The rose-tinted Orientalist take on Buddhism is so hegemonic that Westerners are often shocked when they hear of the atrocities carried out by militarized Buddhist masses and the political states that have adopted or manipulated Buddhism as part of the state ideological apparatus. Buddhism’s popular image as a peaceful, humanistic religious doctrine immune to dogma contradicts a long history of violent Buddhist empires—from Emperor Ashoka’s on the old Indian subcontinent to the Buddhist monarchies of precolonial Sri Lanka and Siam, and the Khmer and Burmese kingdoms—some of whom sanctioned war with recourse to the dharma. The oppression carried out under Burmese President Thein Sein and his Sri Lankan counterpart, President Rajapaksa, is just the latest from a long line of violent Buddhist regimes.
Prejudice arises wherever communities of different faiths, classes, and ethnicities coexist and interact. But genocide is not an inevitable outcome of group prejudice; there have to be institutional mechanisms and an organized harnessing of forces, generally enacted by the state. Burma’s lay public and political society, while supposedly informed by the worldwide ideals of human rights and democracy that spread across formerly closed leftist polities, have evidently failed to undergo what Aung San Suu Kyi famously called “the revolution of the spirit.” Instead, they have chosen to pursue a destructive nationalism that is rooted in the fear of losing property, land, and racial and religious purity.
The rise of genocidal Buddhist racism against the Rohingya, a minority community of nearly one million people in the western Burmese province of Rakhine (also known as Arakan), is an international humanitarian crisis. The military-ruled state has been relentless in its attempts to erase Rohingya ethnic identity, which was officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group in 1954 by the democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu. Indeed, in the past months of violent conflict, beginning in June 2012, the Rohingya have suffered over 90 percent of the total death toll and property destruction, including the devastation of entire villages and city neighborhoods. Following the initial eruption of violence in western Burma, several waves of killing, arson, and rampage have been directed at the Rohingya, backed by Burma’s security forces."
— Dr. Maung Zarni, "Buddhist Nationalism in Burma". It’s an old piece but so on point (especially as it addresses the source as the government) I had to bring it back up, and suggest anyone interested in the genocide targeted at the Rohingya read the whole thing through. (via themindislimitless)
I think one of the strangest parts I had to adjust to in America was how people perceived (or couldn’t perceive) places like Myanmar and/or Pakistan.
Take Myanmar for instance. Only 73% of metro households use electricity as their main source of fuel. 41% of households in urban area report charcoal as their main fuel source. Americans/Europeans/First World-ians are going to read this and think of dismal landscapes where people are still living simply in their traditional means or something. I don’t know. I can’t imagine ridiculous stereotypes because I lived there.
Snark aside, here’s the thing. Because power outage were so frequent in Myanmar, I knew how to preserve food without a refrigerator (the trick is in heating your curries/milk etc regularly enough and eating them too!). Candle light living wasn’t romantic; it was a chore because I loved to read and I couldn’t read at night because too little light would strain my eyes and damage my eyesight (didn’t happen, alhumdulillah). Battling mosquitoes and whiling away time in very humid climate was a reality.
And yet I grew up with Backstreet Boys and was in Yahoo IM Chat rooms and used Facebook before it was popular in America. Because we had satellite TV (in Myanmar, you either had satellite TV or national channels and that’s it), the satellite would often get blown away by the wind and consequently, most of the time we didn’t have TV. Yet I never stopped trying to broaden my horizons, to break through the borders of my world. I wasn’t living in squalor and peeing in bushes. But I didn’t have electricity most of the time in the summer just like most Burmese. Life moved on. In fact, when I first came to America and was being driven away from JFK airport, I remember looking up at the skyscrapers in Manhattan and thinking “no big deal. They have tall buildings in Myanmar too”, and promptly fell asleep.
And this is something that I don’t think Americans can grasp. Americans have such a linear view of the rest of the world that truly, it is laughable. I suppose the sad part about this is that because of the power of American media, this linear view is also projected back at us, and it is not the most helpful. Still. It never ceases to amuse me how Americans think of themselves so superior of everyone else because they have running water and constant electricity.
