Photo Credit, Christopher Michel, Flickr, CC license

Turning Ethnicity against Ethnic Nationalities

Published: 1 May 2019

In his contribution to the majority nationalism blog series, Alexandre Pelletier of Cornell University reflects on the twin faces of majority nationalism in Myanmar.

Peace with ethnic minorities is a key priority for the future of Myanmar’s democracy. After sixty years of ethnic civil war, the state and ethnic nationalities agreed in 2015 that federalism would constitute the basic organizing principle of a future Myanmar. The quest for federalism has been at the core of ethnic demands since the country’s independence in 1948. Today, as in the past, “ethnic nationalities” are conceived as the basic units of any future federal state. In addition to the Burman majority, ethnic nationalities are the Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan groups. The success of federalism in Myanmar depends on a profound reconfiguration of the relationship between the central state, its Burman majority, and those ethnic nationalities. Since independence, the Burman majority has dominated the central government and has pursued forceful policies of centralization and burmanization. This is the first face of majority nationalism in Myanmar.  

As the country gets closer to federalism, however, we witness a growing number of political claims from small ethnic groups located within the larger ethnic nationalities. Indeed, ethnic nationalities and states are far from homogenous and all contain important internal diversity. Most ethnic nationalities are collections of smaller ethnic groups, tribes, or clans and the idea of collective pan-ethnic identities is relatively recent. Most ethnic states also only imperfectly overlap the ethnic group after which they were named. Some ethnic groups are on the “wrong” side of the border, while others are encapsulated within larger ethnic groups. This internal diversity, however, was in the background for most of modern history. Ethnic nationalities and pan-ethnic flags were the key actors during most of Myanmar’s civil war. Since the 1990s, however, and even more so today, this internal diversity is increasingly politicized. Small ethnic groups, sometimes ranging from 50,000 people to just a million, express new or long forgotten claims to recognition, representation and, more problematically, territorial autonomy. They too have been the victims of burmanization policies and some even of the local majority’s own oppressive nationalism. These claims, while legitimate, have increased inter-ethnic tensions and may well compromise the future of federalism.

This pluralisation of ethnic politics, far from questioning Burman hegemony, actually strengthens it. This is the second face of Burman majority nationalism. As Myanmar moves toward democracy, outright assimilationist and centralising policies are less acceptable (but still ongoing in many cases). The central state now helps turn ethnicity against ethnic nationalities. It does so by recognising ethnic groups that were not historically considered as “nations,” while denying full recognition to those that were. The goal remains the same, that is, the creation of a single nation in which the state has full sovereignty over its ethnic periphery and keeps a firm grip on its resources and political future.

Since the 1990s, Myanmar officially recognises not seven, but 135 “national races.” The origin of this number is unknown. It seems to derive from the 1931 British census of India, which identified 15 indigenous “race groups” and some 135 subgroups in Burma. Various numbers were then produced in the modern period, but never had true political consequences. This changed with the 2008 Constitution, which provided representation and territorial autonomy to some of these national races. Under the Constitution, a national race can elect an “Ethnic Affairs Minister,” if its population in a state is of 0.1 percent or more (approximately 51,000 people or more); and, a national race can obtain a “Self-Administered Zone” (SAZ) if it is the majority in two adjacent townships.

This new politics of recognition was initially criticised as a divide-and-rule tactic, yet it rapidly gained traction among smaller minorities. During the National Convention of the 1990s, more than 25 national races applied for a self-administered zone. If all the government had accepted all the proposals, the map of Myanmar would have looked much more fragmented: it would have established ten SAZs in the Shan State, and numerous others in the northern Kachin, southern Kachin, northern Rakhine, southern Chin and Kayah states as well as in the Sagaing and Ayeyarwady regions. The government established rules that avoided this scenario, and only granted SAZs to six groups, but it did not deter ethnic mobilisation.

The impacts of this politics of recognition are more visible since 2014, when the government conducted its first national census in decades. In preparation for the census, the government finally released the official list containing the names of the 135 national races. While it used this number since the 1990s, it had never officially published a list. The list instantly became a heated object of contention as ethnic leaders debated its categories and sub-categories, but few debated the relevance of the list itself.

Small minorities used the opportunities offered by the census to gain recognition, often expressed as a new census code. The census process created space for such demands: ethnic groups that felt excluded from the existing census codes were invited to pick the “Other” category, under the code 914. Khine Khine Soe, director of the Population Department of the Union government, revealed that “nearly 100 distinct ethnic groups were recorded under the 914 designation.” For many pan-ethnic nationalists, such as Kachin, Chin, and Karen leaders, this fragmentation directly threatened ethnic solidarity when unity is the most needed.

Since the census, many small minorities have ratcheted up their demands: most of the groups that were granted a National Ethnic Affairs Minister, such as the Akha, Intha, and Padaung, now ask for a proper self-administered zone. And most of the groups that obtained a self-administered zone, such as the Wa and the Pa’O, now ask for a proper state. Others, such as the Wa, Palaung, and Naga, now seek to expand their territory into other groups’ own territory.

The 2008 Constitution contains all the seeds for inter-ethnic conflicts. The fact that it provides recognition, representation, and autonomy based on a group’s percentage of the population in a given territory creates the condition for son-of-the-soil conflicts, irredentism, and worst, ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya crisis is the most extreme example. The prospect that Muslims could self-identify as “Rohingya” in the census was one of conflict’s triggers in northern Rakhine state. Rakhine leaders were worried that if the government recognized the Muslims as one of the “national races,” they would start pressing for a self-administered zone or worst, an autonomous state. In response, Rakhine nationalist leaders organised numerous protests against Rohingya and threatened a boycott of the census. Rohingya were eventually banned from self-identification in the census and deprived of the right to vote in the 2015 election. The mobilisation of Rakhine politicians fanned a nationwide anti-Muslim movement in 2013 and 2014. Territorial disputes are increasingly creating similar tensions and fostering clashes among ethnic groups elsewhere as well.

The rise of new claims by small ethnic minorities is reconfiguring the political landscape in Myanmar. While these claims are legitimate, they are expressed in ways that compromise federalism and democracy. The respect of ethnic minorities need not mean territorial autonomy. Moreover, the mobilisation of small ethnic groups for their own ministers or self-administered zones makes inclusive politics and multicultural pan-ethnic identities more and more difficult. Since they occupy only a few townships, the type of autonomy that these small ethnic groups can realistically hope to obtain is very limited. While some powers over education, language, and culture may help preserve these groups’ rich background, it is far from the type of political and economic self-determination that ethnic nationalities have been demanding for the last 60 years. This new politics of recognition thus not only undermine federalism, but runs against the interests of both larger and smaller ethnic groups. One thing that it does not do, however, is to run against the interest of the central state and its Burman majority.

Photo Credit: Christopher Michel, Flickr, CC license.

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