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Journal of Contemporary Asia
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The “Wages of Burman-ness:” Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar
Matthew J. Walton
a a

Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA Version of record first published: 19 Oct 2012.

To cite this article: Matthew J. Walton (2012): The “Wages of Burman-ness:” Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar, Journal of Contemporary Asia, DOI:10.1080/00472336.2012.730892 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2012.730892

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Journal of Contemporary Asia iFirst article pp. 1–27, 2012

The ‘‘Wages of Burman-ness:’’ Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar
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MATTHEW J. WALTON
Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA

ABSTRACT Ethnicity is one of the primary lenses through which scholars view conflict in Burma/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 from the 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 conceptualise Burman-ness as a form of institutionalised dominance similar to Whiteness. I support this argument 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. This analysis 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 since 2011 have opened new opportunities for (mostly Burman) activists while coinciding with increased military violence in some non-Burman border regions of the country. KEY WORDS: Burma, Myanmar, ethnic conflict, Burman, privilege, Whiteness

Ethnic conflict has persistently plagued Burma since before its independence in 1948.1 The military governments that ruled the country from 1962 until 2011 regularly 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, ethnicity remains one of the primary lenses through which scholars view conflict in presentday Myanmar.2 This paper examines the dominance of the majority ethnic group in Myanmar, the Burmans, through a conceptual lens drawn from critical race theory.3 The theoretical framework of Whiteness and White privilege is used to determine if a similar privileged identity of Burman-ness operates in Myanmar. I argue that we can conceptualise Burman-ness as a form of institutionalised dominance similar to Whiteness, despite the analytical differences between race and ethnicity. At the same time some of the ways in which the boundaries of a dominant ethnic group appear to be more porous than racial boundaries, particularly when they overlap with national identity, as is the case in Myanmar. This argument is supported by documenting the
Correspondence Address: Matthew J. Walton, Department of Political Science, George Washington University, 2115 G St. NW, Monroe Hall 440, Washington, DC 20052, USA. Email: matthewjwalton@gmail.com ISSN 0047-2336 Print/1752-7554 Online/12/000001-27 Ó 2012 Journal of Contemporary Asia http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2012.730892

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ways in which Burmans are privileged in relation to non-Burmans, while still, in many cases, being subject to government repression themselves or, at least, perceiving themselves as equally subject to repression.4 In the same way that critical race theorists note that racism cannot be overcome without white recognition of their privilege, the inability of Burmans to recognise this privilege and to actively work against it inhibits efforts to forge ethnic unity in Myanmar. As a result of elections in 2010 and some political reforms since 2011, many formerly hostile governments and international organisations have adopted a more open stance toward Myanmar. Within this evolving political context, it is particularly important for both international and domestic actors to continue to focus on ethnic issues in Myanmar. As Western governments slowly begin to ease sanctions, many influential individuals are urging continued Western engagement with the Myanmar government in the hope that it will lead to more extensive political reform. Members of the democratic opposition, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have also offered to play a role in the reconciliation process between the government and the non-Burman ethnic groups. While the recent changes (including release of many political prisoners, expanded freedoms of speech and press, and more opportunities for democratic opposition groups to participate in the political process) 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 some ethnic areas. Government negotiations with ethnic armed groups have resulted in ceasefires in some areas that had experienced long-running conflict, such as the January 2012 ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU) in Karen State. However, while the new civilian government appears to be opening up political space in central, Burman areas, some non-Burman areas have seen renewed violence, including Kachin State since June 2011. Additionally, the ceasefires that do exist are fragile and the Burmese government has yet to consider a lasting political resolution to the conflicts.5 This demonstrates that many non-Burmans are not in a position to enjoy the benefits of recent political reforms; indeed, at times it seems as if the government is implementing two separate, but related policies: one of increased openness, of which Burmans are the primary beneficiaries, and one of violent repression, of which non-Burmans remain the primary victims. As I argue below, part of Burman privilege is not only avoiding the worst elements of violent repression, but also being able to ignore it when it occurs elsewhere, since it is not part of their everyday political reality. For the past 50 years, the Burmese military has been accused of committing much of the violence against non-Burman populations. However, this analysis does not fit into a simple narrative that posits the military on one side as the oppressor and the opposition on the other side fighting for good. The history of ethnic conflict in Myanmar has been far more complex than this. First, hostilities between Burmans and non-Burmans go back well before the military took power in 1962. Some of the most prominent figures in the Burmese independence movement used chauvinistic rhetoric and even committed atrocities against non-Burman populations. However, decades of military campaigns combating (mostly ethnic) insurgencies have resulted in policies that institutionalise differential treatment of Burmans and non-Burmans. Thus, while they may not be explicitly based on ethnic discrimination, these practices have generated a set of privileges that Burmans enjoy because of their ethnic identity.

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Furthermore, it is important to note that, because the rights of citizens of every ethnicity have been restricted to some degree, it has been more difficult for Burmans to acknowledge the differential experiences of suffering, which will continue to inhibit efforts at ethnic reconciliation. It should be stressed that this analysis of Burman-ness as a privileged identity is meant to draw out the historical processes that have resulted in Burman dominance and the institutionalisation of Burman privilege. It would be counterproductive to ‘‘blame’’ the Burman population today for this process and its results. However, seeing Burman-ness as similar to Whiteness can encourage Burmans to recognise the ways in which they are privileged in relation to non-Burmans and acknowledge the differential suffering and oppression of non-Burman communities. In addition, positing Burman-ness as a set of power relations highlights the necessary role of Burmans in dismantling structures of Burman privilege and in creating a space for ethnic unity and equality in Myanmar. I begin with a discussion of the similarities and differences between the concepts of race and ethnicity. I draw from critical race theory to analyse ethnicity in Myanmar because ethnicity plays a similar role there as race does in the USA, as a primary marker of difference. Ethnicity is significant in Myanmar because of the ways in which political, economic and social opportunities and power largely follow ethnic divisions. Next, I introduce the way in which I analyse Burman-ness through the lenses of Whiteness and White privilege. In order to demonstrate the existence of Burman-ness as a dominant ethnic identity, I look at particular periods and episodes in Burmese history and the reinforcement of contemporary Myanmar identity as Burman. Next, I explore several areas that demonstrate the existence of privileges enjoyed by Burmans as a result of their ethnic identity. These correspond with ways in which non-Burmans are structurally disadvantaged or actively targeted by the government, reinforcing their subordinate position. I also discuss how Burmans, including members of the democratic opposition, are unaware of the ways in which they reinforce their privileged position and the few notable instances in which they recognise that privilege. Comparing Race and Ethnicity The initial challenge in seeking to explain ethnic dominance in Myanmar in terms of Whiteness is in equating race and ethnicity. While the dominant criterion of comparison and categorisation in the West has been race (and in America, the black/ white racial distinction), in Southeast Asia individuals and groups more frequently identify themselves in other ways. Ethnic categories are prominent markers of identity in Southeast Asia, although ethnicity itself is a more recent construct and reflects a contemporary solidification of historically malleable identity markers, as explained below. Additionally, ethnicity remains a contested topic within the social sciences, and scholars working in Western and non-Western contexts often understand and use the term differently (Chang and Dodd 2001). There are important analytical differences between race and ethnicity. Van den Berghe (1978, 9–10) distinguishes between race, which is ‘‘a group that is socially defined but on the basis of physical criteria,’’ and ethnic groups, which are ‘‘socially defined but on the basis of cultural criteria.’’ Card (1995, 143) agrees, arguing that, while both race and

