised ethnic minorities won seats in 2015, Burmese Muslims were not represented in the legislature. Since 2015, the Rohingya people have not been allowed to vote. Due to MaBaTha’s (see below) pressure, the NLD fielded no Muslim candidates in 2015 and only two this year. Muslim candidates were welcome only in a few parties, such as Muslim-led Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) and National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) or Bamar-run Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS). Both in 2015 and this year, the election commission refused to register multiple Rohingya or Muslim candidates, disqualifying most of the list submitted by the DHRP advocating for Rohingya rights.
The racial hierarchy established by the military government discourse thus continues to determine socio-economic opportunities and political representation. If British rule favoured the Chinese and South Asian communities and indigenous ethnic minorities over the Buddhist Bamar, the latter became the mainstay of the military government. Socio-economic structures favour them to this day. Racial inequality was institutionalised by changing the post-independence citizenship law.
The hierarchy and its changing narratives have biopolitical implications. The diversity of identity documents held by people living in Myanmar today is confusing, as some remind of the reforms attempted since Ne Win’s rule, while others have changed their original meaning. Some examples include (p. 58 here or p. 42 here for more details):
Ostensibly aimed to expand the share of population legible to the state, each round caused further exclusion, leading to the present apartheid system of citizenship. Currently another move likely to produce further exclusion is being planned – biometric smart cards to replace the CSCs, controversially to be funded by a loan from the Austrian government.
Most Burmese now hold CSCs introduced after the suppression of the 1988 student revolution. The 1982 Citizenship Law excluded Chinese and South Asian communities from full citizens’ rights, despite their entitlement under the post-independence regulation. At the time when many rural residents lacked any identity documentation, the introduction of the law followed a military operation in Rakhine State that produced the first round of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Those who returned could only receive FRCs (see p. 9-10). Kyaw Hsan Hlaing’s Rakhine family qualified for the CSC, whereas Htike Htike’s parents did not receive it despite having previously held the NRC. In the 1990s, Rohingya received white temporary cards (TRC) instead. These were abolished in 2015, with only a paper receipt given in return. Pressure on the Rohingya to accept their next iteration – the NVC, giving up claims to citizenship, increased before the 2017 military ‘clearance operation’ in Rakhine State (p. 11) that produced the world’s biggest refugee camp. Any Rohingya repatriation is also conditional on the participation in the NVC scheme, which treats them as foreigners. Rohingya in the IDP and refugee camps thus hold on to NRCs that have not been confiscated as prized possessions, the only proof that they once belonged.
Starting with names, the information that appears on identity documents is contentious, reflecting the logic of ‘Myanmafication’ that differentiates between thwehnaw and taingyinthar. As soon as children of taingyinthar ethnic minorities register for school, their teachers – often Bamar – usually give them Burmese ‘school names’ that will feature in all the official paperwork throughout their lives. Immigration officers may encourage Karen or Shan to replace their traditional honorifics such as ‘Sa’, ‘Saw, ‘Sai’, ‘Naw’ or ‘Nan’ with Burmese ‘Maung’, ‘Ko’, ‘U’, ‘Ma’ or ‘Daw’ when applying for citizenship cards. Meanwhile, Rohingyas are told to use their Muslim names to make them stand out among the other taingyinthar misleadingly made to appear homogenous and Bamar. Nevertheless, Burmese Muslims are still being reproached for not trying hard enough to assimilate.
Entries on citizenship cards have become more contentious over time. Kyaw Hsan Hlaing’s pink CSC lists his race, religion and hometown but his grandmother’s NRC from the post-independence period did not. For her, it was easy to travel across the country, whereas Kyaw Hsan Hlaing has faced intimidation and questioning by the police and immigration officials. Being Rakhine, he was registered as a Buddhist through no choice of his own. On the identity documents issued in the 1990s, Muslim Burmese still had ‘Bamar’ listed as their ‘race’ alongside ‘Islam’ as their religion. Although these cards are still valid, such a combination is no longer possible in versions issued since around 2000. It is not possible to register as ‘atheist’ or leave the religion section blank either. Instead, Muslim Burmese receive citizenship cards stating their ‘race’ as ‘Bengali’ or ‘Cholia’ (regardless of their actual origin) or with hyphenated entries, e.g. ‘Bengali-Pakistani’, ‘India-Bengali-Pakistani’, ‘Cholia-Bamar’ or ‘Danu-Shan-Iran’. It labels them as foreigners and makes their legal citizenship look tenuous. False entries have real consequences in shaping Muslim lives.
