The Historical and Societal Dimension of the Ethnic Issues in Burma

By Mandy Sadan, SOAS, London University

I have been asked to make some comments on the subject of historical and societal dimensions of ethnic issues in Burma. This is no easy thing to do, not least because both of these subjects are vast in themselves. When we consider the broader historical and societal relations that minority ethnic communities have had with the Burmese centre, as well as with each other and in their internal dynamics, we can see that the limited range of communities represented here today are in themselves very complex and diverse historical and societal entities. In this case, to what extent is it even possible to define what common ethnic issues might be at a historical and societal level? There are multiple centres, and multiple peripheries, and many intersecting vectors of historical and societal experience. When we compare the history of the Mon peoples with that of the Naga peoples on the north-western borders with India, is it possible to talk about a common societal or ethnic historical experience, and, if so, to what extent can this then be transposed to an analysis of contemporary ‘issues’? Are there commonalities in the social relations of Kachin and Rakhine polities historically with the Burmese state, or should we pay more attention to the specificities of each situation, which privilege the distinctiveness of particular groups and perhaps force us to think of other qualifying terms than ‘ethnicity’ alone?

Of course, at a contemporary political level it is perhaps easier to construct ‘ethnic issues’ as being derived from relatively homogeneous experiences. We can conceive that there is a political centre in relation to various peripheries, and the policies of that centre towards those peripheries are relatively common and have common effects; indeed, much of the present political analysis of Burma and its ‘minorities’ is predicated on this kind of analytical polarisation. Even at a societal level, the politicisation of minority cultures, for example, can perhaps be understood primarily through contemporary socio-political experiences effected by policies introduced by the Burmese state. Thus we can with good reason compare the impact that the promotion of Burmese language and culture in the state education system, and the inhibition on formal minority language tuition in schools, can have across all groups; we can consider the inhibition on teaching the histories of minority communities at high-school level and the censorship of higher degrees on these subjects as common ‘ethnic’ issues; the Buddhification of non-Buddhist cultures and the Burmanisation of Buddhist ones might also be illuminated best by this centre-periphery paradigm; similarly the responses shown to these societal issues by ethnic nationalist organisations, such as the reification of notions of ethnic category, the standardisation of expressions of internal group cultural diversity, internal ‘ethnic’ socio-cultural debates relating to language, history and social difference, the re-interpretation of the meaning of ethnonymic labels used to identify ethnic categories, and the way that ethnic minority community social memory seems generally to be enframed by a nationalist agenda, all seem to reflect that there is a common experience that could be labelled ‘ethnic’.
Yet these issues relating to ‘ethnic’ histories and societies are the end of the road when it comes to the more difficult problem posed here, which relates to understanding historical and societal dimensions of ethnic issues rather than just their contemporary manifestations. Ever since the 1980s, when Robert Taylor wrote his influential article questioning the prescriptive ethno-political model of the Burmese state, the role that notions of ‘ethnicity’ should play in political discourse, and in political negotiation, has been contested. [1] One argument charges that ethnicity is a fallacious construct which impedes the true expression of historical and societal relations between the ‘so-called’ ethnic groups and their Burman neighbours. This is usually considered a position that ultimately assists the expansion of Maha Bamar. Another position, typically voiced by opposition groups frustrated by the discontinuity and incoherence of multiple ‘ethnic’ voices, even when supposedly in concert, questions how it might be that underlying concepts of ‘ethnic identity’ might be transcended or rendered neutral in the rhetoric of opposition. It is the contention of this paper that both of these positions are ultimately flawed. In the first case, historical propositions on the irrelevance of ethnicity tend to be extrapolated from a limited set of geographical and historical experiences to a much broader historical and geographical stage, which coincides with territory to which the modern Burmese state lays claim. In the latter case, the desire to transcend notions of ethnic identity as a rhetorical tool in political discourse underestimates the degree to which this can only happen when there is fuller recognition of the historical and societal complexity of these communities, when they feel secure enough in the protection of key facets of ethnic identity within the state (for example, language, pluralistic constructs of state history etc.) for these issues not to present themselves as foci of political discourse. This latter issue obviously requires an engagement with the historical and societal complexity of each of these ethnic formulations separately. Furthermore, nationalist ethnic organisations themselves will only reluctantly relinquish some of their prescriptive interpretations of ethnic identity, and their controlling definitions of the domain of social memory, when recognition of diversity within categories does not make them feel vulnerable to internal fragmentation and ‘divide and rule’ by an aggressive state.