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ethnicity are socio-political constructs, ethnicity does not have the biological (or physical) element that race does. Much of the injustice associated with racial discrimination and racism comes from the fact that a group of people is judged based on ascriptive characteristics, that is, physical characteristics over which they have no control and cannot change. While we generally discount biological arguments about race today, it is the discriminatory ideology and action that is based on those biological or ascriptive characteristics of others that underpins racism. Thus, Mills (1997, 126) claims that ‘‘race is sociopolitical rather than biological, but it is nonetheless real.’’ Part of the challenge in studying and addressing racism and racial discrimination is in making sense of the socially constructed nature of race while also acknowledging its very tangible effects in the world. The above definitions suggest that ethnicity is not ascriptive in the same way that race is. Its markers are not always immediately apparent, meaning that ethnic identity may not always lead directly to difference and conflict, as race often does. Scholars studying Southeast Asia have demonstrated the utility in understanding ethnicity as a relational concept. Lieberman (1978, 457) describes ethnic identity as ‘‘roles vis-a`-vis other groups.’’ Ethnicity is thus not built on specific, permanent cultural traits but rather constructed and changed over time as a result of interactions with different groups and individuals. According to Keyes (1997), ethnicity becomes salient in the modern world when politics coincides with cultural differences, particularly when articulated with reference to a national ideology. Ethnic identity, therefore, refers to cultural differences that are identified through repeated interactions and gradually perceived as politically important. However, despite the fact that academic scholarship recognises ethnicity as socially constructed, many people see ethnicity as an integral part of their cultural identity and sense of personhood (Fredrickson 2002, 140). This is particularly significant in looking at the development and reification of ethnic identity in Myanmar in a historical context. Historians and anthropologists have described the fluidity of ‘‘ethnic’’ identity in the pre-colonial period in Myanmar, suggesting that individuals could strategically change their ethnicity as a conscious choice (Lieberman 1978, 457). In fact, the configurations of identity markers that we now call ‘‘ethnicity’’ did not exist in their current, ossified form prior to British categorisation efforts during the colonial period. However, as these colonially demarcated ethnic categories acquired increasing political, social and economic significance, they also gained stability as markers of personhood. Additionally, in Myanmar, many opposition groups increasingly came to see conflict with the central government in ethnic terms, adding salience to socially constructed identities. Many view ethnicity not only as a source of cultural identity but also as a badge of resistance (see South 2008). This paper argues that, in the case of Myanmar, race and ethnicity are functionally similar with regard to access to power and privilege. The dominance that is constructed along racial lines in the case of Whiteness can be replicated according to ethnic boundaries. This is possible in a place such as Myanmar because people often perceive ethnicity as something inborn, unchangeable and, in some cases, determinant of an individual’s very nature.6 The functional similarity of race and ethnicity in this case becomes clearer when we look at Whiteness in more detail.

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Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar Whiteness and Burman-ness

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I follow Charles Mills in considering Whiteness to be a racialised order of white supremacy, historically privileging those who are considered to be ‘‘White’’ but replicable locally within other contexts.7 This condition is one in which individuals of a certain race or skin colour enjoy a number of advantages over others simply because of that skin colour and the social standing that has been constructed around it. We can view Whiteness as a set of public privileges that confer civic, economic, social and psychological benefits on whites (Olson 2002, 387–388). As McIntosh (1988, 1) explains in her seminal essay on White privilege, ‘‘. . . whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.’’ There is thus a way in which Whiteness is seen as that which is normal, and everything non-white is compared to it (and usually found lacking). Additionally, precisely because it assumes an unquestioned normative position, Whiteness, and the privileges that accompany it, is invisible to itself. Positing Burman-ness as Whiteness initially appears to be problematic, since scholars have described Whiteness as a particular relationship to both power and to others who are considered non-white. In Myanmar, the vast majority of the people, both Burman and non-Burman, have, until recently, lived under a military government widely perceived by most of the population to be repressive. While it is true that almost all of the leaders of this government were Burman, and they usually reserved the most destructive treatment for non-Burman ethnic groups (as documented later in the paper), it is also undeniable that most of the Burman people in Myanmar have been oppressed to some degree by the government as well. Is it possible, given these conditions, to view Burmans as privileged, even dominant within Burmese society? Critical race theorists have made the case that members of a dominant group can be exploited or oppressed by elites within that dominant group, even as they continue to enjoy privileges denied to those outside the group. Roediger (1999) has examined the ways in which white working class Americans gradually came to see themselves as ‘‘White’’ by aligning themselves with the white capitalist power structure and against potential non-white allies. Roediger catalogues the ways in which factory owners and other elites convinced white workers to act against their own interests while asserting their Whiteness. He uses a notion, created by the African-American author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, that certain individuals receive privileges (‘‘wages’’) simply because of their skin colour. Roediger (1999, 12–13) argues that this wage exists not just with regard to status, but also in the way that status is ‘‘bound up with real social gains . . . That is, status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.’’ Roediger’s analysis is helpful in examining Myanmar because it leads us to ask: what, if any, are the wages of Burman-ness? Despite the limitations faced by almost all of the people in Myanmar, regardless of ethnicity, is there evidence that Burmans enjoy a privileged position in relation to the other ethnic groups? Do Burmans think of themselves as racially or ethnically separate or superior? In order to answer these questions the next section examines the recent ethnic history of Myanmar, paying

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close attention to the ways in which Burmans have seen themselves, particularly in opposition to the other ethnic groups of Myanmar. I hope to show that not only is there a sense of Burman-ness, there are also ‘‘wages of Burman-ness’’ that benefit all Burmans, even as most of them have also experienced some degree of government oppression.8 Furthermore, even though explicit ethnic discrimination is not reflected in policy, military action against ethnic insurgencies over the past six decades has resulted in the institutionalisation of differential treatment, even more difficult to challenge because it is on the grounds of ‘‘national unity.’’ This paper argues that in contemporary Myanmar society Burman-ness functions as a localised version of Whiteness. Burmans are generally privileged politically, economically and socially vis-a`-vis non-Burmans. The government, and society in general, presents Burman culture and values as the norm, as examples of ‘‘Myanmar’’ values and the Burmese language can also implicitly posit Burman identity as the norm. For example, when people use the most common Burmese term for ‘‘ethnic group’’ (tain yin tha), it is often unclear whether they are including Burmans in the category or are referring only to the non-Burman ethnic groups (Khaing M. Thein 2011). Burman-ness as a system of ethnic superiority is also invisible to itself. The past five decades of military rule have only reinforced the invisibility of Burman privilege to Burmans in Myanmar since most citizens, regardless of ethnicity, have had some perceived experience of oppression under a succession of military regimes. However, as outlined below, the degree of oppression and suffering to which non-Burman ethnic groups are potentially subject is significantly greater than the oppression that Burmans face. Ethnicity in Burmese History Burmans are the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar; they make up between 60% and 70% of the population and live primarily in the central region of the country (Smith 1999). The next largest groups are the Shan, who live primarily in the Northeast region, and the Karen, who live in the Central and Eastern regions. Following after these groups (and making up much smaller proportions of the population) are the Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Mon, Rakhaing Wa, and Naga, as well as many other smaller ethnic groups.9 The official government figures report 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar, but many observers dispute this number , seeing it as a ‘‘divide-and-rule’’ tactic inherited from the British and designed to minimise the impact and presence of the larger minority ethnic groups by splitting them into smaller components, and to prevent solidarity by lumping disparate groups together (Gravers 1999). While Burmans are numerically dominant in urban settings, these urban areas are also ethnically diverse, and include – besides various non-Burman indigenous ethnic groups – Indians, Chinese and other foreign residents. Pre-colonial Notions of Ethnicity Although Smith (1999, 33) correctly notes that ‘‘many important details of Burma’s ethnic past are still conjecture,’’ we know that throughout the pre-colonial period there were frequent wars between nominally independent kingdoms in the area that would eventually be consolidated by the British as Burma. In some cases the identity

