Around fifteen years ago, a petty criminal named Kaung Latt was sweating away in a filthy prison in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta when he was presented with an offer that was hard to refuse: early release, a house of his own, fields to till, a stipend and regular food rations in exchange for – nothing.
All he had to do in return was be himself: a Buddhist and a member of the country’s Bamar ethnic majority. He was shipped hundreds of miles west, to a sea-hugging finger of tropical land known as Rakhine, where Myanmar’s military regime had begun to fear it was losing control on multiple fronts.
“I was told that in Rakhine there are so many Muslims, so we want to balance that out by sending Buddhists here,” Kaung Latt told journalist Francis Wade, who found him years later, still living in the “model village” of Aung Thar Yar, which had been overrun by crime, alcoholism and squalor – but was still, at least, Buddhist and Bamar.
The goal, Wade makes clear in Myanmar’s Enemy Within – a sober account of ethnic mistrust and communal violence in Myanmar – was not only to de-Muslimise Rakhine State but to de-Rakhine it. The country’s paranoid clique of ruling generals was determined to render this desperately poor outpost of empire – inhabited by a blend of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims who coexisted mostly peacefully, if uneasily – more tractable to its aims. Wade deploys examples such as this to trace how ethnicity and religion have become reified in Myanmar and are seen by successive governments as shorthand for state affiliation, or lack thereof.
The most obvious consequence of this sclerotic and essentialist view of ethnic identity is the ongoing Rohingya exodus, perhaps the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. Myanmar’s Enemy Within was published just before the most recent and serious outbreak of violence in August 2017, which has seen nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims forced out of Myanmar after being brutalised by a wave of pograms in which villages were torched by soldiers and the inhabitants raped and killed.
Wade might seem to have run up against a journalist’s worst nightmare: spending years writing a book on a relatively obscure topic, only to have history overtake him and the situation explode into bloody and world-galvanising violence after he went to print. But this is ultimately an advantage. The lack of focus on recent events means that Myanmar’s Enemy Within does the harder work of grappling with the immensely complicated roots of the crisis. The conflict in Rakhine cannot be understood outside the context of centuries of conquest and efforts to regulate the state’s indigenous population, which made this area particularly fertile for mass paranoia and anxiety about being overwhelmed demographically.
Much coverage of the Rohingya crisis has been frustratingly ahistorical. This is partly because the scale of the suffering is so vast and the victims of the atrocities so vulnerable and desperate that their misery cries out for attention. But it also means that most international readers only partially understand the history of Rakhine. Even worse, Myanmar, when it is seen at all, is often viewed through a Manichaean lens: decades of oppressive military dictatorship (bad) during which the entire population, bolstered by the moral authority of the Buddhist monkhood (good) and the leadership of the enlightened Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (good), is finally emerging into democracy (very good).
The simplicity of this narrative can lead to the impression that the convulsions of anti-Rohingya violence that began in August 2017 were an incomprehensible divergence from the Suu Kyi–led path to democracy, just as the obstacles to peace had seemed to fall away. Actually, the Rohingya crisis was not a shocking rupture so much as a collision of several long-simmering issues: tension between the centre and the periphery of an artificially drawn nation-state; growing Buddhist extremism; a perception of Buddhism as linked to citizenship and identity; and a decades-long national obsession with classifying citizens by race and religion, a ruinous vestige of British colonial rule.
To the close watcher, even the Suu Kyi of 2018 snaps into focus not as a fallen idol, but as a leader who has always been imperious and image-obsessed, dubious that Muslims had a true place in a Bamar-majority nation, deferential to certain types of military might and obsessed with preserving the legacy of her father, General Aung San, and his vision to unite Myanmar’s disparate peoples into one, by force if necessary.
Many of Myanmar’s tensions had been kept in check by decades of brutal military rule, which united large swathes of the population in their hatred of the junta, with Suu Kyi acting as their standard-bearer. But after 2015, Wade writes, “the military, in its retreat from power, seemed to have passed a torch onto the masses of people who had spent so many years opposing its mercurial rule”.
Wade is particularly insightful on the many ways in which Burma’s leaders have exploited ethnic divisions to shore up power, even as they reified the founding myth of a happily multiethnic nation. A thousand years ago, Wade notes, the man who most Burmese recognise as their first king, Anawrahta, used an emerging Buddhist identity to forcibly unite the disparate tribes of the Irrawaddy Valley into a single empire for the first time. The model villages of Rakhine are almost ur-examples of this tendency, and the story of Kaung Latt’s get-out-of-jail-free card – his own ethnicity – casts into relief just how paranoid and bizarre were some of the military regime’s efforts to maintain political power through what they called “Burmanisation”.
Wade also shows how this program spilled over into neighbouring Chin State to target Christians there, and how “Burmanisation” involved subduing Mon groups and denying citizenship to people of Indian descent. He takes us to 1980s Yangon to meet a Mon girl miserably trying to integrate into the Bamar majority, and to 2013 Meiktila, which experienced some of the worst bouts of anti-Muslim violence outside Rakhine.
These stories convey just how vast Myanmar is – and not just physically. Rakhine, like many parts of Myanmar’s periphery, feels very far from Yangon. Palm-dotted and sea-oriented, it sprawls out against the vividly blue Bay of Bengal, with a spicy, briny cuisine distinct from the oily curries of the interior, and hundreds of temples built by the ancestors of the Rakhine, who have their own dialect.
Today the Rakhine, like many of Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, see themselves as descendants of a proud and ancient race. When I visited two years ago, just as the most recent crisis was rearing its head, I was struck by how beleaguered they felt: oppressed by a central government that had spent years trying to “Burmanise” them, ignored or demonised by the international community and hemmed in by what they perceived as a terrifying influx of Muslim interlopers.
Myanmar’s Enemy Within falls short in some minor respects. Wade fails to provide a convincing explanation of why anti-Muslim sentiment seems so much more brutal and contagious than other ethnic rivalries in Myanmar. (Then again, there may simply be no good explanation.) The narrative in some parts is thin and lacking in detail. This is almost certainly due to the difficulty of working in Rakhine State. During my time reporting there, a wary peace prevailed, but both Rakhine and Rohingya communities were shaken and mistrustful of outsiders, and a heavy police and military presence made travel difficult. Now that those tensions have erupted again into outright violence, access is infinitely worse, and foreign journalists are barred from entering other than during government-sponsored press tours.
In large part because of this lack of access, the story has once again become one of good versus evil: the Rohingya versus everyone else. This is not a false account, but it is not the whole truth. That is why Myanmar’s Enemy Within is welcome: at times the intricacies of ethnicity in Myanmar can seem confoundingly complex, thick with the history of centuries of migrations and countless grievances; but so too is the world, and its variously constructed nations.
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EventAustralian Identity in a Changing Landscape: A conversation at Cinema Nova
EventAustralian Foreign Affairs and La Trobe Asia panel discussion