There are no easy answers to any of these problems and ultimately they can be found only in very detailed research relating to different historical and societal formations in diverse geographical regions, which is obviously more the concern of academia than that of NGOs and other donors gathered here today. However, NGOs and other donors can assist in this process by recognising the impact that homogenising discourses relating to ethnicity, as well as to simplified accounts of specific ethnic categories, can have in perpetuating this dilemma. This is perhaps most pertinent in the present situation where many donors are revising their approach to funding, and are looking for opportunities to fund projects inside Burma, rather than just on her borders. In this situation, funding ‘the ethnic minorities’ is perhaps relatively easier to accommodate as it appears less vulnerable to manipulation from the central regime as in some cases minority communities even lay claim to an independently constituted and functioning notion of civil society. Where funding is to be given in this way, it would seem essential from what has been said that donors avoid a simplified rhetoric in relation to particular groups, avoid tokenism as their funding strategies are realigned, and encourage those projects which both address issues of historical and societal diversity at a sub-category level in ways which are both engaged yet sensitive to fears of fragmentation.

The rest of this paper, therefore, will attempt to show how it was historically that notions of ethnic category were transmitted to the political centre and became fixed as simplifying and homogenising labels. This will be done by considering one category label in particular, ‘Kachin’, as this relates to my own research. Following this, the historical impact of inappropriate NGO activity on the Kachin community in the past will be considered. This activity promoted a discourse of ‘development’ without proper engagement with the societal formulation of Kachin communities in relation to health care. This continues to have an impact today on the reception of HIV/Aids programmes, and shows how our contemporary discourses on these issues, however well-meaning, can sometimes resonate differently to what we might expect.

The historical transmission of labels of ethnic category to the Burmese political centre
One reason why it is so difficult to progress the political aspects of ethnic issues in Burma relates to how the historical nature of ‘ethnic’ relations with the Burmese state have been problematized, as mentioned previously. The fact that the experience of British colonialism effected significant changes to ‘ethnic’ relations in Burma does not seem to be too controversial a proposition.

It is usually stated that it was the colonial period that transformed what were principally societal formations into ethnic categories predicated upon western notions of race, and that these ethnic categories had new political implications in the colonial Burmese state. This interpretation of the transformation of ethnicity from a societal to a political entity fixed into geographic domains, sometimes leads to the argument that the modern ethno-political state is pure artifice, and that, therefore, its associated ethno-political categories are just an invention of the British administration. This is certainly the position adopted by those who support the consolidation of Maha Bamar. However, it is clearly not this simple when we recall that the ethnic category labels themselves (as well as many of their primary ethnographic associations with respect to notions of civilisation and so on) were acquired by the British administrators and military officers in the first instance from contact with the Burmese court. [2] The notion of social and geographic domains occupied by ‘other’ was not invented by the British, nor even, it would appear, did it develop in the colonial state very gradually over time. Rather they seem to have become consolidated fairly rapidly after the first associations with the Burmese court at the outset of the new colonial era in Burma. Their later development involved modifications and additions to these category labels, rather than their abandonment or large scale readjustment. One of the principle changes effected by the colonial period, therefore, was not the invention of the labels themselves, nor even the drawing of an ethnographic map of this region, but the political implications of the reimagination of ethnic category within new political contexts -- how people understood these labels, how they used them in social, historical and political discourse, and how they related to them as internal or external identifiers. This cognitive aspect is very important and is rarely taken into account when we look at the political map and still requires a great deal more detailed research before we can fully understand the significance of this for the development of ‘ethnicity’ in the British colonial state.

