Response: Burmese-scholar-questions-claims-of-rohingya

This is a short response to one email I just received. I am looking forward to a more comprehensive discussion in the future.

Sai Soe Win Latt

Sai Soe Win Latt
PhD Candidate, Dept. of Geography
Simon Fraser University
8888 University Dr.
Burnaby, BC, Canada
sai_latt@sfu. ca
http://www.sailatt. wordpress. com

Deriving from recent debates about ethnicity and other axes of identity in contemporary cultural geography, anthropology and history, my aim here is to respond to ‘scholars’, ‘academics’ and ‘intellectuals’ whose discontent with ‘Rohingyas’ seems to be more politically motivated than objective examination of the politics of ethnicity (My apology if this observation dose not reflect the complex Rakhaing-Rohingya struggle).

Before I start off, I should admit that my research area is not western Burma or Arakan/Rohingya/ Rakhaing. Therefore, my discussion is less about the specificity of Rohingyas/Rakhaing/ Arakan affairs than the very nature of identity at a conceptual level. My purpose here is not to take side with Rohingyas or to blame Rakhaings for being anti-Rohingyas (as I will discuss at the end). Instead, my aim is to point out that it is inappropriate and misleading the public to promote conceptually wrong arguments as if they are academically sound research and scholarly opinion.

Most importantly, I’d like to discuss how these arguments theoretically and empirically contradict the understandings of ethnicity that have been articulated in broader academia.

Perhaps, one of the most visible arguments is something like this: “If one carefully scrutinizes all available authentic historical and etymological facts it comes out clearly that there was no ethnic group called “Rohingya” in Arakan as well as in Burma, and it is only an invented name in the late 1950’s. All claims of the “Rohingyas” are baseless and found out to be incorrect.” (U Khin Maung Saw, http://kyaukphru.. blogspot. com/2009/ 08/response- to-press- release-of- rohingyas_ 21.html).

If I may, I’d like raise two critical points:

(i) First, as scholars themselves know very well, any attempt to seek ‘authenticity’ is problematic because what we assume to be authentic is already constructed in the first place within particular epistemological frameworks.. I am not sure if resorting to authenticity is a helpful academic practice.. Moreover, picking something as authentic means the writer has already taken side, and has already taken that something for granted, instead of examining it.

When talking about etymological facts, U Khin Maung Saw’s argument has problems in terms of time-space contingency. The reason I take issue with his ‘etymological facts’ argument is that it fails to take into account how ethnicity, political community, political process, etc are all contingent on certain historical and political processes with spatial and temporal dynamics. To elaborate, the kind of arguments by anti-Rohingya scholars that the place (i.e. Arakan state or earlier kingdoms) and the people (Rakhaing) ‘have always existed’ (and Rohingyas just moved in) is precisely the kind of argument that critical anthropologists (e.g. Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Malkki 1994; Appadurai 1988) and historians (e.g. Thongchai Winichakul 1994; 2000) would highly reject. Unlike U Khin Maung Saw, they all have argued in different ways that places, peoples and identities are not given, but are the products of various historical and geo-political processes that continue to divide and re-configure these peoples, places and cultures (and relations among them). Thus, arguing that Rakhaings exist, but not Rohingyas, seems to be highly problematic.

Then, the empirical and historical question would be: if the name ‘Rohingya’ did not exist before the 1950s, how about other names such as Rakhaing, Bamar, Shan, etc? Did they exist, let’s say, in the 1300s or earlier? Have they come to exist independently of various political processes — particularly the formation of the Burmese nation-state?

As Burma and Arakan state are the products of the nation-state formation through a relatively long history, the name ‘Rakhaing’ and the place ‘Arakan’ (as well as earlier kingdoms) must have been “invented” at particular points in time, just like the name ‘Rohingya’ was invented at another point in time. If we agree that Rohingyas ‘migrated’ from Bangladesh or somewhere else at one historical point in time, Rakhaings must have ‘migrated’ at similar or another historical point in time. But immigrating earlier or later does not negate the problematic reality that both groups have migrated from somewhere else. None of these groups fell from the sky.

The way U Khin Maung Saw understands ethnicity is known as ‘essentialist notion’ which has been largely discredited in academia because it sees identity as fixed, static and already existed instead of seeing it in relational and per formative terms as fluid, articulated, contested and performed (e.g. see various work of Leach, Lehman/Chit Hlaing, Keyes, Butler and Hall for a broader theoretical discussion). My second point will follow up on this.

(ii) Second, and most importantly, the claim that ‘it is only an invented name… All claims of the “Rohingyas” are baseless and found out to be incorrect’ is both conceptually ridiculous and empirically wrong, especially if we think identity in a more theoretically nuanced way. Ethnicity is not just a ‘thing’ but also a ‘process’ (and a means) in which state actors impose identities, and the people themselves actively articulate their own identities for the sake of political and material (economic) livelihood.

The claim that the name ‘Rohingya’ is invented and therefore unacceptable completely contradicts the very foundational understanding of ethnicity and other axes of identity in contemporary academia (except few colonial, ethnocentric and essentialist schools that are losing ground).

