Disenfranchising Minorities via Census: Burma (Myanmar)

In Burma (officially known as Myanmar), the government has begun the first census in three decades (according to the BBC). Of course, the document and census takers (presumably) are refusing to allow any individuals to classify themselves as Rohingya. While the article notes that the UN (which is assisting with the census) asserts that all people should be free to choose their own ethnicity – the Burmese government (not to be confused with Burman) only allows individuals to choose “Bengali” or they would not be registered.

The Rohingya are a dialect of Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims residing primarily in Arakan state, which was formerly its own kingdom until it was conquered by the Burman Empire (and subsequently incorporated into the entity now known as Burma) in the 17th or 18th century. The Rohingya’s language, a dialect of Bengali as I have indicated, is the primary basis for the government’s assertion that they are ethnically “Bengali.” In addition, this linguistic difference coupled with their predominantly Sunni Islamic religious orientation adds some (apparently unwelcome) diversity to the mostly Theravada Buddhist state.

The Burmese government, taking an increasingly Buddhist-nationalist bent (as evidenced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the Rohingya’s situation), has labelled the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” despite the community’s presence in the same area for centuries. Thousands of Rohingya have settled in neighboring Bangladesh (peopled predominantly by Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims) in refugee camps just over the Burma-Bangladesh border. Many were forcibly (through outright violence or intimidation) migrated. As the article notes one recent spate of violence occurred in 2012, reminiscent of the Gujarat pogroms a decade earlier (where now-Prime Ministerial candidate in India Narendra Modi turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the state) the Rakhine violence began with the alleged rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl by several Muslim Rohingya men. Hundreds died and thousands displaced in the ensuing violence.

That the government is refusing to acknowledge the Rohingya minority is of no surprise. A country’s census (typically) forms the basis for electoral districts, acknowledging (and publishing) the population of Rohingya in Rakhine state would undoubtedly find the Rohingya to be a substantial minority in the state. There is also the “official recognition” factor, acknowledging Rohingya in a Burmese census provides official recognition of their status as Burmese citizens. Herein lies the deviously cunning gem in the government’s plan, allow the Rohingya to either acknowledge they are “Bengalis” and therefore “illegal immigrants” or don’t allow them to register at all and therefore have a basis to deny citizenship (and voting rights).

Even if the United Nations manages to convince the government to back down and allow “Rohingya” to be officially recognized, the government still has options to oppress the minorities. Borrowing a page from North Carolina’s playbook – there is the tried-and-true tactic of gerrymandering electoral districts in Rakhine state to minimize the impact of the Rohingya vote. If that doesn’t work, there is also a myriad ways to keep minorities out of the polls or simply discount their votes.

And there is the potential for violence, while most Rohingya are probably unlikely to undertake violent activity – they are under siege, as evidenced by the forced migrations over several decades, the government’s latest action likely will fuel resentment among the community. A troubling thought is the potential for the census forms to be used to target “Bengali”-Rohingya. Again referencing the Gujarat pogroms, riot leaders had voter lists (otherwise names and addresses) of Muslims throughout the community to focus the killings and looting. Beyond the Rohingya community, other ethnic minorities (such as the Karen and Shan) are also watching the census with anticipation. These larger minority communities are also armed, organized, and concentrated geographically.

post-script:

A Geography of Anti-Islam Violence: Burma

The 2000s are not a good time to be a Muslim, because “Muslims” (if there is such a generalized community, which of course there isn’t) are routinely vilified in the media. But this post isn’t about the “lamestream” media that the West (and the U.S. in particular) finds itself saddled with. This post concerns the anti-Islam sentiments of “societies” themselves, specifically in South Asia. A cursory look at recent history will uncover plenty of evidence of violence, sometimes pogroms, against Muslims. Of course, the latent desire for certain people to target, discriminate against, and kill other certain people isn’t helped by current events and the way they’re portrayed.

You know the elephant in this blog post. September 11, 2001. When the actions of 19 individuals, tied to a single organization, not only destroyed two towers and thousands of lives, but was used as justification to vilify the system of beliefs for well over a billion people. Sadly, the media (and the rest of us) are all too willing to present and discuss these conflicts in one dimensional terms, “they were Muslim”. This is the first in a series (not necessarily in order!) of discussions of violence targeting Muslims, today’s post focuses on Burma.

But like all conflicts, the ones I present have multiple dimensions. These discussions revolves around the point that these societies (all societies in fact), made up population groups, are all fractured along multiple identity lines. Sometimes the cracks aren’t visible, nothing manifests in the news. Otherwise the cracks are all too visible. You can see them in your own society, if you know where to look (hint: the cracks). The cracks though run in multiple directions. But as humans, we try to generalize and simplify – in order to make sense of complex situations. The problem, of course, is that we believe our own simplifications and take these as truth. The only truth, of course, is that it is complex and any one thing could never be (fully) explained in a single blog post.