However, by picking up a highly partial notion of ethnic category from the Burmese centre, the triangulation of the discourse ‘ethnic’ problem from a historical perspective began. The colonial authorities could claim in their development of the political ethnic state to be simply reifying the realities of social formation ‘on the ground’ into a political and administrative structure. However, the nationalist Burmese state could declare that the political structure was a colonial fabrication -- many of these categories did not represent polities historically, just social groupings, and where they were clearly identifiable as polities such as in the Mon and Rakhine case, they could be categorised as ‘former’ rather than ‘present’ entities, or ‘related but subservient’ polities as in the Shan case. Either way, they should not automatically be privileged by autonomous political status in a centralised independent Burma. These constructions have been fiercely contested by the respective ethnic nationalist movements of these peoples. For their part, ethnic nationalist leaders adhered to the labels that had been adopted by the colonial state for the advantages that they offered in the political sphere, whilst knowing that at a societal and cognitive level that there were serious discrepancies between these labels and the internal formation and dynamics of the particular categories they stood for. If the imminent prospect was of political autonomy, then to some extent this lack of understanding of the real nature of these categories by the state did not matter. Tehse communities had, of course, long been familiar with this need to accommodate themselves to the construction that ‘other’ made of them in relations with both the Burman and non-Burman polities with whom they came into contact. However, where autonomy was denied, this assimilation to an overly-simplified construction of ethnic category created internal problematics relating to how the homogenising category should, or could, reflect complexity at a sub-category level without succumbing to fears of fragmentation.

An example can be given of how the ethnic category ‘Kachin’was transmitted to the political centre in the colonial state. First direct contact with substantial numbers of ‘Kachin’ chiefs and elders began in the 1820s and was relatively extensive by the 1830s. However, it was not long before the governmental archive recorded accounts from local ‘Kachin’ elites in which they contested use of this term. The term that they most commonly sought to privilege instead was Singpho, a variant pronunciation of Jinghpaw (usually transcribed during the colonial period as Chingpaw or Chinghpaw). The term Jinghpaw, and historically that of Singpho, relates to the largest of the modern Kachin subgroups, and is deemed to constitute a matrix of lineages which together form affinal kinship relationships. It also describes the dominant linguistic and cultural space of the Kachin region.

Initially there was a tendency to conflate the terms Kahkyen and Singpho in the colonial archive, but it is also clear that distinctions were made between these two terms as they were transferred to the colonial domain. The 1830s were times of considerable Jinghpaw inter-community rivalry and ‘Singpho’ chiefs, residing from Mogaung westwards to the trans-border region with Assam, utilised the term Kakhyen as a label of alterity in reference to their more easterly kin when in discussion with colonial officials. They apparently assimilated to the intellectual construction of the term Kachin as ‘other’, seemingly aware of and indeed supporting the somewhat derogatory connotations of that term in relation to their more easterly kin to their own advantage. This was a political tactic to advance their claims to status as the political structure of the North East Frontier was being delineated.

Over the course of the next forty years the dramatic development of the Assamese tea industry led to the geo-political separation of those groups labelled Singpho, who came to be considered a minority within India, and those labelled Kachin, a term which was understood solely as a Burma-oriented ethnographic trope. Only by the 1880s, when the separation between the Singpho of Assam and the Kachin of Burma had become an administrative reality for an entire generation of colonial officials, was close enough direct contact established again with Kachin communities in the east and south of the Kachin hills region for them again to proffer their preferred terms of self-reference. However, developments in transcription systems now led to a new orthography for the term previously known as Singpho – Chingpaw -- so that the Singpho of Assam and the Chingpaw of Burma appeared in the colonial archives as relating to two different ethnicities with supposedly ‘different’ names. What had commenced as a linguistic and administrative confusion had become consolidated as a political, geographic and ethnographic fact.

As the British colonial administration established itself in skeleton form in this region, the term Kachin remained as a functioning general administrative category but it came to have far wider connotations than the Jinghpaw communities to whom it had originally been applied as more hill-dwelling communities were brought within its administrative orbit. Greater contact, however, merely led to the emergence of a series of ethnic appendages to the label Kachin, and the development of a series of sub-groups based on an ethnographic distinction of hill dwelling as opposed to lowland dwelling communities.
Sub-categories of Kachin began to be formalised after 1895, following the ‘pacification’ of the Kachin Hills and the implementation of the Kachin Hills Regulation. Some sub-categories were framed linguistically and were consolidated by the need to develop criteria for the categorisation of communities in the official census. Language was interpreted in this context as a signifier of the primordial ethnic origins of peoples, which was then transposed to an ethnographic present of 'race'. This classificatory strategy reconfigured the social and historical significance of polyglotism in this region and underestimated its anthropological value.

