Malaysia and Myanmar. Has a nice ring to it. While they do not share a border, they do have more than a few parallel histories, which share common goals, trials, debates and cultural production. I met Intan Rafiza at Byeond Pressure V. She is a curator at the National Visual Arts Gallery, which recently held “Kuasa, Harapan dan Tanah (Power, Hope and Land)” a show tracing art works from Malaysian independence to the present day. The catalog is a testament to the show’s overall themes. One can learn a lot about the Malaysian road to Independence and the current condition by viewing the contemporary arts. If I had it my way, we would all learn about the histories and activism of nations through its visual arts and literature.

A week later, I read Ahmad Fuad Rahmat’s piece “The Pathologies of Malay Nationalisim” on the New Mandala website. Rahmat is the managing editor at Projek Dialog, a social development project promoting debate and understanding among Malaysians. Rahmat breaks it down for the reader with subheadings acting as keys to recent histories in Malaysia: the nation-state, Islam, economy, politics, poverty and ethnicity. As I was reading, I noted some of the parallels in Myanmar, or some of the artists who have addressed such issues. Here I share my notes, in indentation, attempting to do so with more questioning than analysis.

Power Hope and Land by Intan Rafiza

“The words of hope revolve around the responsibility of the artist in creating art that symbolizes a space of freedom and self-liberation shaping the history of art. Just as pronounced by a piece of poetry by Latiff Mohindin:


“Forgive me if I’m always misbehaving

Especially at this year’s celebration like today

When everybody is ready to sit down, I stand up

When they stand up to clap, I sit down

When they are hotly debating something, I am sleeping

When they release pigeons, I scatter rice

When others have become free, I have not

Forgive me, if I’m always misbehaving, I’m just reminding.”

Poets in Myanmar have worked in relative isolation for many years, conceptualizing a place for themselves within their environment. Like Mohindin, Zeyar Lynn questions the nature of “change” within his borders. Who is bringing this change? Are we really free to speak freely? What role does the individual play in this change?

Years ago, Myanmar fought for its independence and won. Years later, they marched for their independence from their own government. They never won. It was gifted to them but on governmental terms. What does that mean for those living and working in this “changed society?” How does one create his or her own ideal of what a country is?

“The problem begins with the nation-state ideal; for its coherence depends on there being a people deemed as the rightful owners of a land. It is rooted to the belief that territory is property – a thing to own – and that loyalty to the people means, among other things, the readiness to uphold the integrity of territory to ensure it belongs to the nation…This requires clearly defined, finite, national borders, which – at least at the face of it – appears as a simple enough idea. Matters become complicated when we ask who those borders are meant for. There cannot be a nation-state, if there is no nation to begin with…But identities unlike land cannot be enclosed and demarcated. Cultures do not flourish in vacuums. They develop out of interactions and fusions with one another. New words, outlooks and practices are adopted while others fade, in a slow, arbitrary and often ambiguous organic process of contact and migration through time.” – Rahmat

Bogyoke Aung San (General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, father of Myanmar independence) demarcated lines after independence, signing treaties with ethnic groups on the borders of territories that were majority Burmese. Called the Panglong Agreement, these groups included the Kachin, Shan and Chin and extended to Kayin, Kaya, Rakhine and Mon. The Agreement stated that if these ethnic nationalities were not satisfied with how the country was run by the end of 10 years, they could claim independence.

“The nationalist agenda is at odds with this reality. The belief in the congruence of identity and territory – or indeed identity as territory – at the face of inevitable cultural change that can neither be controlled nor predicted, means that each nation will always find itself in the position of having to redefine the conditions of membership, to determine what or who should or should not be excluded. Culture too is given boundaries as a result.” – Rahmat

It was the British colonists who clearly drew these borders and boundaries. No doubt there were similar distinctions in Malaysia, which was also under British colonial rule.  Christian missionaries converted many of the ethnic groups and translated their languages into Romanized script. The British opened the Bangladesh/Myanmar border in the early 1900s, blurring the lines of culture, nation, ethnicity and religion. Some might say, in this globalised world, that this could have positive effects. But in a land without self-determination and independence, this kind of “identity-giving” or “taking away” breeds hostility and resentment. When the British missionaries or governing bodies singled out cultures and languages as boundaries or territories, they established sub-nationalism. Highlighted differences in language, religion and allegiances in opposition to a governing body equals cultures with boundaries.