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of these kingdoms mapped on to contemporary ethnic divisions. However, Lieberman (1987) alerts us to the dangers of reading ethnic differences that have only recently become politically salient into historical conflicts, particularly in precolonial Southeast Asia. We should probably avoid classifying these earlier conflicts as having been based primarily on ethnicity. Individuals at that time based their identity more on shifting political patronage networks, which would only later coalesce into ethnic groups, helped in large part by the British colonial zeal for classification and administration based on ethnic and religious categories. Lieberman (2003) also shows how the pre-colonial Burman polity followed the general Southeast Asian trend toward centralisation, increasing its geographical area of control as well as its cultural and political influence over its subjects. As a result, many non-Burman people could and did choose to alter their identity strategically, identifying as Burman for social and political purposes. But, as Charney (2006) has demonstrated in his recent study of the group of literati who developed the Kongbaung dynasty’s legitimating discourse, Burman identity itself was also more inclusive, particularly during the eighteenth century. An exclusive, chauvinistic Burman identity would have been ‘‘increasingly inconsistent with the demands of maintaining a growing and multi-cultural empire,’’ thus non-Burman ‘‘ethnic’’ groups were incorporated into the polity in various ways and in some aspects inclusion was based more on political commitment than cultural markers (Charney 2006, 138). The markers that would eventually coalesce into ethnic identities were thus initially sometimes merely indicators of political allegiance or geographical location. Over time, ‘‘‘ethnic categories’ could translate into hardened ethnic identities in certain contexts. Daily contact between different groups naturally produced perceptions of difference’’ (Charney 2006, 134). That was often the case when the relationship between groups was conditioned by conflict or conquest. For example, Leider (2008, 453) has noted the ways in which Arakanese cultural identity solidified in response to the Burmese invasion and occupation of Arakan under Bodawhpaya in 1785. In addition, religion, rather than ethno-cultural traits, was probably more important in determining one’s social standing. Lehman (2007, 109) recounts the common phrase ‘‘To be Burman is to be Buddhist,’’ in explaining the centrality of Buddhist culture (if not explicitly religious practice) to Burman identity. While scholars can question the explicitly ethnic character of pre-colonial conflicts in Burma, these conflicts definitely existed; however, they were no doubt exacerbated by British territorial divisions and by colonial military recruitment policies which demarcated and created ethnic identity as a primary differentiating factor in colonial and post-colonial social and political life. Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Colonial Period After conquering Burma in stages, beginning in 1824 and concluding in 1886, the British divided the country into ‘‘Ministerial Burma’’ (the central area, controlled from Rangoon) and the ‘‘Frontier Areas’’ (the peripheral, border regions that were controlled nominally by traditional leaders). Burmans were numerically dominant in ministerial Burma; however, the area also included many Mon, Karen and

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Rakhaing. The Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Karenni and many other smaller ethnic groups inhabited the Frontier Areas. One way the British contributed to the ossification of ethnic identity was through the colonial obsession with classification. British public servants and scholars moved all across Burma, collecting data on various ethnic groups in order to manage and control the population more effectively. By incorporating these ethnic distinctions into their dual system of colonial administration, the British helped to solidify ethnic identities that, prior to colonisation, were more fluid, relational and context-dependent. After the final annexation of upper Burma in 1886, the British gradually began to exclude ethnic Burmans from the armed forces; in 1925 they adopted a policy of recruiting only Chins, Kachins and Karens, and subsequently discharged all Burmans from the army (Selth 2002, 9). In the eyes of the Burmans, ethnic minorities came to be associated with colonial rule (Smith 1999, 45). Citing the colonial scholar and administrator J.S. Furnivall, Selth (1986) has pointed out that, before World War II, the British used the Burmese military primarily as a tool to maintain internal security, leading the Burman majority to see the military as an instrument to facilitate their oppression at the hands of ethnic minorities. Burmans also perceived British colonial policies as a threat to their cultural and religious identity. Because of the association of non-Burman ethnic groups with British dominance, the specific content of Burman ethnic identity developed, in part, in opposition to other ethnic groups. They saw these other groups as privileged servants of the British and, thus, a threat to the existence of the Burman people and Burman way of life. During the struggle for independence, this oppositional and increasingly exclusive ethnic identity would merge with a nascent Burmese nationalism, often placing other ethnic groups outside the boundaries of the nation. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, Burmese nationalism was developing in opposition to British colonial rule. Although occasionally expressed as inclusive of all of the people within Burma’s borders, it was really a Burman nationalism that gradually began to equate elements of Burman culture and Burman history with a presumably broader ‘‘Burmese’’ heritage (Brown 1994, 45). In 1930 a group of mostly Burman nationalists formed the Dobama Asiayone (‘‘Our Burma Association’’ or ‘‘We the Burmese Association’’), seeking to promote what they saw as ‘‘Burmese’’ culture (in reality, Burman culture). In doing so, they also worked to exclude and demonise the indigenous groups that they saw as collaborators with the British colonialists. In contrast to the ‘‘Our Burma’’ or ‘‘We Burmese’’ stance implied in the word dobama, members of the group referred to the actions of the indigenous ethnic allies of the British as thudo-bama, ‘‘Their Burma’’ or ‘‘Those Burmese’’ (Nemoto 2000). The ethnically exclusive nature of this nationalist sentiment became explicit in such Dobama slogans as: ‘‘Master race we are, we Burmans’’ (quoted in Gravers 1999, 38). Even before they gained political power, Burman leaders declared their superiority over the other ethnic groups and claimed that they were the rightful rulers of the country. A small group of Burmans – including the young Aung San, who would soon become Burma’s independence hero – joined with the Japanese in 1941 and supported the Japanese invasion that successfully ousted the British from Burmese territory by early 1942. This move set the Japanese and their predominantly Burman allies against the British and their forces made up almost entirely of Indians and non-

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Burman ethnic groups. However, it did not take long for Burman nationalists to become disillusioned with their role as a de facto Japanese colony and they quickly formed a new, anti-Japanese resistance. Despite the fresh sources of conflict that arose from the Japanese occupation, British officers and non-Burman troops reluctantly agreed to co-operate with Burman soldiers in driving the Japanese out of Burma by 1945. With the expulsion of the Japanese as the most immediate goal, the parties paid very little attention to discussing how a future Burma would be organised, in particular how and by whom it would be governed. As a consequence, the Japanese were defeated by ‘‘networks of armed guerillas and soldiers fighting against the same enemy but fighting for very different visions of the future’’ (Callahan 2003a, 85).

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Ethnicity and Nationalism in Independent Burma The British, now looking to withdraw from their colonial territories as quickly as possible, began to see the Burman leaders, led by the war hero General Aung San, as their best negotiating partners. They made a half-hearted attempt to ensure representation of the non-Burman ethnic groups in a new Burmese state by requiring as part of the 1947 Aung San-Atlee Agreement that the Burman leaders hold a conference to determine the political desires of all the ethnic groups. This was fulfilled by the Panglong Conference of 1947, a deeply flawed event that included only three of the non-Burman ethnic groups, yet was apparently enough to satisfy the British, leading to independence on January 4, 1948.10 Despite claims by Burman leaders that they were fighting for the benefit of all the residents of the country, members of the other ethnic groups remained unconvinced of their promises. Hugh Tinker, a colonial administrator, commented in the period after independence that, ‘‘it is not pleasant to see Burman public men behaving towards their frontier colleagues like a ‘master race,’ insisting that the only true Burmese is a Burman Buddhist’’ (quoted in Brown 1994, 46). From the very beginning of the post-colonial state, many Burmans understood ‘‘Burmese’’ (the national identity) to coincide with ‘‘Burman’’ (the ethnic identity). Burma achieved independence under the auspices of Burman nationalism, but, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it might have still been possible for the new country to create a multi-ethnic nation. Unfortunately, the conditions under which Burma gained its independence made it impossible for reconciliation and co-operation to occur between the again dominant Burmans and the other ethnic groups. At the time of independence, most Burmans still viewed the Karen as colonial collaborators, and the two groups had spilled much blood between them.11 The Karen had relied on the British to protect them (some even believed that they would be granted an independent state of their own), but when the British withdrew the Karen were left (in their view) at the mercy of the majority Burmans. One Karen leader asked: How could anyone expect the Karen people to trust the Burmans after what happened during the war – the murder and slaughter of so many Karen people and the robbing of so many Karen villages? After all this, how could anyone seriously expect us to trust any Burman government in Rangoon? (Saw Tha Din, quoted in Smith 1999, 62)