Ethnic identity is not a god-given thing, but different forms of identities are invented and re-worked through space and time. That’s why the process of identity formation is known as ‘social construction’ . Actually, the term ‘invention’ is not even the most appropriate jargon in academic discourses.

Here is how identity is socially constructed and articulated. The kind of ethnic identity we embody or we know today is a colonial product (see e.g. Keyes 2001; Thongchai 1994; Hirschman 1988; Moore 2005; Pinkaew 2003; CLR James – various; Hall – various). Colonial administrators classified people biologically, linguistically and racially, and categorized them into hierarchical orders to manage them. Through this complex and racist process, some people came to be categorized as civilize-able, and some not (Keyes 2001; Li 2003; Sturgeon 2005). The former groups later became dominant (national) groups, and the latter ethnic/minority/ hill tribes/native groups. In fact, the colonial creation of minorities and categories was to restrict these people from political and economic spheres by denying their human-ness. This is not only true for Native Americans and Africans, but also for the peoples in Asia. Also, this is a way of colonial control over labour (e.g. Malays in colonial Malaya were forced to work in agriculture, and Indians in mining, etc. cf Hirshman 1988). This is the history in which Tai became Shan, Pakanyaw (spelling) became Karen, Jainpaw became Kachin (the list goes on). This is the same history in which certain people became dominant national groups, and some became ‘backward’ ethnics and minorities.

Here is an important point. Anthropologists (also historians and geographers) played a large part in the creation of these ethnic names and categories — and subsequent problems we are facing today! That’s why a well-know anthropologist Arjun Appadurai said the natives “are creatures of the anthropological imagination” (1988:52). Thongchai Winichakul’s (1994) historical account also hows similar stories. On this basis, I’d like to emphasize that colonial-type scholars with political and cultural biases are part of the so-called ethnic problems we are having.

The very nature of identity (or ethnicity) is that these historically constructed ethnic identities are re-worked by post-colonial state actors and the people themselves. State actors impose racialized identities such as the Hmong in Thailand as outsiders, immigrants, criminals, opium growers and environmental destroyers. Meanwhile, their name changed from Meio to Hmong.

The people themselves re-articulate their ethnic identities as well. For decades, well known writers in the field of identity politics in Asia and beyond such as Leach, Lehman (Chit Hlaing), Charles Keyes, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Nelson.. to name a few, have shown enough about this.

Ethnographic studies have followed the braoder theoretical framework (E.g. the Akha in Thailand articulate themselves as ‘Thai hill tribe’ (McKinnon 2004); Thai Karens portray themselves as the guardians of Thai forests (Pinkaew 2003); masyarakat adat claim themselves as indegenous of post-Suharto Indonesia (Li 2000)). Of course, all these names were socially constructed — to repeat. And, different characteristics of each ethnic group are constantly re-worked because access to political and material resources depend on “who” belong to where, and “who” should have access to what: i.e. access to resources are contingent on their identities. Because of this, people constantly (to repeat: constantly) articulate and re-articulate their identities. Thus, Hall (1990), argues that identity is about ‘becoming’. He also compares identity with a bus ticket. People use the ticket to get to where they want to go. This is where identity formation takes on political meaning. On this basis, disregarding an ethnic identity for being political became absurd.

Thus, articulation of identity is the normal process of ‘ethnicity’ or ‘identity’. And, it is how the process of identity formation works.

Also, I’d like to point out that Rakhaings opposing to Rohingyas is a typical process of identity formation. We can see this kind of anti-someone in almost everyone in the world. That process is known as ‘other-ing’, i.e. making someone the ‘other’, outsider, enemy, against which t ‘self’ can be defined. In other words, the other or constitutive other is required to define the ‘self’.. Without the other, the ‘self’ cannot exist. For example, masculinity cannot exist without femininity. Being a man is not being a woman (or homosexual). To be a man requires differentiating himself from woman (and homosexual).

Similarly, Rakhings need the ‘other’ to define themselves, and to be a Rakhing is not to be a Rohingya, Bangali, Burmese, Mon, Karen, etc. And, articulating Rakhaing-ness requires differentiating themselves from Rohinya, Bangali, Burmese, etc. This is how identity formation works through the processes of ‘other-ing’. That’s why this kind of othering is visible in global regions: white against black, Canadian against American, French against Algerian, Thai against Burmese, Kenyan against Somali, etc. (Just a side note: ‘other-ing’ is not only for ethnic identity formation, but also for other identities such as class. We might have seen the rich colleagues differentiating themselves from the poor ones within our own groups).
Therefore, rather than taking side with one group either to blame Rakhaing for othering Rohingyas or to blame Rohingyas for ‘inventing’ the name, academics should distance themselves from discredited colonial, ethnocentric and essentialist notions of ethnicity. They should be progressive enough to realize that articulating identities and ‘other-ing’ are typical processes of identity formation. Thus, rather than blaming Rakhaings and Rohingyas for what they are doing as if they are the only ones ‘othering’ and ‘inventing’, a short-term task for academics is to focus on understanding how the identity formation of different groups take on different forms and meanings in order to mediate these groups so that everyone is secured from material deprivation (i.e. human security through equity and material well-being).

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