“The nationalist imagination must, in other words, assume however implicitly that there is some supposed essence underlying the flux of culture and identity, out of which the ‘Otherising’ so common to nationalist politics is legitimised. The marker could be anything from a common language, religion, ethnicity, race or history. It could even be a set of values or general traits. None of this is exclusive, of course. At any given time, depending on the issue and occasion, different factors can be evoked to proclaim dissimilarity.” – Rahmat

Many speak about the Myanmar vs. Burma argument. What should we call it? But where is the conversation regarding the very Burmese and Buddhist nature of the name changes all over Myanmar? It is not simply the Myanmar government/military desire for control, but that Burmese-ness and Buddhist way of life that permeates societies and isolates certain groups. In Myanmar’s newest capital Naypyidaw, there is a large stupa, meant to mimic Shwedagon. This is the representation of national unity and identity. How are others represented? It is very easy to erect a pagoda in Myanmar but to build a mosque? Not without a fight…

“Islam as we’ve seen time and time again has featured prominently in attempts to imagine a core to Malay identity. It is in fact presented as a condition: the protection of Malays, we’re told repeatedly, depends on the preservation of Islam. Today, Islamic validations are increasingly sought for things as mundane as medicine, fashion and entertainment, as can be seen in the rising trend of halal living. But what is all that power for? Curiously, the persistence of conservative presence in Malay politics suggests that the increased Islamisation of government, on top of the huge representation of Malays in the military, police, civil service, the cabinet, petit bourgeoisie and banking, in addition to our nine monarchs, are still somehow not enough to assuage insecurities. And for this we will have to inquire into a prior anxiety, one that is more essential in driving the politicisation of Malay identity as a whole, and that is the fear of losing control over Malaysia’s multicultural complexities.” – Rahmat

Just as Islam has been a unifying factor in Malaysia’s independent status and maintenance, Buddhism has maintained a stronghold in Myanmar’s history. Over hundreds of years, Buddhism has also adopted some ancient forms of worship as subsets of its greater philosophy. Astrology, numerology and the Nats are all part of a growing Buddhist, and often Burmese, form of identity. We could also mention the Burmese absorption of Mon Buddhism and language.

Let’s just say that the Myanmar government goes the way of China and attempts to ABSORB the many multicultural facets of the nation. Would it preferable for everyone to speak Burmese, learn Burmese, worship at pagodas or join the monasteries? Would that allow them more stable control? Is that what they want? Or is it more about controlling the group. The Moken in the Southeast are now made to have a festival every year, for the sake of tourists? The lovely Padaung ladies with the long necks in the North are also siphoned off for a large sum of money? The Rohingya will be kept in camps and hopefully move back to Bangladesh “where they belong?”

“And for this we will have to inquire into a prior anxiety, one that is more essential in driving the politicisation of Malay identity as a whole, and that is the fear of losing control over Malaysia’s multicultural complexities…that only the material enrichment of Malays can mend inter-communal relations since they would no longer have to bear the shame of being poor sons of the soil.” – Rahmat

Who are the poor sons of the soil in Myanmar? The farmers are part of the impoverished, but so are the marginalized, isolated because of their class or ethnicity or region. This idea of “material enrichment” has now entered as friendly, neo-liberal capitalism from all sides of Myanmar’s borders. The World Bank just gave Myanmar a new loan. Wealth saves the day and unifies the nation? One questions how one builds a nation when the poorest are employed as child soldiers in the military or condos are built on land where farmers worked and moving them to the factories owned by Korean and Chinese businessmen.

“The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamed (Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister at 22 years) has for some reason survived as the most frequently reissued attempt to defend that thesis. Not only did it draw a direct causal link between Malay laziness and poverty, they were also somehow taken as certain proof of Malay racial inferiority… the Bourgeois Malay’s ultimate prescription for independence was not revolt or rebellion against exploitation and underdevelopment. Rather, the way forward was conceived in terms of the capitalist ethos, through hard work, self-reliance and private enterprise.” – Rahmat

In Bogyoke Aung San’s last speech to the public, before his assassination, he talked about the road to Independence, the danger of relying on other nations to pick one up out of the yoke of colonialism. He talked about a strong military, trade and business. He mentioned “we Burmese” several times and referred to the overuse of cooking oil, imported from India. In nation building, Bogyoke Aung San was not one for the mention of racial inferiority, but he was of the mind that to build a strong country, one had to emulate another strong empire, i.e. the British. Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu – artist couple in Myanmar – refer to this speech, and its censored version, in one of their recent artworks.