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Surprisingly, despite this mistrust, Karen troops in the army remained loyal through independence and even played a vital role in repulsing a communist attack on Rangoon at the end of 1948. But, as the army pursued the communists into Karen areas, Burman army units and irregular militia units again committed atrocities against Karen civilians, which infuriated the Karen and pushed many of them into open rebellion in January of 1949. The three non-Burman ethnic groups who were present at the Panglong Conference (the Shan, Kachin and Chin) remained loyal to the central government in the years following independence with only a few exceptions. As signatories to the Treaty of Panglong, they may have felt more confident that the government would grant them the status and rights that had been promised at the conference. However, in 1949 the military was forced to respond to an invasion of Kuomintang (KMT) troops from China into northeastern Shan State and, just as in the Karen region, local inhabitants saw the mostly Burman troops doing just as much damage to the Shan and other ethnic groups in the region as the KMT, deepening the divide between the majority and minority ethnic groups (Smith 2007, 84). Throughout the 1950s, the military came to assume a position of prominence in Burmese political life. At the same time, because of their constant battles against insurgents – political, ethnic and external – they began to see many segments of their own population as enemies to be pacified and contained, while it was the Burmese nation (their own cultural heritage) that needed to be protected (Callahan 2003a). In the late 1950s military leaders viewed the rise of non-Burman demands for representation in a federal system as further evidence of their disloyalty to the nation.12 When – temporarily in 1958 and permanently in 1962 – the military seized power, they transformed their fear of their fellow citizens into a policy that excluded many people from full membership in the nation, allegedly because of their disloyalty to the national cultural heritage. Military rule from 1962–2011 (with only occasional – mostly cosmetic – changes in leadership and policy) only served to reinforce this outlook in which ethnic difference puts many groups outside of the national community. The ‘‘Wages of Burman-ness’’ in Myanmar Events in Myanmar’s history since the colonial period have strengthened ethnic differentiation, and Burman control of the government and military campaigns have institutionalised differential privilege based on ethnicity. This section analyses a number of areas in which non-Burmans are disadvantaged or actively harassed and Burmans overlook or reinforce their privileged position, demonstrating that there are indeed ‘‘wages of Burman-ness.’’ First, I look at processes of cultural assimilation, or ‘‘Burmanisation,’’ that reinforce Burman cultural identity as the norm of Myanmar national identity. Next, in the area of citizenship, non-Burmans seem to enjoy only conditional membership in the national community and are always subject to suspicion of disloyalty. Burman identity and dominance is also reproduced through an educational system conducted almost exclusively in Burmese that teaches a history in which non-Burmans are marginalised and sometimes demonised. Additionally, while the democratic opposition does not display the blatant chauvinism that characterised some of the rhetoric of previous leaders, they

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continue to act in ways that reinforce Burman privilege and fail to recognise the particular struggles of non-Burmans. This is clear in the differential experiences of repression that Burmans and non-Burmans have faced at the hands of the military and the former military-led government. I conclude that the perception among Burman democracy activists that they share a similar experience of suffering with non-Burmans at the hands of the military government impedes their ability to recognise the privilege that is attached to Burman-ness. Burmanisation, Myanmafication and Cultural Assimilation Brown (1994, 36–37) has described Myanmar as an ‘‘ethnocratic state,’’ that ‘‘acts as the agency of the dominant ethnic community’’ and requires of other ethnic groups their ‘‘assimilation into the dominant ethnic culture.’’ The Burmese military government promoted the dominant Burman culture through a process that has been called ‘‘Burmanisation,’’ a term first used in this way by Lewis (1924). Houtman (1999) has also labelled this process ‘‘Myanmafication.’’ The synonymous nature of these terms indicates that government attempts to create a more inclusive ‘‘Myanmar’’ national culture since 1989 have, in practice, merely nationalised Burman cultural elements. The thrust of the assimilation argument is that members of non-Burman ethnic groups are forced (either through direct coercion or through incentives) to adopt various aspects of Burman culture, speeding their assimilation into the Myanmar ‘‘cultural nation,’’ while at the same time ridding them of those cultural elements that are deemed dangerous to national stability or contrary to the spirit of national unity (see accounts in Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies 2010). We should be very careful in our appraisal of ‘‘forced’’ cultural assimilation. Recall that what we now view as coherent ethnic identities were more fluid, with porous boundaries as recently as two hundred years ago. Additionally, it is difficult, if not impossible in certain situations, to determine the degree to which nonBurmans adopt Burman cultural traits as a matter of choice or as a result of coercion. However, for the purposes of this analysis of Burman-ness as privilege, it is sufficient to note that the position of Burman culture as the norm of national identity means that Burmans are never compelled to make this choice themselves; that is, the lack of pressure to assimilate culturally is a privilege enjoyed by members of the dominant ethnic group. Non-Burmans might not (always) be forced at gunpoint to assimilate Burman culture, but the fact that they cannot enjoy the same set of privileges while identifying and practising according to their ethnic identity speaks to their systematic disadvantage and to the corresponding privilege that Burmans enjoy. The government is usually not explicit about its Burmanisation policies, describing them instead as ‘‘development efforts for border region national races’’ (quoted in Houtman 1999, 69). They promote this ‘‘development’’ work in publications like Measures Taken for Development of Border Areas and National Races (Burma 1992), barely disguising their view of the non-Burman ethnic groups as primitive, backward and in need of guidance (see also Lambrecht 2004). Steinberg (2001, 55) notes that educational institutions designated for the ‘‘Development of National Groups’’ are, in effect, ‘‘designed to educate minority youth in Burman ways’’ and Lambrecht (2004, 173) argues that with little to no participation from local communities,

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development initiatives are no more than ‘‘clumsy attempts to impose lowland Burman culture.’’ There are similarities in the ways in which whites in America and Europe perceived Native Americans and Blacks (Pearce 1988; Mills 1999). The government also carries out cultural assimilation through religious missions that seek to spread Buddhism to other ethnic groups (Brown 1994, 49). In this way, they not only reinforce the dominant Burman identity, but the specifically Buddhist cultural traditions of the Burmans. Policies like this contrast the foreignness of nonBuddhists with the ‘‘pure’’ Buddhist heritage of the Burmans. Other scholars have detailed the ways in which ‘‘development’’ activities contribute to cultural assimilation and the virtual elimination of non-Burman cultural traditions. Callahan (2004) shows how changes in language policy have aided the process of Burmanisation by outlawing instruction in many ethnic languages, a subject explored in more detail below. Taylor (2005, 285) quotes a Shan nationalist as regretting that ‘‘today Shan boys know more about Burmese history than their own.’’ The government continues to deny Muslim Rohingya full citizenship, although they too are subjected to Burmanisation through religious policy and renaming campaigns even though they are not considered by the government to be part of the Burmese nation (Berlie 2008).13 One concern that I uncovered during fieldwork after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 was that, as the government provided (limited) funds to rebuild religious and cultural buildings in storm-damaged areas, they were rebuilding them in the Burman style, rather than the ethnic styles in which they were originally constructed (see also Fink 2009, 241). Another step in this programme of Burmanisation was the government’s move to rename a number of cities, streets, geographical landmarks and even the country itself in the late 1980s. In May 1989, the government formed a commission to ‘‘reclaim’’ the names of many places, restoring them to their pre-colonial forms. The government changed the name of the country from ‘‘Burma’’ to ‘‘Myanmar’’ in June of 1989. While the government claimed that the reason for the name change was to de-emphasise the connection that ‘‘Burma’’ had with the majority Burman ethnic group, most people remain sceptical of the government’s claims to racial inclusion, not least because, as pointed out by an ethnic minority leader, ‘‘Myanmar’’ is actually just another commonly used name for the country in Burmese, the language of the Burman majority (cited in Smith 1999; see also Houtman 1999, 43–54). The process of Burmanisation exemplifies the benign disregard that Burman leaders of the country have had for the cultures of the other ethnic groups and the importance and centrality which they place on their own heritage. The push for Burmanisation might not always be intentional; since one aspect of racial or ethnic privilege is seeing one’s own group as the norm, Burmans might not realize the ways in which they reinforce their dominant identity. But because the content of Myanmar culture is largely Burman, in order to be considered truly Myanmar (a member of the nation) one must adopt the trappings of Burman culture. Ethnic identity may have once been more malleable but in contemporary Myanmar it appears to be just as ascriptive as race, and non-Burmans regularly suffer discrimination, even as they are subjected to a programme of Burmanisation. Yet, even assimilation into Burman culture is not always enough to shed the suspicions of disloyalty and inferiority that accrue to a non-Burman ethnicity.