The military also developed generalised categories of ethnic group, defined by stereotypes of social ‘ethos’ and physical characteristics which were used to delineate suitable recruiting fields and to classify recruits entering the Indian Army. The need to expand recruiting fields from the ‘traditional’ Kachin-designated domain in the environs of Bhamo meant that the first regular Kachin recruits included Jinghpaw, Lisu, Zaiwa and Nung soldiers. Significantly some of these, such as the Nung soldiers, lived beyond the boundaries of the Kachin Hills Regulation and were not, therefore, affiliated to the term Kachin in any other official capacity.

There were, however, some significant ambiguities in this development of Kachin sub-groups: some groups included under the Kachin umbrella by the army or by the administration were separated from it in linguistic classifications. In particular this affected the classification of speakers of other branches of Tibeto-Burman language than Jinghpaw, such as Nung, Maru, and Lisu peoples. Not classified as Kachin by linguistic descent, and thus by implication neither by ethnicity (or ‘race’ as this was interpreted in the colonial state), but called Kachin by the administration and in the army, and thus deemed to possess a certain ethnic ‘ethos’ that was deemed racially grounded, a tension developed in the various applications of the term – whether it referred to one community and one language, many communities but one language, to a geographical place or space and so on. These inconsistencies still have ramifications today because contradictory colonial constructions are used as ‘evidence’ to undermine the multi-group identity Kachin as being no more than a political model.

The new constitution of independent Burma written in 1947 consolidated the term ‘Kachin’ as a primary ethnic category and geo-political boundary. Yet it was in 1947 a constitutionally undifferentiated term juxtaposed straightforwardly with that of ‘non-Kachin’. Paragraph 166 of the 1947 Constitution states that of the 12 seats in the Kachin State Council, 6 are for ‘Kachins’ and 6 are for ‘non-Kachins’. The Minister for the Kachin State was to be ‘Kachin’ but half of his cabinet had to comprise ‘non-Kachins’. Non-Kachins were principally Shan and Burmese communities, whilst the Kachin community was an undefined catch-all for ‘upland other’. Therefore, immediately following independence from the British the term Kachin had a degree of political malleability within the new state.

As the colonial taxonomy of the Kachin ethnic category was neither wholly prescriptive nor wholly consistent, there was still much to be played for in how the ethnic composition of this category should be defined. For example, in 1955 the new administrative unit of North Hukawng in the Myitkyina District was created, which stated that Naga peoples living there were now to be known as ‘Kachin-Nagas’. This would help the state to diminish the authority of predominantly Jinghpaw interests in defining the political agenda of Kachin State, as well as separate these from other Naga communities which were declaring their support of an armed independence movement.  [3] The appellation did not stick, but again demonstrates the elasticity that ethnic categories were deemed to have in the political sphere.

The discrepancy between ‘Kachin’ as an officially sanctioned geography and the term as an ethnonym created difficulties. On the one hand, the creation of a region of Burma known as Kachin State in 1948 seemed to legitimate the claims that Kachin nationalists made concerning their ‘possession’ of this territory if they could consolidate the idea that it also referred to the dominant ethno-political community of this region. This community would therefore expect to have a dominant role to play in the political determination of this region. On the other hand, in being forced to accept the use of the term ‘Kachin’ on the broader political stage of Burma, a tension was created between the local understandings of identity, place, and cross-group relationships of the groups which came under this umbrella and that which the colonial period had structured. Such a tension might not have had much significance if the desired level of local political autonomy from the Burmese centre had been established following independence in 1948. However, as the failure to establish a federal structure in Burma became apparent, and Kachin State was increasingly considered as just the northernmost region of an expanded Burmese state, the problems inherent to the dual usage of the term became apparent.