“The Malayan left, with whom they mobilised, advocated instead a more confrontational and militant route towards self-determination. Naturally, the British, in the post-war ruin of their empire amidst fears of a Communist takeover of Southeast Asia did all they could to suppress all manifestations of leftist unrest, often with little hesitation to resort to violence or outright political intervention.” – Rahmat

With a military government claiming to be Leftist from 1962 to 1988, there was hardly leftist unrest in Myanmar, as the supposed Left drove the nation to become one of the most impoverished in the world by the mid-70s. And in this “new” nation-building, how much control does the government maintain? In recent news, President Thein Sein called for a cease-fire in the Kachin State and told the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) that no more shellings would occurs. That same day, the military went ahead and shelled the Kachin stronghold in the North. Under whose control is the military, the newspapers asked.

“In 1955, the Malays constituted 84.2% of the total electorate. After independence it was reduced to just 56.8% due to the formal mass incorporation of Chinese and Indians as Malaysian citizens. This was not an easy fact to accept especially for those who just regarded them as temporary migrant workers whose presence in the Peninsula was due to colonial, rather than Malay, demands. It didn’t help that the Chinese were soon perceived as threats: When they were not smeared as mere greedy businessmen, they were feared as treacherous communists.” – Rahmat

There is growing resentment in Myanmar against the Chinese nationals, as well as ethnic Chinese citizens. While there is no fear of “treacherous communists,” as those have largely shown themselves to be capitalist when it comes to investment, the differences and opportunities create a rift within the nation. Will the Chinese in Myanmar experience the same discrimination and rioting as did those in Malaysia and Indonesia? Was such rioting an exercise in nation-building and post-independence or was it bred out of ethnic tension and feelings of encroachment?

“The New Economic Policy eventually oversaw that process to noteworthy breakthroughs as the rather rapid growth of a Malay middle, professional and corporate class over the past thirty years is apparent. The assertion has been made time and time again that the absence of racial violence over this period should not be taken for granted…the erosion of civil liberties and the violent suppression of dissent, engineered by politicians who justified those policies on the basis of Malay supremacy. Violence merely moved away from the streets into the cover of legitimised state power…The rationale behind it in other words was not purely economic. A halt in Chinese progress was conceived as a necessary condition for Malay progress. A friend, who it must be said is hardly an UMNO hardliner, summarised it all in stark terms: racism helped Malays.” -Rahmat

Who suffers from the sickness of racism in Myanmar? Who benefits? Who are the groups who are victims of it?

“Conformity we should recall was what Hannah Arendt pointed to as the spine of the totalitarian condition. For it manifested where the uncertainties and pace of the modern world is just too much to bear: the breakdown of hierarchies, traditions and myths, are for many too overwhelming. In that strident storm, group identity (and in the context in which Arendt wrote, Stalinism and anti-Semitism) becomes a compelling recourse or defence, a way to make sense of the uncertainties of it all. Thus, totalitarianism is not a regime against democracy per se, nor is it about hating other races. It is, first and foremost, the submerging of the human being into the masses in exchange for a sense – a false one at that – of place and stability.” – Rahmat

When moving toward the conformity of capitalism, the direct result of a nationalization of psyche or reinforcement of the UNION results in the slow degradation of groups who oppose status quo, worship or live differently, live on the margins with isolated traditions. What will happen to the Kachin, the Naga, the Moken, the Padaung, the Lahu, the Kayah, the Chin, the Muslim Rakhine, the Rohingya, the Shan and all the many other groups who are decidedly not Burmese? Are they part of the larger nation of Myanmar? Do they join and conform or watch their culture die in a slow blender of conformity? How does a nation create a pride in its multiculturalism? Is it possible without being put on as one more way to make people conform?

“And this is the kernel of the Malay nationalism that has endured most so far: born in poverty amidst the bewildering dissonance of demands from other ethnicities, languages, religions and ways of life while brewing hopes of European progress, the strong regime – whether it is led by a monarch, a racist party or Ulamas – will always be the ideal saviour for those harbouring false hopes of tranquil in the cacophony of complex life. Viewed from this unflattering light of home, we are perhaps coming closer to answering the question of who is Malay.” – Rahmat

I cannot address “who is Myanmar.” It’s far too complex and furthermore, not my place. Even the name itself gives people pause. But I can relate it to being a US citizen, born and bred to feel a deep pride about “the nation,” without ever really knowing what it means to have pride in a country or a land. The US has the history of ethnic unrest, the languages, the religions in addition to our own form of progress and imperialism. We also have an overwhelming sense of “savior and seniority” as if we can save the world. But we mustn’t forget that this too is built on violence, racism, imprisonment, marginalisation of ethnic minorities, sexism, and false national identities.  Do we hope to live in tranquility amid complexities? Of course, and in the United States, we succeed beautifully with material wealth and the “manufacturing of consent.” As long as there are a strong few to concern themselves with bigger questions on what it means to be a nation or have an identity, we are all closer to the answers we seek.




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