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Ethnicity and Burman Privilege in Contemporary Myanmar Conditional Membership in the National Community

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The rhetoric of the military government in its various forms often reflected a perspective that conflated (non-Burman) ethnicity with disloyalty to the nation.14 Since the military controlled the country by force and was not accountable to the citizens, it could be very blatant about this, as demonstrated by an excerpt from a speech given by former commanding General Ne Win in 1979 that is worth quoting at length: Today you can see that even people of pure blood are being disloyal to the race and country but are being loyal to others. If people of pure blood act this way, we must carefully watch people of mixed blood. Some people are of pure blood, pure Burmese heritage and descendants of genuine citizens. Karen, Kachin and so forth, are of genuine pure blood. But we must consider whether these people are completely for our race, our Burmese people: and our country, our Burma. (Quoted in Smith 1999, 37) Again, we see the references to ‘‘our people,’’ ‘‘our country’’ and ‘‘our Burma’’ that were constitutive of Burmese (Burman) nationalism of the 1930s. What Ne Win also implied in this speech is that loyalty to the nation, proof of one’s ‘‘Burmeseness,’’ is something that Burman people are naturally endowed with. They are the ones with the ‘‘pure Burmese heritage.’’ However, despite their pure (ethnic) blood, non-Burmans are required to prove their loyalty to the nation. They are inherently suspect because of their ethnicity (which is ironic, since Ne Win himself was part Chinese). Ne Win’s speech implied that non-Burman ethnic groups do not naturally possess a true Burmese heritage. Burmans, on the other hand, unproblematically begin with a pure Burmese heritage; for them to be considered outsiders or enemies, they must prove their disloyalty by, for example, demanding democracy or protesting against the government. This helps to explain why the military government can oppress Burmans as well as the other ethnic groups, while still functioning under the premises of Burman privilege and Burman-ness. By equating non-Burman ethnicity with disloyalty, it views those ethnic identities as something that non-Burmans must overcome in order to become part of the nation. Presumably they can accomplish this by adopting ‘‘Myanmar’’ (Burman) culture. However, even if a non-Burman manages to successfully deny and leave behind his or her culture, statements like this from Ne Win made it clear that their membership in the national group was still suspect and conditional. Today it is rare to see such explicit statements from military leaders doubting the loyalty of nonBurmans. However, part of the argument of this paper is that the equation of nonBurman-ness with disloyalty has become institutionalised through military campaigns against non-Burman resistance groups situated almost entirely in non-Burman areas. Thus, while the rhetoric no longer directly associates non-Burmans with disloyalty, counterinsurgency methods effectively follow the same logic and, more importantly, Burmans are privileged in not being subject to this type of suspicion. The perpetuation of this conditional membership is clear in incidents such as the harassment of Kachin students in Yangon in June 2011 (The Irrawaddy, June 15, 2011). The week prior to the incident, Kachin State had witnessed armed clashes

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between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Before the renewal of that conflict, Kachin students were nominally loyal Myanmar citizens. However, from the standpoint of the authorities, the conflict cast suspicion on all Kachin; even those far away from the fighting, as the Yangon students were, were subject to persecution. Fredrickson (2002, 69–70) reminds us that, ‘‘Where nationality is ethnic, and if ethnicity is thought to derive from the blood or the genes, those of the wrong ancestry can never be accepted as sons and daughters of the nation.’’ Clearly, the perception of ethnicity as ascriptive, particularly among those with political power, can negatively affect the national standing of those outside the dominant group. Of course, non-Burman ethnic rebellions have also exacerbated and prolonged ethnic conflict in Myanmar, even though over the past twenty years, most groups have adapted their goals from separatism to federalism (Smith 2007, xi). Demands for federalism, while justified and well reasoned, have only served to fuel the violent paranoia of the military that Myanmar is in constant danger of being torn apart, one of the fears that drove the second military takeover in 1962. Non-Burman stereotypes of Burmans based on the actions of the military are also an impediment to ethnic unity. However, it is important to acknowledge that these statements and actions are largely a defensive response, where strengthening one’s own cultural identity is an act of survival in a context of sustained violence and enforced cultural assimilation (Harell 1995). Because of the overall context of repression, it is perhaps understandable that, until recently, Burmans have displayed little overt concern for the overwhelming levels of violence that characterise military operations in non-Burman border areas. Many have uncritically accepted or been influenced by regime propaganda that depicts ethnic armed groups as illegitimate, uncivilised terrorists seeking to tear the country apart and drag it into anarchy (Fink 2008, 460). In this way, non-Burmans and their ongoing resistance have been easy scapegoats for the persistent underdevelopment and militarisation of Myanmar. Many Burmans may have also been uninformed, although expanded access to satellite television and the internet is increasing the Burman population’s exposure to the conditions faced by nonBurmans in the country, and there is some evidence of increased Burman attention to non-Burman political concerns. The process of cultural assimilation actually reveals one way in which Burmanness, as a marker of ethnicity, differs from Whiteness, a marker of race. The fact that non-Burmans can adopt elements of Burman culture in order to be accepted into the national community is an indicator of the fluidity of ethnicity relative to race. Again, this suggests that, while ethnicity can appear ascriptive, its markers are often less immediately apparent and allow for the possibility of integration. However, the discourse on citizenship and loyalty and the tenuous position of non-Burmans within the national community reinforces my claim that Burman-ness represents a dominant ethnic identity that stands in for Myanmar (national) identity, which is thus never fully or securely available to non-Burmans. Reinforcing Burman-ness through Education The field of education is another area in which we can see Burman privilege reinforced and non-Burman culture and identity devalued or even attacked. Under

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the military government that ruled after 1962, Burmese was the standard language of instruction after fourth grade, placing non-native speakers of Burmese at an educational disadvantage from a young age and limiting opportunities to develop arts and literature in non-Burman languages (Callahan 2003b, 163).15 While there is limited spending on education in the entire country, ethnic states have received the smallest amounts and, fifteen years ago, literacy rates in those areas reflected that spending inequity, at 50–65%, compared to 80% nationally (Brandon 1998, 238). Callahan (2003b, 164) also notes that the military government restricted publishing in non-Burman languages in the name of national unity (another indicator of suspect non-Burman loyalty), and what they did permit tended to be sanitised writings on superficial cultural practices. In his discussion of the creation of national communities based on a common language, Anderson (1991, 45) noted the advantages enjoyed by those groups whose spoken dialects were closest to what became the dominant, common ‘‘languages-ofpower.’’ Conversely, speakers of other languages suffered persistent disadvantages with regard to access to political power, competitiveness in the economic sphere and inclusion in the social community. In this case, native fluency in the dominant language of the state is a privilege that Burmans enjoy, supporting the unspoken (or even unrecognised) assumption that as a Burman one will be conversant in the language of political power. Speakers of other languages are not only at a disadvantage in this way, they also receive less support for developing and expanding their own languages. In addition, while learning a non-Burman language is a choice that Burmans are privileged in being able to make (albeit one that very few actually make), in most areas of the country, non-Burmans must learn Burmese as a matter of survival. Since the early 1990s, the government has extensively re-written textbooks in order to emphasise a common ‘‘Myanmar’’ identity among the next generations (see, for example, Metro 2011, Chapter 1). Recall that this Myanmar identity is roughly commensurate with Burman culture, so that identification as Myanmar is unproblematic for Burmans. While the government has made some efforts to include non-Burmans in its version of the national narrative, they only appear in roles that contribute to Myanmar national unity, such as opposing the British during the colonial period (a presentation that vastly oversimplifies the politics of that era). In some cases the official history appropriates non-Burman figures as ‘‘Myanmar’’ heroes, effectively denying both their ethnic identity and their efforts on behalf of their own ethnic groups. For example, textbooks present U Ottama, a famous monk who led anti-colonial agitation, as a nationalist hero fighting for Myanmar’s independence, but rarely as an ethnic Arakanese. Of course, non-Burmans who fought against the hegemony of Burman kings or the oppression of Burman-led governments have been excised completely. These individuals appear only in the alternative textbooks written and used by non-Burman resistance groups (SalemGervais and Metro 2012). In her exploration of white privilege, McIntosh (1988) includes the fact that when whites learn about their own national heritage or ‘‘civilisation’’ they are presented with a narrative in which that heritage was positively shaped by people of their own race. Non-Burman students learning from textbooks in which Burman figures play transformative roles and non-Burmans are relegated to token inclusion face a