Human beings as a whole have weird superiority complexes I suppose.
One of the things that sorely irk me about the discussion of Burma is that in various international media outlet and related, we repeatedly hear (white) European and American journalists and human rights activists commenting on the situation. Or sometimes even non-Burmese Asians. The thing is, Burma has a vast array of activists, not only from the Barmar people but also from various Burmese ethnicity etc. They are articulate on everything, from free speech rights to the rehabilitation of child soldiers to gender rights within the country. But the media at large will have you believe that because the Burmese people were so repressed, it was like they lived life muted on farms and are just now discovering the phenomena of the Internet.
It is so demoralizing sometimes.
Time and again, it’s the same thing in Burma. Religious/Ethnic uprisings occur because one supremacist group said the other minority group raped their woman. Some time later "claims were later fabricated".
Two things: 1) I am wary of “rape claims were fabricated” reports. Women since forever have not been believed when it comes to the violence enacted against them. But then again, 2) isn’t it interesting how uprisings seem cued on protecting women? Patriarchy works in interesting ways. Violence in a patriarchal world seems justifiable only when it is protecting the women (who seems to just fit in within the box set by patriarchy) and also when patriarchy has to beat the women back into her pre-assigned box.
Sometimes I wonder: if I’d had more faculty of color mentors, would they have warned me against the project I am doing when I first conceived of the idea? Against this project of historicity, against this project of walking back through the lives of my own community to see what happened, to see exactly how we came to where we are.
And then I tell myself, I’m being too sensitive. I’m over thinking. I’m being too sensitive.
Blundell and other European observes realized that indigenous governmental institutions which did not fit into the British - Indian system were decaying and that the foundations of the traditional ties of village and family life were also giving way. But business demands invariably took precedence. From Calcutta’s perspective, economic production needs were more important than accommodation to popular desires. Little attention was accordingly given Blundell’s insistence that Talaings recently freed from Buremse misrule could not be handled by Bengali methods, especially if the attempt were made in accordance with the presumptuous pattern of personal privilege set up by the British mercantile community.
- “A History of Modern Burma” by John Cady
A few things immediately run through my mind.
First: “Calcutta” does not necessarily imply Indian administration. The excerpt above is a *history snapshot* of 1842, when India was pretty firmly under British rule.
Second: a flashback to a class about Pre-Modern India when a south asian student was reading about satti. She had come back to class, and after prompted, told the class about how various economic changes that the British implemented, fully knowing that they weren’t working, fully knowing how much harm they were bringing to the community, was regardless implemented. One of the results of the new economic changes and laws was how the practice of satti became entrenched in the region.
- Jonathan Saha has presented John Comaroff’s argument in his book Law, Disorder and the Colonial State that colonial law should not be treated as a functional, monolithic entity. Further in his introduction, Saha points out that colinial state in history books are often protrayed as “a rational, impersonal, bureacratic actor, separate from, and yet increasingly intrusive in, society. This dominant narrative has created a dichotomous, Manichean picture the relationship between the state and society that can be mapped directly onto the binary of the colonizer and the colonized. There is little room in this framework to examine the complexities of how the state was experienced in everyday life. Nor is there much scope to study the role played by the mostly Indian and Burmese subordinate state officials; a group on which precious little historical work has been published”. [The view gave me pause: there’s substance in there but I need to read more, to think more.]
- Marc Epprecht wrote in his book Sexuality and social justice in Africa : rethinking homophobia and forging resistance that he is against the idea of blaming colonials for everything, but colonialism shouldn’t be discounted in relation to current events in post colonial regions.When he talked about his abhorrence of blaming everything on colonialism to make ourselves feel better, it made me laugh.
- Uma Narayan argued in her 1989 essay, “The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a nonwestern feminist”, that just because an individual is oppressed does not mean said individual has “epistemic advantage” to the *oppressed* view point. She pointed out that many of the *oppressed* group are so Westernized that they lose knowledge of their own culture. And so criticism is necessary.
