People around the world have reacted with outrage and astonishment to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, in southwestern Burma. The outrage is completely appropriate. The astonishment, though, is not — especially in an area like Texas, whose history of shifting populations resembles that of Rakhine.
Both Rahkine and Texas are borderlands with no natural barriers between regions, with people of very different ethinic, religious and linguistic origins having moved about over centuries. With political authority shifting a number of times, both regions have seen amicable interaction across ethnic lines and ethnic violence over the years. And in both regions, some members of the dominant group now want to send their ethnic others “back where they came from.”
Burmans make up two-thirds of the population of the nation-state of Burma, also known as Myanmar, and Rakhine and Burmans have long had volatile relations, sometimes competing over territorial and political control. Burmans have had the upper hand since conquering Rakhine in the late 18th century.
The British, who ruled Rakhine from 1826 to 1948, urged Bengalis to come and take low-paying jobs that long-time residents of the area disdained. Rakhine and Burman Buddhists look upon people of Bengali decent as foreigners, although some of them, whose ancestors came to the region long ago, speak only the Rakhine variety of Burmese, while more recent arrivals speak Bengali.
Intellectuals and other members of the Muslim elite in Rakhine started seeking either independence or at least some state-recognized special status in the 1950s. It was these people who made of the term “Rohingya,” which is actually the Bengali version of the name of the region of “Rakhine,” a politically charged label for all Rakhine Muslims.
Today, Burmans and Rakhine Buddhists label all of these people “Bengali,” just as many Texans speak of “Mexicans” whether they are referring to U.S. citizens of longstanding or people who came across the Rio Grande just recently.
A part of Mexico until 1836, Texas became part of the U.S. in 1845. Newly-arrived Euro-Americans decided that they should run the place, edging out Spanish-speaking families who had lived in Texas much longer and costing poorer residents access to land they had long had the use of as tenant farmers.
Spanish speakers and English speakers, meanwhile, collaborated in driving native American residents off the land. The ethnic cleansing that drastically reduced Texas’ indigenous population and the political maneuvering that made the status of Spanish speakers highly precarious is mirrored in the current attacks on Muslims in Rakhine, who have fled by the hundreds of thousands to Bangladesh.
The recent events in Rakhine started with a few violent incidents in June 2012. Soon after, at least 140,000 Rakhine Muslims were placed in concentration camps to “protect” them. In October 2016, some young Rakhine Muslim men, newly radicalized, attacked Burmese border control officers.
The Burmese military responded with disproportionate force, which helps explain why a larger attack on government officials took place in August 2017. It provided the trigger for the horrific violence then visited upon all Muslim residents of the area, largely, it seems, at the hands of the Burmese military.
Though military control over Burma ended in 2012, it seems clear that Aung San Suu Kyi exercises little authority over the generals, who continue to wage war in several regions, using ethnic conflict and “immigrant-criminals” to justify intervention. None of this should surprise Americans who have seen how much political advantage is to be gained by scapegoating people who are viewed as foreign.
Fortunately in our country, we have a long-standing discourse of human rights fostering defense of the weak, including immigrants, from nativist attack. There is little by way of such discourse in Burma. Both outsiders and residents of the region say the best that can be hoped for is economic development. Seeing opportunities to escape the region’s dire poverty should encourage people in Rakhine, whether Muslim or Buddhist, to put aside their ethnic prejudices. Just as Texans, provided they feel confident in their own and their children’s future, ought to be able to act on their better instincts, no matter what some politicians tell them about all those “Mexican” criminals.
Ward Keeler is an associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin.
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