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challenge in locating themselves within the state’s narrative of the Myanmar nation. Burman students, on the other hand, enjoy the privilege of unproblematically relating to their own history, since they can immediately and consistently find those who are similar to themselves. The Democratic Opposition and the Perpetuation of Burman-ness Unfortunately, many of the Burman leaders of the democratic opposition remain blind to the privileged position of Burmans in Myanmar. This is most likely because they view themselves as having equally experienced repression at the hands of the military government. Despite frequently expressing support for the participation of ‘‘ethnic minority’’ groups in political negotiations with the government, in the past Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken about ethnic differences in (unintentional yet) subtly dismissive ways. In a speech in 1989 she stated: At this time there is a very great need for all our ethnic groups to be joined together. We cannot have the attitude of ‘‘I’m Kachin,’’ ‘‘I’m Burman,’’ ‘‘I’m Shan.’’ We must have the attitude that we are all comrades in the struggle for democratic rights. We must all work closely together like brothers and sisters. Only then will we succeed. If we divide ourselves ethnically, we shall not achieve democracy for a long time. (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991, 231) Statements like this reveal what Roediger (1999, 11) refers to as the ‘‘suppressed question of whiteness’’ (or, in this case, Burman-ness). Aung San Suu Kyi can call for a move away from ethnic identity precisely because her own ethnic identity is unproblematic. Not only does she effectively ignore the historically real and continuing effects of ethnic conflict, she does not acknowledge the disparities in sacrifice and suffering experienced by non-Burman ethnic groups. She asks them to put aside their own experiences of injustice and oppression to follow her plan: ‘‘Only after building this Union can we really work towards peace and prosperity for all. We must all sacrifice our own needs for the needs of others’’ (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991, 226). The message is clear: the priority is forming a (Burman-led) democratic government; only after this has been achieved will the ‘‘ethnic question’’ be addressed (see Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies 2010). While the criticism of government and military policies made by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is important, it too ignores the historical tensions both between Burmans and non-Burmans, and among the non-Burman groups themselves. Although she has repeatedly denounced the oppression of non-Burman ethnic groups, in her past statements Aung San Suu Kyi (1991, 231) has disregarded the exclusion and deception that characterised the period leading up to independence and essentially glossed over, if not completely rewritten Myanmar’s recent ethnic history with statements such as: ‘‘We won our independence [in 1948] through the unity of the various nationalities.’’ This type of claim excludes and dismisses conflicting accounts of the independence struggle from non-Burmans and, more importantly, oversimplifies a complex political history that will need to be honestly acknowledged as part of a process of national reconciliation in Myanmar.

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The point here is not to vilify Aung San Suu Kyi or any of the Burman democratic opposition leaders. Indeed, the NLD has also expressed strong support for nonBurman political aspirations. NLD leaders signed on to the Kalay Declaration in 2011, a document calling for a second Panglong gathering that would aim to establish Myanmar as a federal rather than unitary system and Aung San Suu Kyi frequently discusses the need for a political solution to ethnic conflict. However, many non-Burmans remain sceptical that the Burman leaders of the democratic opposition fully recognise the differential experiences of suffering between the two groups, understand the nature of non-Burman grievances, and acknowledge the need for non-Burman voices to assume the central role in political talks. In a positive development, members of the 88 Generation Students political group began a tour of war-torn ethnic areas in April 2012. Their stated goal was to listen to the voices of the people in order to better understand the situation in those areas (Hpyo Wai Tha 2012). This could indicate a positive (and from the perspective of many nonBurmans, necessary) shift in attitudes among some Burman leaders of the democratic opposition towards a more self-reflective and less domineering position vis-a`-vis the non-Burman ethnic groups. Burman stereotypes about non-Burmans have hindered inter-ethnic understanding even within inter-ethnic coalitions. After the government’s bloody repression of protests in 1988, many Burman students fled to the jungles to join non-Burman groups that had already been waging a war against the military for decades. Despite the friendships and alliances that were established during this period, the language of Burmans writing about their experiences often betrays their views of the foreignness of non-Burman opposition groups. In an article reflecting on those first encounters, Naw May Oo (2010), a Karen scholar, explains how Burmans coming to the jungle judged Karens as savages based on cultural differences and misunderstood Karen fear of them (perfectly justified based on their previous experiences with Burman soldiers) as evidence of their backwardness. She laments the use of labels, such as ‘‘Karen-style justice,’’ which a Burman writer used to describe the harsh ways he saw rebel militias treating people who had violated laws. Rather than explain these actions as conditioned by a context of violence and conflict, he attributes these practices to Karen in general and Naw May Oo’s concern is that this type of language not only implies a divide between cultures, but contrasts Karen practices to the presumably universal and civilised justice of the Burmans.16 Burmans continue to assume a central place in Burmese politics, whether as power holders or as members of the democratic opposition. The NLD and other opposition groups are dominated by Burmans, and those groups that do have majority populations of non-Burmans are always labelled as such, for example, the Shan National League for Democracy. Burmans also maintain a privileged position in the international perception of Burmese politics. Many observers have called for a threepart dialogue, between the military government, the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic ‘‘minority’’ groups. Left unquestioned is the assumption that the NLD, as the pre-eminent opposition party, implicitly represents Burman interests. In assessing white working class alignment with Whiteness, Roediger (1999) notes that the refusal to acknowledge (let alone critically question) white privilege meant that cross-colour alliances were always fragile and in danger of being undermined (usually to the eventual detriment of white workers). In the same way, the refusal to

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acknowledge Burman privilege has been an impediment to cross-ethnic co-operation and solidarity against the greater threat posed by the military government and now by a government that continues to pursue some of the same policies. Experiences of Oppression One of the most obvious differences between the position of Burmans and nonBurmans is the difference in the ways that the military regime has treated each group. Many scholars and activists have noted the effects of the militarisation of the ethnic states on Myanmar’s periphery (for example, Fink 2008; Karen Human Rights Group 2011b). Local and international organisations have exhaustively documented abuses by the Myanmar military (as well as abuses committed by various ethnic insurgent armies). These include the indiscriminate use of landmines and the use of non-Burman civilians as ‘‘human minesweepers’’ (Moser-Paungsuwan 2001; Landmine Monitor 2010; Karen Human Rights Group 2011a); forced appropriation by the Myanmar army of local food and resources (South 2011); extrajudicial detention and torture (Amnesty International 1988); military attacks on civilians and denial of humanitarian aid (Karen Human Rights Group 2010); sexual violence (Shan Women’s Action Network 2002); forced portering (Human Rights Watch 2011); forced migration (South 2008) and many more offences. Additionally, a recent report by Amnesty International catalogued targeted government repression of non-Burman political activists, especially in the period leading up to the 2010 elections. These actions included ‘‘arbitrary arrests and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; unfair trials; rape; extrajudicial killings; forced labour; violations of freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion; intimidation and harassment; and discrimination’’ (Amnesty International 2010, 55). While Burman political activists also faced some of these threats, the degree of violence was and is unequal. When dealing with the Burman opposition, the government has tended to reserve the kind of repression it visits on non-Burmans to only the most threatening Burman activists. Although the violent suppression of (mostly Burman) rebellions in 1988 and in 2007 was well publicised and contained no shortage of atrocities, these events still take place infrequently among the majority Burman community, whereas within non-Burman communities they can be regular occurrences. While they may still experience oppression in a variety of ways, Burmans in Myanmar are privileged in that they are not subjected to the same treatment as the members of other ethnic groups. Of course, the unequal experience of violence is itself the product of a selfreinforcing feedback loop. It is perfectly logical for the Burmese military to focus its campaigns (and thus, its violence) in non-Burman areas because these are the regions that contain active rebellions, insurgent groups or other types of security threats. While the mostly urban uprisings of 1988 and 2007 were temporary threats to the government, the groups leading them were, for the most part, not armed, and did not pose a threat to the sovereignty of the government. Among other Burmandominated resistance groups, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) collapsed in 1989 and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF, a military group formed of former students who participated in the 1988 protests) has not been an