Burma has been experiencing periodic violent conflict, cast in the light of ethno-religious terms by the media, over the past several years. Considering the way the media is structured, especially with the “24-hour news cycle”, and the authoritarian nature of the military regime, we can be certain that the Myanmar conflict has been ongoing (or simmering) for years, perhaps decades. International news are unlikely to report “continued tensions between Muslims and Buddhists”, since this isn’t likely to grab a reader’s attention. However, one-off stories of “Gang of [fill in religious group] kill scores in [fill in place of worship of other group]” are likely to generate readership and interest. A sufficiently authoritarian government (see: Stalin, Tito, Asad for example) is also more apt to keep inter-population group tensions at a minimum through a combination of carrots and sticks. The carrot is providing state/public resources to favored population groups. The stick is… they’ll kill you if you cause trouble. With Burma’s tentative steps towards democracy, ethnic tensions are boiling over. Probably because there’s increased international scrutiny, meaning we’re paying attention more AND because they (Rohingya and Burmans) know we’re paying attention and probably because the government is on its “best” behavior, i.e. not killing trouble-makers.

Last year anti-Muslim violence was concentrated in the west, in Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state. This state hosts, in very broad terms, the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. The Rohingya speak an Indo-Aryan language, similar to (but distinct from) Bengali, and typically practice Sunni Islam. Because of this cultural and linguistic similarity with the majority population group in Bangladesh (the Bengalis), a number of Burman sources in Burma (Myanmar) contend that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants.” In contrast, the Rakhine community speak a dialect of Burmese, which is a Sino-Tibetan language. They principally adhere to Theravada Buddhism (the so-called “Hinayana”/”Lesser Vehicle” ). The community is also related to the Burman population group (the largest ethnic group in Burma) as well as the Marma and Chakma groups in Bangladesh (which principally reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts). The recent change has been the spread of Buddhist violence to new areas quite far from Rakhine/Arakan, where there isn’t much of a Muslim minority population to speak of.

The fundamental question is… are the Rohingya illegal immigrants? No. First, who would choose to settle in an isolationist, authoritarian military state. Would anyone want to illegally settle in North Korea? Turning to our history books, Islam was present in South and Southeast Asia centuries before the arrival of the British. It first arrived via Sufi saints and mystics who integrated with local communities, adapting to their customs. It came again through the sword of Turkish invaders. Obviously, the Sufis had more of an impact on local populations. Over the intervening centuries, Muslim traders often settled in commercial and port towns and used their connections to facilitate international trade (much like Chinese traders elsewhere in Southeast Asia). Arakan was one such commercial outpost. Importantly, Arakan also bordered Chittagong and the rest of Bangladesh, which had become increasingly Islamic during the British Raj (due in no small part to the eastern province’s (East Bengal) depressed economic status and the crushing oppression of the Hindu caste system). The history of the last independent Arakan kingdom, Mrauk U, is intimately tied with Bengal. After Burman conquest of Arakan in 1785, the Burma Empire engaged in atrocities amounting to ethnic cleansing (though the source discounts the existence of “Rohingya” in Burma prior to the 1800s).

The lamestream media’s darling, Aung San Suu Kyi (winner of the ::cough, cough:: Nobel Peace Prize) made “rare” (not even my words) comments on the violence gripping the country recently. Honestly, they weren’t even comments it was a shrugging response, a lame answer. It was (gasp) a politician’s response. ASSK commented that she was “not a magician” and couldn’t use magic to make tensions dissipate. Thanks for clearing that up! Prior to this I cannot recall ANY substantive comments from ASSK on ethno-religious violence in Burma (of which there are several instances). As the BDnews24 article observes, ASSK herself is a “devout (Theravada) Buddhist.” I’m guessing that ASSK is a Burman Buddhist. While the decision to support or criticize violence between two population is an individual decision, that she shares a similar language and religious affinity is a hurdle. The violence is focused around the Muslim minority community of Burma, some of whom also happen to share a similar language with Bengali (spoken in Bangladesh and India). Of course, the Muslims have existed in western Burma since before the absorption of the last independent kingdom of Mrauk U in 1785. However, Burma was part of the British Raj, which would facilitate a great deal of “internal” migration within the Raj. This migration, often encouraged by the British to foster economic advancement, would not have been welcomed by the “native” population.

Finally, all of this violence comes about a year before Burma conducts its first census since 1983 (the pilot census should have just been completed a week ago). A census typically forms the basis for the distribution of public resources and political power, it is a catalog of a state’s most important resource – people. People are not, as you should know by now in this post, a homogeneous mass. There is no single Burmese nationality. In a country dominated by a single ethnic group, the Burman for instance, what would happen if a census showed that a minority group, the Rohingya, had actually experienced faster population growth than the Rakhine? If the Rohingya knew and could put aside their own internal differences, they could be reasonably confident of forming a state government sensitive to their rights and desires. Why might the Rohingya be a larger population group? For the simple reason that they are oppressed and poor. Children are their social security, the state doesn’t provide for this group like it does for the favored Rakhine.

Demography always returns to bite autocrats in the ass.