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The “Wages of Burman-ness

The “Wages of Burman-ness

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Published by Phyo Win Latt

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Published by: Phyo Win Latt on Nov 08, 2012
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This article was downloaded by: []On: 07 November 2012, At: 10:50Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Journal of Contemporary Asia
Publication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjoc20
The “Wages of Burman-ness:Ethnicityand Burman Privilege in ContemporaryMyanmar
Matthew J. Walton
Department of Political Science, George Washington University,Washington, DC, USAVersion of record first published: 19 Oct 2012.
To cite this article:
Matthew J. Walton (2012): The “Wages of Burman-ness:Ethnicityand Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar, Journal of Contemporary Asia,DOI:10.1080/00472336.2012.730892
To link to this article:
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use:http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionsThis article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representationthat the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of anyinstructions, formulae, and drug doses should be independently verified with primarysources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings,demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly orindirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
The ‘‘Wages of Burman-ness:’’ Ethnicityand Burman Privilege in ContemporaryMyanmar
Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA
Ethnicity is one of the primary lenses through which scholars view conflict in Bur-ma/Myanmar. In this paper I examine the dominance of the majority ethnic group in Myanmar,the Burmans, and the ways in which Burman-ness functions as a privileged identity. I draw fromthe theoretical framework of Whiteness and White privilege in critical race theory to argue that,although there are important analytical differences between race and ethnicity, we can conceptua-lise Burman-ness as a form of institutionalised dominance similar to Whiteness. I support this ar- gument by documenting the ways in which Burmans are privileged in relation to non-Burmans,while still, in many cases, seeing themselves as equally subject to government repression. Thisanalysis of Burman privilege (and blindness to that privilege) is particularly relevant given the fact that the political reforms implemented by Myanmar’s new, partly civilian government since2011 have opened new opportunities for (mostly Burman) activists while coinciding with in-creased military violence in some non-Burman border regions of the country.
: Burma, Myanmar, ethnic conflict, Burman, privilege, Whiteness
Ethnic conflict has persistently plagued Burma since before its independence in1948.
The military governments that ruled the country from 1962 until 2011regularly battled ethnic insurgencies in the border areas and, despite a series of ceasefires over the last 15 years, ethnic conflict continues today. As a result, ethnicityremains one of the primary lenses through which scholars view conflict in present-day Myanmar.
This paper examines the dominance of the majority ethnic group inMyanmar, the Burmans, through a conceptual lens drawn from critical race theory.
The theoretical framework of Whiteness and White privilege is used to determine if asimilar privileged identity of Burman-ness operates in Myanmar. I argue that we canconceptualise Burman-ness as a form of institutionalised dominance similar toWhiteness, despite the analytical differences between race and ethnicity. At the sametime some of the ways in which the boundaries of a dominant ethnic group appear tobe more porous than racial boundaries, particularly when they overlap with nationalidentity, as is the case in Myanmar. This argument is supported by documenting the
Correspondence Address:
Matthew J. Walton, Department of Political Science, George WashingtonUniversity, 2115 G St. NW, Monroe Hall 440, Washington, DC 20052, USA.Email: matthewjwalton@gmail.com
Journal of Contemporary AsiaiFirst article pp. 1–27, 2012
ISSN 0047-2336 Print/1752-7554 Online/12/000001-27
Journal of Contemporary Asia
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ways in which Burmans are privileged in relation to non-Burmans, while still, inmany cases, being subject to government repression themselves or, at least,perceiving themselves as equally subject to repression.
In the same way that criticalrace theorists note that racism cannot be overcome without white recognition of their privilege, the inability of Burmans to recognise this privilege and to activelywork against it inhibits efforts to forge ethnic unity in Myanmar.As a result of elections in 2010 and some political reforms since 2011, manyformerly hostile governments and international organisations have adopted a moreopen stance toward Myanmar. Within this evolving political context, it isparticularly important for both international and domestic actors to continue tofocus on ethnic issues in Myanmar. As Western governments slowly begin to easesanctions, many influential individuals are urging continued Western engagementwith the Myanmar government in the hope that it will lead to more extensivepolitical reform. Members of the democratic opposition, including Daw Aung SanSuu Kyi, have also offered to play a role in the reconciliation process between thegovernment and the non-Burman ethnic groups. While the recent changes (includingrelease of many political prisoners, expanded freedoms of speech and press, andmore opportunities for democratic opposition groups to participate in the politicalprocess) are encouraging, there are reasons to continue to push for further reform.Of great concern, given the topic of this paper, is the increased fighting in someethnic areas. Government negotiations with ethnic armed groups have resulted inceasefires in some areas that had experienced long-running conflict, such as theJanuary 2012 ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU) in Karen State.However, while the new civilian government appears to be opening up political spacein central, Burman areas, some non-Burman areas have seen renewed violence,including Kachin State since June 2011. Additionally, the ceasefires that do exist arefragile and the Burmese government has yet to consider a lasting political resolutionto the conflicts.
This demonstrates that many non-Burmans are not in a position toenjoy the benefits of recent political reforms; indeed, at times it seems as if thegovernment is implementing two separate, but related policies: one of increasedopenness, of which Burmans are the primary beneficiaries, and one of violentrepression, of which non-Burmans remain the primary victims. As I argue below,part of Burman privilege is not only avoiding the worst elements of violentrepression, but also being able to ignore it when it occurs elsewhere, since it is notpart of their everyday political reality.For the past 50 years, the Burmese military has been accused of committing muchof the violence against non-Burman populations. However, this analysis does not fitinto a simple narrative that posits the military on one side as the oppressor and theopposition on the other side fighting for good. The history of ethnic conflict inMyanmar has been far more complex than this. First, hostilities between Burmansand non-Burmans go back well before the military took power in 1962. Some of themost prominent figures in the Burmese independence movement used chauvinisticrhetoric and even committed atrocities against non-Burman populations. However,decades of military campaigns combating (mostly ethnic) insurgencies have resultedin policies that institutionalise differential treatment of Burmans and non-Burmans.Thus, while they may not be explicitly based on ethnic discrimination, these practiceshave generated a set of privileges that Burmans enjoy because of their ethnic identity.2
M.J. Walton
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