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armed threat to the military itself, although it has co-operated with ethnic insurgencies (Lintner 1990). Thus, one could argue that the military’s campaigns against non-Burman insurgents are merely a response based on tangible threats rather than an ethnic bias. It is admittedly difficult to prove that these campaigns represent conscious discrimination against non-Burmans on the part of the military and its leaders. However, rather than seeking to prove intention, my interest here is in noting both the institutionalisation of this differential treatment and the way in which its absence represents a privilege of Burman-ness. Although the reasons for the differential treatment may be complex, Burmans do enjoy an existence that is subject to less direct violence from the military than non-Burmans. Geography also plays an important role in creating differential experiences of oppression. Non-Burmans and those of mixed blood who live in the central region generally experience less direct repression than non-Burmans who live in ethnic states on the periphery. While urban, central-Burma dwelling non-Burmans can still be subject to discrimination and suspect devotion to the Myanmar nation, the daily security conditions of their lives are not as precarious. In this way, the geographical bounded-ness of non-Burman communities in the ethnic states acts to make ethnicity more ascriptive. That is, while non-Burman status might not be immediately apparent in an urban centre in the central heartland, the military has been free to conduct violent campaigns against communities in the ethnic states, knowing that these campaigns will target those most suspect (in its eyes) as citizens. Individuals in non-Burman states also experience insecurity as a result of the contestation of government authority by armed opposition groups. This creates a zone of uncertainty in which citizens are unsure of what actions or decisions will ensure their safety. Callahan’s (2007, xiii) assessment of the situation is worth quoting at length: Citizens in the ethnic minority states of Burma live under the authority of multiple ‘‘states’’ or ‘‘state-like authorities’’ . . . The range of competing systems of authority sometimes creates ambiguity . . . [and] much of the population is left with limited strategies for survival or improvement . . . Although few ordinary citizens anywhere in the country have significant opportunities to influence the policy choices of various political authorities, those who live in ethnic minority states are among the most disenfranchised. Finally, the struggles of non-Burmans are detached from those of the Burman-led democratic opposition, which reinforces the minority position on the periphery (in terms of importance and relevance as well as geography) and the normative, central position of Burman ethnicity and culture. Since before independence, non-Burman groups have been compelled to engage in military struggle against the regime, which has ignored their efforts to broker political settlements; the tactics of the Burman opposition, on the other hand, have usually remained within the system, only occasionally resorting to violent conflict. The privilege of being able to choose tactics serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the Burman struggle for democracy, particularly in the eyes of the international community, which valorises non-violent campaigns. We need look no further than the current political reforms from the Myanmar government.

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As noted at the beginning of the paper, since taking power in March 2011, the government has eased restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, released some political prisoners and generally created opportunities for increased political participation by the democratic opposition. The same period has been marked by a worrying increase in violence in some ethnic states, most notably Kachin State since June 2011 and ethno-religious unrest in Rakhine State in June 2012. This violent uptick reinforces the notion that Burmans and Burman issues remain central to any political reforms the Myanmar state is willing to carry out. Additionally, the reluctance of the military (now civilian) government to consider political solutions to ethnic conflict is further evidence that non-Burmans’ choice of response strategies is limited. In all of these ways, Burman people in Myanmar are privileged by their Burmanness, even as many of them have continued to experience some degree of oppression by the military government. In fact, it may be this continued oppression that prevents them from being able to see their ethnic privilege. Roediger (1999) discusses the emotional and cognitive obstacles that poor, underprivileged or otherwise disadvantaged whites faced in acknowledging their own racial privilege. In his narrative, (white) economic elites enhanced this challenge through their efforts to reinforce racial allegiance of poor whites at the expense of class solidarity with poor non-whites. In Myanmar the former military government has engaged in similar efforts to impede alliances between Burmans in the democratic opposition and non-Burman ethnic groups. But beyond this, the self-understanding of the (primarily Burman) democratic opposition movement has also made it harder for most Burmans to acknowledge differential experiences of suffering between the communities. The stories of Burman activists’ persecution at the hands of the government have dominated the overall narrative of government repression in Myanmar since 1988 and many have appealed to a sense of solidarity with non-Burman ethnic groups based on common experiences of oppression. Paradoxically, this shared sense of suffering itself blinds most Burmans to their own privileged position and to the discrimination and atrocities that non-Burmans disproportionately experience. Without denying the legitimacy of Burman experiences, posing the question of privilege pushes Burmans to consider the possibility that there are qualitative differences in the suffering they have experienced and that these differences reflect a structural disadvantage faced by non-Burmans. Contesting the Dominance of Burman-ness Given the degree to which the government, military or civilian, has monitored and controlled the lives of Burmese people of all ethnicities, is it reasonable to suggest that even those Burmans who are not associated with the military government are implicated in Burmanisation and in the privilege that accrues to Burman-ness? Can they be held responsible for a process that has in some ways been imposed upon them? Some writers suggest that the military regime has fostered an environment in which Burmans have been forced into acting out their privilege by the oppressive politics of the government (Gravers 1999, 76). I would argue that space still exists for challenging Burman privilege and opposing the dominance of Burman-ness.

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Non-Burman scholars and activists have written for years about the dominant position of the majority ethnic group, yet they have usually been told (as we saw in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD) that their concerns could only be addressed once democracy had been achieved. Slowly, expatriate Burman writers are starting to realise that the question of ethnic relations must be central in Burmese politics, possibly even prior to issues of democratic governance and political reform (see, for example, the New Panglong Initiative 2001). Political activist Aung Myo Min, who lives in Thailand working on human rights, is one of the few Burmans to publicly and explicitly acknowledge not just the violence that non-Burman communities face, but the vastly different degrees of oppression faced by Burman and non-Burman communities.

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Human rights violations still continue in every area of Burma especially in the ethnic areas of Burma. Burmans are not being treated like ethnic people, but because of the civil war and the four cuts system in the ethnic areas the [nonBurman] people suffer a lot. More than the Burman people. (The Irrawaddy, July 1, 1999)17 Statements like this, and occasional articles criticising Burman ethnocentrism written by Dr Zarni, a Burman scholar and activist (for example, The Irrawaddy, October 17, 2009), are almost shocking in their rarity. The simple, yet challenging, fact remains that, just as with Whiteness, Burman dominance and privilege can be overcome only through active struggle and repudiation by Burmans. This is a difficult truth to face, not least because many Burmans also perceive themselves as having suffered at the hands of the regime. Conclusion What we have seen in the case of Myanmar is an effective merging of ethnic and national identity; to be Burman (the ethnic group) is to be (truly) Burmese or Myanmar (a citizen of the nation). The unquestioned assumptions that underlie this association are similar to those that anchor Whiteness. In both cases, one group enjoys not only unproblematic inclusion in a particular national community, but also access to a specific set of privileges, while simultaneously denying all of that to varying degrees to those in other groups. Even though many Burman people see themselves as having been oppressed by the military government, this paper argues that they retain a privileged status within Myanmar, simply because of their ethnicity and the way in which Myanmar culture has been constituted by Burman culture. Despite this gloomy assessment, I will suggest in closing that it is the very permeability of ethnicity that points, at least initially, to a way forward. I have already noted the ways in which non-Burman disadvantages are enhanced by geographical location; that is, military repression is focused on non-Burman areas, while many non-Burmans living in central Burma (and particularly in urban areas) experience little to no discrimination based on ethnicity. This suggests that, removed from the areas of volatile ethnic resistance and military response, there are fewer barriers to ethnic reconciliation (although dividing non-Burmans into ‘‘loyal’’ and ‘‘disloyal’’ groups is still problematic and could encourage assimilation). It also

