Myanmar’s unrest: Colonial legacy undermines nascent democracy

Alarming outbreaks of sectarian violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar cast an ominous cloud over that nation’s democratic transition from military rule.

Reading shocking reports of killings, arson and mayhem instigated by monks, or perhaps provocateurs, there is good reason to despair about the future. State violence against ethnic groups around the country has been a suppurating wound for decades, but now other long-pent-up resentments are erupting that threaten to derail the fragile process of restoring civilian rule.

Current communal strife has its origins in 19th- and 20th-century British colonial policy. Burma (as Myanmar was known in those days) was administered jointly with India until 1937, though treated as a lesser appendage.

Indians held the best “native” jobs in government and were the comprador class in Burma. Consequently, they were well positioned to insinuate themselves into various commercial sectors — none more notoriously than moneylending. Charging ruinous interest rates to subsistence farmers living just one bad crop away from ruin, they spread like locusts over the countryside.

Landlessness and poverty grew especially acute in the 1930s as export commodity markets imploded and the price of rice — Burma was the regional rice basket — plummeted. In this context, a macabre saying among the Burmese back then speaks volumes about contemporary tensions: “Walking down the road if you see an Indian and a cobra, kill the Indian first.”

Though Burma’s most famous former colonial officer was doubtless the English novelist George Orwell, who served in the Imperial Police, there was no more astute an observer of the sectarian time bomb planted by the British Raj in that country than Orwell’s compatriot J.S. Furnivall. Posted there with the Indian Civil Service, he stayed for two decades at the beginning of the 20th century.

Sixty-five years ago, as Burma gained its independence in 1948, Furnivall published his classic “Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India,” in which he analyzed one of the more pernicious legacies of colonial rule: the plural society (a term he is generally credited with coining).

This arose because colonial policy spawned multiethnic societies by encouraging labor migration and imposing the nation state — so thrusting together a mélange of ethnic groups with the majority ethnic Burmese. They shared little in common, and colonial divide-and-rule policies accentuated animosities.

Furnivall was prophetic about the horizontal stratification — in terms of religion and ethnicity — that bedevils contemporary Myanmar, a destabilizing problem evident across the former colonized world. But he was seriously wrong about the benefits of stoking ethnic nationalism, and also had trouble imagining an end to the British Empire. Japanese imperialism, however, accelerated that denouement as it became the inadvertent handmaiden of Burma’s independence.

While some Japanese like to take credit for liberating Asia from the yoke of Western imperialism, the story is more complicated.

Tokyo sought its own empire in Asia, and as it dawned upon the newly “liberated” that they were still subjugated, they turned against the Japanese. Perhaps the most important legacy of Japan’s stillborn empire was in training local armies. In Indonesia (the former Netherlands East Indies) and Burma, these emerged as the strongest postindependence institutions and imposed authoritarian government from the 1960s. The traumas of this repression still cast a long shadow over both nations.

Aung San — the father of politician and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — was a preeminent Burmese nationalist leader who cooperated with the Japanese until his misgivings led him to turn against them in early 1945.

Before he was gunned down in mid-1947, he tried to address the mess being bequeathed by the British by negotiating the Panglong Agreement, embracing a federalist vision of a unified Burma anchored on ethnic autonomy. However, that vision confronted the domineering and centralizing inclinations of majority Burmese nationalism, resulting in prolonged civil wars.

A fragile peace has been cobbled together, but the recent eruption of violence in ethnic Kachin-controlled territory near the northern border with China is a reminder that Myanmar’s nascent democracy faces difficult challenges in addressing smoldering ethnic tensions. And now it must also cope with religious violence — all the while trying to reassure foreign investors that reforms remain on track.

In 1962, the wartime Japanese-trained General Ne Win seized power, ousting Muslims from the military and initiating a large-scale expulsion of Indians. Following expropriation of their property in 1964, a further 300,000 Indians emigrated under duress.

Today, the remaining 1 million Indians, a diverse group of whom perhaps half are Muslims, are “resident aliens.” They still constitute a distinctive and relatively prosperous commercial community in Yangon and other major towns where mosques are more numerous than might be expected in a largely Buddhist society. Like the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, the Muslims and Indians of Myanmar have long been convenient lightning rods for economic grievances.

Indonesia, following the ouster of President Suharto in 1998, also experienced a turbulent transition from three decades of authoritarian rule. Ethnic and religious violence along with separatist movements escalated across the archipelago, leaving some to wonder if political repression was highly underrated. While armed conflict has not been quelled entirely, Indonesia did not descend into chaos, and over the past 15 years it has been able to boast a series of peaceful, democratic political transitions.

Myanmar’s military has been inspired by the Indonesian model and understands the advantages of shifting political responsibilities to civilians while still keeping a hand on the levers of power; politicians now own the problems that accumulated under military rule.

The massacres and displacement of Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar in 2012 fomented recent violence targeting Muslims in towns of central Myanmar. Rakhine Buddhists in the west of the country have long resented the presence of Muslim Rohingya, dismissing them as illegal Bengali migrants from Bangladesh.

The historical record is more complex, as many scholars believe Rohingya arrived prior to the British in the early 19th century. But the simple truth for the Rohingya is denial of citizenship, and now, security of their homes and lives. Curfews and a stepped-up security presence have prevented a cascading crisis, but the lingering hatreds and suspicions may well fuel more outrages.

There is no ready solution to intensifying religious chauvinism driven by festering ethnic nationalism. Repression over the past six decades has left Myanmar with a stunted civil society, withered institutions, little experience with freedom or democracy — and crushing poverty that feeds bitter resentments. It is awful but not surprising that people denied so much for so long are now lashing out with such venom.

Pundits have been quick to rip the halo from opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, criticizing that she has not spoken out enough about the ethnic and religious violence and has been overly cooperative with military figures.

But the sooner people understand she has no magic wand to heal the deep wounds that scar Myanmar the better. She retains great moral authority and is in a better position than anyone else to tackle the daunting agenda of reconciliation — political, ethnic and religious. This, though, is a national and collective challenge, one requiring her leadership — yet also depending on political and religious leaders and the active participation of civil society at the grassroots.

Some form of legal recognition may be granted to the Rohingya, but doing so risks a racial and religious backlash. This is where former general and current President Thein Sein must exert his influence to curb unrest — while ensuring that disorder doesn’t become a pretext for democratic backsliding. The trouble is that democracy and identity politics create splendid opportunities for extremists.

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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