The role of immigration officials in implementing the hierarchy of merit by birth cannot be underestimated. The practices of dispensing documents that perpetuate discrimination are themselves heavily discriminating. At Yangon passport office, separate queues exist for taingyinthar and thwehnaw applicants (see also here). In 2011, Ma Khin Thu (pseudonym) – a participant in our discussion – applied for a new household registration document to replace a lost one. The immigration office in Yangon charged her 300,000 Myanmar kyats and made her wait for three months, although she had provided all the required evidence, including that all her family members had the CSC. Ma Khin Thu’s CSC says ‘Bamar Muslim’. Her sister-in-law, whose pink card said ‘Bamar Buddhist’, however, got her household registration in one week for 1,500 kyat. It did not matter that her sister-in-law’s father did not have a citizenship card.
Immigration officers assess not only the documents and application forms but also applicants’ performance of ‘proper’ Myanmar identity. Once released from prison where his ID was confiscated, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing went to the immigration office to apply for a new one. The officer did not like his long hair and did not accept his application until he returned after a haircut. Htike Htike was also told to change into a ‘proper’ attire after turning up at the immigration office in a skirt of mid-calf length rather than a long htamain.
Anecdotes like these reveal the entrenched racism in Myanmar’s bureaucracy. The citizenship law turned the Rohingya disposable and thus subject to recurring violent ‘clearance operations’. The practices of documentation make the taingyinthar blend in and the Muslim Burmese stand out. Even those Chinese or South Asians who are entitled to full citizenship face discrimination and humiliation by state officials. Other fellow Burmese (e.g. Bamar teachers) are also instrumental in implementing the racial hierarchy.
Although Immigration is arguably the most hated government department that Burmese citizens encounter, its officers are part of the comprehensive hierarchy enforcement machinery. Racism and discrimination are deeply ingrained in Myanmar. Until last year, civic education curriculum included teaching primary school children chants like “We hate mixed blood, it will make a race extinct” that seemed to be inspired by the slogan of the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population (“The earth will not swallow a race to extinction, but another [race] will”). Such statements are sadly normalised in Myanmar and most people do not take issue with them after decades of indoctrination vilifying the so-called thwehnaw.
The ethnocratic post-independence military rule reinforced ethnic differences and channelled discontent specifically against Muslim South Asians, now at the bottom of society. Riots against South Asians and Chinese ignited by economic grievances in the 1930s were followed by anti-Muslim riots in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, provoked by the junta or its successor USDP. Whipping up hatred for Muslims, the Buddhist MaBaTha movement (disbanded in 2017) acted like a convenient proxy for USDP, initiating four discriminatory ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws’ (still in place) adopted before the 2015 NLD election win.
Unsupported but also unchallenged by the NLD, MaBaTha emboldened anti-Muslim hate speech. Daw Ohnmar (pseudonym) – a Burmese Muslim – had worked for a Myanmar NGO for several years in various roles and locations. Despite having a Master’s degree, she was paid less than a Karen Christian person with no university education. In the organisation’s Yangon office, a high-ranking manager was a MaBaTha supporter and did not hesitate to make her views known to colleagues. She would deliberately state her hatred for Muslims in the presence of Daw Ohnmar, even after receiving her help beyond actual job responsibilities or within earshot of the leader of the organisation. On one occasion, the manager said “I hate kalar”, then pointed to another colleague and clarified: “Sorry, not you, you are not kalar, you are Hindu.” Multiple co-workers witnessed these incidents, but nobody voiced objection.
At the height of the MaBaTha campaign, even Buddhist monks disagreeing with it felt intimidated to publicly criticise it (see p. 33-34). In our discussion, Burmese Muslim participants talked about the difficulty of discussing their experiences and opinions with their Burmese friends of other backgrounds. Certain topics are safe to be tackled within the in-group but not beyond, e.g. Buddhist nationalism, citizenship regulations, discrimination, ethnic relations, even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Conflict avoidance produces acute silences and erodes the confidence of the non-Bamar. A Burmese Muslim who fled the country after helping to organise the NLD election campaign in 1990 admitted suffering from an inferiority complex despite his secure economic status. In an interview with two Phlong (Pwo) Karen Christian women in Bangkok in 2016, the older one initially told me she felt a minority in Kayin State but did not face any issues in practicing her faith. As I mentioned the recent construction of a Buddhist stupa inside a Christian church compound in Kayin State, both women clouded up, with the same interviewee responding that things were good before, “but, anyway, this is not our country.” Asked to explain, she rephrased: “It is our country, but we have no chance to speak up,” while the younger woman also said she did not want to argue. During her recent ethnographic fieldwork in a public institution in Myanmar, discussion participant Sarah (pseudonym) also noted that its Buddhist employees were much more outspoken and forthcoming with information, while Hindu staff were more careful in talking to her, more conscious of their status and fearful of committing missteps.