As the model of the independent national ethno-state was very quickly contested by both military and political ethnic minority groups, defining the specific ethnic as well as geographical boundaries of the term within the state became an increasing concern in the face of what was seen as Burmese nationalist Buddhification policies and geographical redefinitions of ‘Kachin’.

There is also a difficulty relating to historical documentation that could be used to contest some of these simplifying constructions. Some ethnic communities have very substantive and significant historical and literary traditions, such as with the Rakhine, Mon and Shan peoples, but for others who lack longstanding literary traditions, who instead relied upon complex oral and ritual cosmologies of time and space to define their presence, as with the Kachin, it is difficult to find ways of authenticating their historical and societal position in line with the conventions of academic or ‘western’ research discourse. Indeed, even the Shan, Rakhine, Mon and Karen communities find it difficult to construct interpretive parallels between their own historical paradigms expressed through traditional texts and those defined through ‘documentation’ of the kind demanded by political analysts. Without the ‘right kind’ of text-based historical documentation in their own languages by which they can present their own cognitive model of the past, locating some of these communities, such as those termed ‘Kachin’, and determining their historical relations with a Burman centre becomes to a great extent dependent upon the documentation of ‘other’. This raises two principal concerns: 1) establishing the nature of ethnic relations through the historical record of ‘other’ will unduly emphasise the historical integrity of the greater Burmese state, depending as it would do upon Burmese sources to validate and legitimate a ‘Kachin’ historical presence; conversely 2) that by highlighting the relative lack of data concerning the category Kachin, support will be given to the contention that this category as a political and geographical construct is merely an invention of the British colonial period and that it otherwise has no historical validity. Both interpretations are considered highly damaging to political claims for the autonomy of this ethnic category in the present, which are based on the idea that it did in fact function as a discrete political, economic, social, cultural and geographic entity over an extended historical period. Lack of documentation in some cases causes historical discourse to become highly symbolic and centres on ‘proving’ the authenticity of local ethnonyms, of fixing the meaning of ritual or cultural forms in line with contemporary political concerns, and so on. This again seems to create a disjuncture between the historical and societal models of many ethnic categories, which also vindicate the underlying ‘truth’ of these categories, and those demanded by the modern state and western research paradigms.

Ethnic nationalist groups, therefore, in some cases feel somewhat bound to accommodate themselves to these representations in the political sphere, which employed generalizing labels, whilst the underlying societal and historical realities of their groupings, as well as their internal structures and dynamics, remained largely unpacked by the intellectual apparatus of both the pre-colonial colonial and post-colonial state. It is no coincidence that simplified cultural representations of ethnic category on the state stage, such as on Union Day, continue to be the main referent towards a notion of this societal and historical complexity, but without the implications of this ever being explored.

We can see from the above, therefore, that the notion of ethnic category was transmitted to the political centre, and became a tool of political discourse, predicated upon a very simplistic set of societal and historical relationship. This in turn both concealed and inhibited meaningful interpretations of sub-category diversity and contributed to the notion of diversity being equated with fears of fragmentation in times of conflict.