"Calcutta" does not imply British administration. Not in 1842. However, shortly after that, the Chettiyar community came to Burma, and essentially did become rich from the opportunities that opened up in Burma. We also know that though administration was essentially British, it did not mean that Burmese/Indian officials weren’t present in the administration. British administration. Burmese official. Whose ambitions?
A complicated picture.
I go back to reading the above excerpt again. “… realized that indigenous governmental institutions which did not fit into the British - Indian system were decaying and that the foundations of the traditional ties of village and family life were also giving way. But business demands invariably took precedence”.
British ambitions. Burmese/Indian players. Burmese/Indian pawns. The destruction of old ways and emergence of new ways of living.
A century and a half later, the identity of Muslim Rakhine is being debated in the Burmese parliament. Are they Burmese? Foreign Bangladeshis who came to take advantage of the fertile rice delta? Do they have the right to citizenship? Owning property? Vote? Hold office?
The questions are not new. They can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s and before when Burmese national identity was being debated. When the Chettiyar Indians - and so by relation, all Indians - in Burma were considered foreigners. When the choice to remain sovereign under India was being debated.
Questions asked for a century have a peculiar kind of pain behind them. And so I turn back to my history books. To solve the riddle of how we came be this way.
Are current kalar-Bama relations wholly the result of colonial practice and greed? How much can be blamed on the subordinates? There were so many looking for more opportunities, who also played a role in the colonial state. How much is my own history intertwined in this pain?
I don’t know. There’s so much more I need to read. And so I pause.
Perhaps I am over thinking everything. Being too sensitive. Regardless, I have a lot more reading to do.
I’m writing my first real introductory paper to my “South Asian diaspora in Myanmar” project. I’m exhausted, but at the same time, I feel at peace. I feel in my element.
History and anthropology have very rigid hierarchical ways of presenting facts. Not stories, as they claim, but facts. And the trouble is, I’m not interested in the project of telling facts. Facts leave a people nude and up for display for the hungry gaze of anyone walking by. That’s what Western discourse has largely done for the last two centuries. Taken peoples and presented them as “facts”, compressing them into objects, and propping them up in display cases for all to hungrily, consumingly, gaze upon.
This gaze. This gaze that consumes and rips and slices through and breaks pieces off. This gaze has a revolting, barbaric quality to it.
Colonialism was a large project and institutional violence was an integral part of it. This compressing of people into objects, however, was a small piece of the larger project. A past time taken up by elites whose money was managed well by others. Elites who were actively, directly participating in the larger project of colonialism. Not indirectly by this telling of facts. They were directly participating in this project, by dictating what sentiments should be conferred on the colonized, and by directly deciding the fates of the colonized.
It was a past time.Something one did in cozy libraries on large estates. A past time.
But story telling isn’t a past time. It is a time honored tradition without which, communities, peoples, civilizations would perish in the dust, never again to be known anything else other than objects.
It is a time honored tool that was used to survive. They told stories, charged their descendants with the enormous job of remembering. And if you know anything about memory, about story telling, and about the raw human aspect of it, you would know that these are incredibly holy and sacred spaces where not all are allowed to walk into.
I’m interested in the project of storytelling. That part is in my blood, otherwise, I wouldn’t feel so at home.
However, what is strange, is the environment. I am working in an environment which has systematically dispossessed my own community a hundred times over by compressing them into facts. I have a sense that I need to undo this doing, this compression of people into facts.
I’m trying to decipher the language which would allow me to undo (at least just a little of) the terrible wrong that has been done.
Three women telling me parts of a large, complex story. A mother and a daughter. The daughter continuously interrupting her mother to explain, to explain, to explain.
Is that a co-optation of voice, I thought vaguely (in secret from myself) to myself, or is that a desperate desire to speak that has yet to find it’s venue.
The third woman told me (after hearing what I was doing), “write about this. Write about this”. And across two oceans, she commanded, she dictated.
Write about this.
Every river must flow. Sooner or later, every river must flow. It will either flow underground for years before someone finds it, or it will break through the surface. And when it’s done flowing, it will quietly dry up and quietly disappear.
It will leave a mark.