Rather than questioning the unforgiving hierarchy of merit, many of those disadvantaged by it choose to hide their true identities. Neither Chinese nor South Asian communities have been isolated in Myanmar, intermarrying with the Bamar and other ethnicities. However, some descendants of mixed Burmese-South Asian unions would rather not admit the reason for their darker complexion. Ma Khin Thu’s ‘Bamar Buddhist’ sister-in-law who enjoyed preferential treatment at the immigration office is actually a Karen Christian. Given the discriminatory marriage laws, non-Buddhists marrying Buddhists may resort to lying about their religion on the marriage certificate as interfaith marriages cannot be registered officially. Sarah was surprised to find that staff housing in the institution she researched was segregated into Buddhist and Hindu quarters only: initially told that there were no Muslim or Christian employees, she heard that Muslims “pretend to be Buddhist” upon further questioning.
Racism in Myanmar is deeply structural but perpetrated not only by the authorities. Like elsewhere, the ethnic majority is not familiar with the experiences of minorities, yet insulting minorities is commonplace and goes unchallenged. Minorities are tolerated as long as they conform to the official narrative – any airing of legitimate grievances raises tension. While self-censorship and conflict avoidance have become second nature to ethnic minorities, the majority may see its comfort as a sign of social harmony. Inter-group silences deprive all groups of learning about each other but especially impoverish the Buddhist Bamar.
Myanmar’s majoritarian nationalism is not exceptional. Discrimination or even disenfranchisement of ethnic or religious minorities (Malaysia, India, Pakistan and China are just some examples) are being normalised across Asia and the world. Yet Myanmar’s long-term state policies of exclusion demonstrate the ultimate cost of racism. Military rule in Myanmar gave way to the nominally civilian and democratic government – and to the biggest Rohingya expulsion in 2017. While it was perpetrated by the Burmese army still pulling the strings, decades of taingyinthar and ‘Myanmafication’ discourse enforced through increasingly hierarchical and exclusionary biopolitics have normalised toxic racism beyond military circles. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence at the ICJ of premeditated violence in Rakhine State was part of the NLD’s 2020 election campaign, a large section of society has adopted the hierarchy of merit imposed by the Tatmadaw. Ne Win’s attempt to undo the degrading colonial legacy has fashioned a fractured society eroding rich ethnic and religious diversity and the NLD government has not changed the country’s course.
When enforced in education and public life, the national narrative of the Buddhist Bamar standard, the assimilable taingyinthar and the non-assimilable thwehnaw erases the South Asian, Chinese and non-Bamar presence in modern Burmese history. As a result, today’s Bamar-centric polity is suffering from barbed wire fences, thick glass ceilings and collective amnesia. U Razak, a Muslim minister in the interim government martyred along with his Bamar Buddhist comrade General Aung San, is rarely remembered, while statues to Aung San rise even in ethnic minority states. As Mikael Gravers has warned, “when [social memory] is relegated to the private sphere, then the past becomes a minefield.”
The legal overhaul of Myanmar’s citizenship law is long overdue but likewise needed is the change of public discourse. Safe civil spaces are required for open discussion about the past and present, which the government’s censorship of media and the use of Internet shutdowns hinder. Foreign visitors and scholars also have a role to play: most importantly, by not condoning the racist hierarchy and exclusion, but also by contributing to the critical discussion of Myanmar’s past and present, as Htike Htike, Siew Han Yeo and Melanie Walker suggested in the discussion. Scholars have an obligation to make their sources and research available when the government is not willing to open archives or foster evidence-based discussion. More research is needed on intra-group interaction and race, ethnicity and nationalism in diverse rather than monoethnic contexts. It is also easier for foreigners to introduce Burmese people of different backgrounds and initiate conversations that would not otherwise take place.
Indrė Balčaitė is an independent social researcher. Her Politics PhD at SOAS focused on ethnicity, borders and migration from Myanmar to Thailand. Along with Ponpavi Sangsuradej, she currently coordinates the Burma Studies Reading Group that originated at London School of Economics. She thanks the participants of the discussion for their contributions and support in drafting this article.