Funding initiatives and development discourse in the Kachin Hills in the 1930s

Given that talking about ‘ethnic minorities’ as a homogeneous group becomes more difficult in this analysis has led some to say that a broader historical contextualisation of ethnic issues is unnecessary  as it merely complicates the principal political objectives of the moment. Whilst there is certainly a logic to this position in some respects, as stated, the danger of this approach is that it tends to undermine the desire of many of these groupings themselves for fuller recognition of their historical presence in Burma, for an acknowledgement that they have substantive histories deserving of full consideration. Recognising this wherever possible is a step towards overcoming the simplification of  so-called ‘ethnic’ issues in the political and public sphere. Many of the issues that we use to mark our concern for the ‘ethnic dimension’ of Burma’s situation today -- environmental concerns, forced migration and resettlement, land rights, militarization, the epidemiology of transmittable diseases – are rarely discussed in this way, even though they have historical contexts or historical precedents that could indeed help to illuminate our contemporary approaches. HIV/AIDS is a case in point. On the one hand, this issue seems so undeniably contemporary, global public awareness of the illness coinciding more or less with the 1988 uprising, that its epidemiology seems rightly to act as a marker of the dire socio-political and socio-economic situation of many marginal communities in Burma in recent years. For example, appalling HIV/AIDS statistics are often referenced iconically in discourses relating to Kachin State as a symptom of its desperate social and economic condition. Yet even this issue should perhaps not be so disconnected from a broader historical perspective. Discourses about sexual health have a relatively long history in the Kachin Hills region. Historical discourses on syphilis promoted throughout the 1920s and 1930s were similarly related to notions of development, to the apparent political disengagement of Kachin youth, and to the introduction of inappropriate social welfare initiatives. However, what is perhaps even more noteworthy in comparison with our present discourses, is that these health concerns and initiatives tended always to surface at times of key political transition,  such as in 1937 when Burma was separated from India, and immediately after the second war when they figured in debates on the state of the Kachin region leading up to independence. Significantly, these discourses, which stated that the Kachin peoples were about to die out because of what was deemed a degenerating social framework, became implicated in the interpretive apparatus used to support the notion that the Kachin peoples were not yet ready to govern themselves in an independent state. At a societal level also, the campaigns and, crucially, the discourses associated with them,  had a marked impact on important aspects of Kachin social organisation, on traditional gender roles in some localities, and they continue to be significant in the contemporary historical imagination relating to notions of development as constructed by church sermons and the receptivity towards condom use. Even with an irrefutably contemporary issue such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, we lose significant insight if we do not extend our historical and societal perspective to assess the impact of well-intentioned policies on the communities with which we are dealing, and just as importantly, the way in which we talk about them as well as what we do.

There are a host of terms that we tend to use in relation to ‘ethnic issues’ which are deemed to have either a historical or societal justification. Some of these terms relate to biophysical relationships with the environment, and those such as ‘isolated’, ‘wilderness’, ‘remote’ are particularly prevalent in discourses about minorities. However, we perhaps lack historical awareness if we do not note that in the past these terms became further justifications for the alienation of land rights. The unquestioned perpetuation of such terms also denies the fact that there must scarcely have been a hill or stream in these regions that was not cognitively mapped by the traditional routes and paths of oral culture, by the recitation funeral routes, migration routes and such like, as well as by the detailed ethnobotanical knowledge which gave meaning to the most minor of details in the natural environment. From whom were such communities remote when we see the integration of expansive kinship lineages in cosmological models of space and time spanning from India to China, and have further proof of this integration in regional trade routes by the study of complex material cultures which demonstrate ongoing culture contact? Terms such as ‘traditional’ enter our discourses to demonstrate the challenges that many ethnic cultures face in the contemporary situation, but without appropriate explanation of this term it too often becomes an unrealistic representation of communities that caricatures them in the same way that the Union Day festival does on the state stage. Essentially, therefore, it is very easy to perpetuate discourses about ethnic groups in Burma that are appropriate politically because they are intended ultimately to address a main problem of non-equality, but which over-simplify and in the process do little to assist these communities with dealing with the internal societal and historical dilemmas that are increasingly coming to light as post-ceasefire situations allow some of the problems of nationalist structuring of ethnic categories to come to the surface.

This paper has ranged over a number of issues, none of which has an apparent or easy solution. NGOs and other donors must determine the extent to which they want, or are able, to engage with some of the implications of these comments. However, what is clear is that funding which perpetuates tokenistic approaches to ‘ethnic issues’, a policy which might seem tempting in the present situation when funding initiatives are being hesitantly refocused to projects inside Burma, should be avoided. Where donors are unable to undertake appropriate forms of research themselves for lack of time or resources, they too should be encouraged to cross bridges with the small but growing academic community who are engaged in such research and who would, in many cases, be happy to play a part in the delineation of historical and societal implications of funding projects. Ultimately, both the academic and donor communities must share a joint responsibility to engage with research and development projects that engage with the need to support pluralistic developments within ethnic categories, and not just between them, and do not shy away from some of the complexities and difficulties that might arise as a result.


Make sure you dont miss interesting happenings by joining our newsletter program.

Contact us

Chin Human Rights Organization
2693-Magee Avenue,
San Pablo, CA 94806, USA

  • Phone: TBA

Connect with us

We're on Social Networks. Follow us & get in touch.
You are here: Home Resources Articles