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reinforces the critical importance of lasting political settlements to ethnic conflicts in border areas through inclusive and accommodating dialogue. However, even these political settlements are only an initial step towards dismantling Burman privilege. In addition to greater inclusion of non-Burman voices in the political decision-making process, the government of Myanmar will need to open to public discussion the question of what it means to be ‘‘Myanmar’’ and members of all ethnic groups will need to grapple with the challenges posed by essentialised ethnic identities (see Sadan 2007, 35). Admittedly, this would be an enormous step, given the pathological insistence on ‘‘unity’’ among political groups across the spectrum. While a government obviously cannot countenance armed rebellion, can there be space for ‘‘loyal opposition’’ expressed through ethnicity? Without attention to continued differential treatment of non-Burmans in many parts of the country as well as the privileged position of Burmans with regard to the national ‘‘Myanmar’’ identity, ethnic reconciliation in Myanmar will remain elusive. The purpose of this analysis has not been to suggest that all Burmans are chauvinists, looking down on or actively discriminating against non-Burmans. However, drawing a lesson from viewing Whiteness as a set of power relations, the more insidious impediments to ethnic unity in Myanmar are the ways in which Burman dominance has been institutionalised over time and the ways in which Burmans either cannot see it or actively ignore or deny it. One of the compelling aspects of a theory of Whiteness and White privilege is that instead of blaming whites or accusing all whites of being racist, it focuses on the historical construction of racial identities and their institutionalisation in contemporary power structures. This does not, however, absolve whites (or Burmans, in my appropriation of the concept) of acting to contest these institutions and practices. In fact, adopting a perspective that is sensitive to Burman privilege puts the focus squarely on Burmans as the only group in a position to challenge structures of Burman privilege. This perspective does not place the responsibility for ethnic unity and harmony solely on Burman shoulders, but does insist that dismantling the supremacy of Burman-ness can occur only from within the sphere of Burman privilege. Acknowledgement
The author would like to thank John Buchanan, James Chamberlain, Ian Holliday, Patrick McCormick, Rose Metro, Ashley South, Jack Turner, Abigail Vogus and Kit Young for their helpful comments on drafts of this article. However, the views expressed herein are entirely the author’s and should not be attributed to anyone listed above. Additionally, two anonymous reviewers provided extensive comments that substantially helped to make the argument stronger and more precise.

Notes
1

2

The government officially changed the name of the country to ‘‘Myanmar’’ in 1989; in referring to either an institution of the state or the people as a whole contained within its borders, I use ‘‘Myanmar’’ when speaking about the country after the change and ‘‘Burma’’ when speaking about the country before the change. I use ‘‘Burmese’’ to refer to the citizens of the state. As a result of elections in November 2010, Myanmar is now led by a civilian government. The military still retains the strongest voice in political matters, however, as most of the leaders of this civilian government are former military officers and the vast majority of Parliamentary seats are controlled by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has close connections to the former

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3

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6

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military government. Additionally, the military itself remains an autonomous entity, not subject to civilian control. The term ‘‘Burman’’ is used to refer to the majority ethnic group in Myanmar, although other authors use the term ‘‘Bama’’ or ‘‘Bamar’’ (the English transliterations of the word in Burmese, the language of the Burman majority and the lingua franca in the country). I use the term ‘‘non-Burman’’ rather than ‘‘ethnic minority,’’ which most writers use. Non-Burman writers and political activists have expressed concern over the ways in which the term ‘‘minority’’ reinscribes the position of non-Burmans as peripheral, although it has also limited their ability to frame their struggle within UN human rights provisions that focus on ‘‘minority’’ protections (A. Smith 2007). Some non-Burmans have adopted the term ‘‘ethnic nationality,’’ which they believe implies less of a subordinate position to the majority (Ashley South, personal communication). See Zaw Oo and Win Min (2007) for a thorough review of ceasefires up to that year. Since the new, quasi-civilian government took power it has signed several more ceasefires, but the slow pace of political negotiations reflects the government’s reluctance to recognise the political concerns of nonBurman groups as legitimate. The challenge of separating race and ethnicity is compounded by the fact that speakers of Burmese often use the same word for both categories. Scholars and writers generally translate ‘‘lu myo’’ as ‘‘race,’’ while translating ‘‘tain yin tha’’ as ‘‘ethnic group.’’ In fact, the word lu myo is a much more inclusive term with flexible content that appears to have changed along with common English categorisations. Most Burmese speakers would respond to the question ‘‘Ba lu myo le?’’ [‘‘What race are you?’’] by stating their ethnicity (or sometimes, adding to the confusion, their religion), suggesting that there is an indigenous categorisation system (or systems, since members of different ethnic groups might also understand the word differently) that does not neatly map onto the race/ethnicity distinction. Mills capitalises ‘‘Whiteness’’ when referring to the identity that is shaped by and benefits from systematic white supremacy, as opposed to ‘‘white’’ which merely refers to the biological features of a particular group. He also suggests that Japanese identity within East and Southeast Asia during World War II and Hutu dominance over Tutsis in Rwanda both represent localised versions of Whiteness in which members of one ethnic group consider themselves to be superior over others and construct political and social institutions to reflect this standing. For more detailed analysis of the process of hegemonic identity formation among the non-Burman ethnic groups, see Fink (2003), Gravers (2007), Harriden (2002) and South (2007). Population figures are a contentious topic in Burma, stemming from census figures which often conflate ethnicity with religion. Although the census categories claim to classify people by ethnic group, they often classify members of non-Burman ethnic groups as ‘‘Burman’’ because these non-Burmans identify themselves as Buddhist (Smith 1999, 30). The naming of ethnic groups is also a contentious topic, as they are rarely represented by their own names for themselves. While I recognise that using either Burmese or English names for these groups is problematic, I have done so because they will be more familiar to readers. For a more detailed overview of these various groups, beyond the scope of this paper, consult Smith (1994) or Smith (1999, 27–39). See Union of Burma (1999) for a partisan account and Walton (2008) for a critical appraisal. See Morrison (1947) on Burman atrocities against Karen during the war. While some writers have presented the threat of ethnic separatism as the primary motivation behind the 1962 coup (see, for example, Maung Maung 1969), there were other concerns on the part of the military, including the divisive political factionalism of the Parliament and limited economic development (see, for example, Taylor 2009, 293–295; Smith 1999, 196). See Lambrecht (1995) for more details of government treatment of Rohingyas. Discrimination against the Rohingya is not limited to the Myanmar government. In response to Rohingya concerns that they will be subject to further marginalisation because their identity will not be represented in the 2014 census, a senior National League for Democracy (NLD) leader said, ‘‘I don’t want to answer because even in our organisation the Rohingya question has not been settled. Even in our leadership some of them think that the Rohingya is a very delicate question’’ (Hindstrom 2012). During the violent unrest in Rakhine State in June 2012 between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhine, Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the 88 Generation Students democratic opposition group declared that ‘‘The Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group’’ and that foreign countries that criticised Myanmar’s policy towards the Rohingya were guilty of impeding Myanmar’s sovereignty (Ponnudurai 2012).

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Burman dominance is also apparent within the military itself. Steinberg in 2001 noted that ‘‘there is now no senior member of the Burma military ruling elite who comes from a minority’’ (73). Selth (2002, 264) points to the way in which religion is reflective of loyalty, claiming that ‘‘Muslims and Christians are actively discouraged from joining the Tatmadaw.’’ The upper ranks of the military remain mostly inaccessible to non-Burmans and it is significant that, while most of the ministers of the new semicivilian government are Burman ex-military officers, one of the Vice Presidents, Sai Mauk Kham is Shan but has a medical rather than military background. In pointing out the ways in which speakers of non-Burman languages are disadvantaged, I do not mean to suggest that Burmese should not be the lingua franca of the country. My intention is merely to identify another way in which Burmans are privileged in that their native language is the common tongue of economic affairs (in most of the country) and political affairs. Linguistic privilege is often invisible to those who possess it but represents an important area of policy attention in Myanmar’s ethnic reconciliation efforts. There is a parallel here to the way in which violence committed by, for example, blacks in America is often considered symptomatic of their blackness and reflects on the entire racial community, whereas violence committed by whites is never portrayed in the same way. In Myanmar, violence committed by Burmans can be attributed to a number of factors, including politics, social disagreements, and mental/ emotional disabilities, but is never attributed to Burmans’ ethnicity. In this way, ethnicity in Myanmar and race in America are both frequently used in order to explain the behaviour of non-dominant groups. The Four Cuts was a policy instituted by General Ne Win in the 1960s. It was designed to sever the links between insurgents and local populations with regard to food, funds, information and recruits.

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