Voices are like that I think. Dispossessed voices, unheard voices, trampled down voices. Sooner or later, they will find their venues. They will either burst out or they will quietly flow and and if no one hears them in their lifetimes (why doesn’t anyone think of this as a tragedy, why doesn’t anyone have mass funeral prayers over these unheard voices), they will leave a mark. An echo. Through generations. Etched in a forgotten memory. A pendant. A crumpled letter. An engraving on a buried wall.
Voices will find their way to the surface. Voices will find a way to be heard. This I believe. This I believe with a deepening spirituality. And so in accordance, I hope I am able to honor their sacredness as befits them.
(Though sometimes I get afraid. Of my own limitations).
In 1939, deadly anti - Indian riots broke out in Rangoon, killing many. Unlike the ones in 1929, these were not about labor relations, but about a presumed religious conflict.
"There was no conflict that I know of. We lived in Sule, and we saw nothing. Perhaps there were skirmishes far off. But not in the neighborhood certainly. It was quiet.
Of course, I was a child. There is little I can remember now.”
(So the mother told me. And I pondered. Was there a story that was missing, hidden in plain sight? There were riots, we know this, because there are records of it, but here’s a woman who lived in the heart of Rangoon telling me she saw nothing in Sule.
I confirmed with her daughter. Family narrations figured the various travels during this time into World War II and then into Partition and after. But no riots. There have been no riots from this time in collective memory.)
(How could it be? What is this that I’m looking at? What is this that I’m looking at?)
"I’m a politician, not a saint", Aung San Suu Kyi on being an icon, and of the various protracted conflicts that has seized her country. She has been criticized for her evasiveness on the issue of the Muslim prosecution in Myanmar. In the meantime, the government has also systematically ejected NGOs that may be able to document what is really happening on the ground. Asked, the Burmese Government stubbornly gives numbers of casualties much lower than Human Rights Watch activists.
[9:17:17 PM] QJ: Oh u could write abt this…nurses…like doctors usually are supposed to take an oath, as far as I’m concerned
[9:17:38 PM] QJ: To treat anyone or care for anyone disregard their race, religion etc etc
[9:18:09 PM] pb: mm. this is true
[9:18:17 PM] QJ: And the nurse services I called for my baby…they asked me what race I am. I get really offended
[9:18:34 PM] pb: huh. did they ask anything else?
[9:18:39 PM] QJ: Actually they r asking if I’m muslim or not
[9:18:52 PM] pb: did they ask if you were muslim, your race, or both?
[9:19:40 PM] QJ: They ask Luu Myo…which can be translated as race, but in myanmar it is very mistaken as Kalar or Indian if u r muslim
[9:19:55 PM] pb: mm
[9:19:59 PM] pb: i understand
[9:20:09 PM] QJ: Yeah write abt that too
[9:20:17 PM] pb: i will. thanks :)
[9:20:23 PM] QJ: I had surgery n my nurses left cos i was muslim
[9:20:37 PM] pb: did they. wow!
[9:20:52 PM] QJ: Yeah days post-op
[9:21:11 PM] QJ: Mind u, i dont have anyone at my house except my husband n they know
[9:22:16 PM] QJ: Enjoy your dinner, I’m chewing my meat
There’s a larger story here that I’m being asked to tell. That I’m compelled to tell. I just have to decipher the language of the story so I can retell it. So I can pass it on.
As I write my paper, I define everything. What is Indian. What is kalar. What is diaspora. How did these people came about to be. How did they came to remain where they did.
And so I play with the structure of the hierarchy of the environment. If I define everything as meticulously as possible, is there a chance that my writing will not be bastardized? But that is a secondary consideration. The primary consideration is setting up structures, definitions, so I don’t bastardize my own work.
It’s a work in learning in progress. I wonder if I’ll really ever get it right.
The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham is a timely book as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) takes hesitant steps towards democracy. Popham explores the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most famous former political prisoner, and the unusual circumstances which brought her into the spotlight of the fight for democracy in Myanmar. Popham’s easy journalistic style of writing makes the book accessible to the larger public, and his book is well researched and thought-provoking.