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The imagined community of Myanmar

Trying to create a Myanmar divided along ethnic or religious lines will only lead to conflict. For the country to survive, the authorities need to create an 'imagined political community'. But as internal tension grows, this won't be an easy task.

Emanuel Bria
10 May 2013
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A Rohingya Muslim school in Malaysia. Demotix/Sammy Foo. All rights reserved.

The clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meiktila Township, Central Myanmar in March this year resulted in the death of more than forty people. The conflict was triggered by a trivial reason and then developed into widespread violence that has taken many lives, mostly on the Muslim side. The development of a nascent democracy in a country ruled by a military junta for five decades is being tested and the state's legitimacy is being undermined.

Similar to many other new democracies, the transition period from authoritarian rule to democracy has been perturbed by the sectarian violence instigated by non-state actors - either religious or ethnic groups, party militias, warlords, or other private armies. In the case of Myanmar the emergence of ethno-religious-chauvinistic groups can also be seen as a threat to the reconstruction of a democratic state that is currently being led by both President Thein Sein and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

The role of the Myanmar government as mandated by the constitution is to control and demobilize these sources of violent power. As Samuel Huntington observed, the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government or ability to govern. Before a country can have a democratic state, it must first have a state, or in other words a functioning set of political institutions that exercise authority over a territory, make and execute policies, extract and distribute revenue, produce public goods, and maintain order by wielding an effective monopoly over the means of violence.

State legitimacy is in crisis if the state cannot exercise its authority to control non-state sources of violent power within its territory. Therefore the very first task of the state is to stop violence exercised by these actors, restore peace and order, protect the right of all citizens to live in peace and uphold the rule of law. Democracy in Myanmar can only be nurtured if the state can guarantee peace and order.

The imperative for the international actors working in Myanmar is therefore not only to empower citizens and their independent organizations but also to endow state institutions with resources, training, organization, and a sense of a common mission for the nation in order to uphold their duties.

Having a country comprised of many ethnic groups, the task of nation and state building in Myanmar is not easy. Ethnic or ethno-religious conflicts will always happen if the state does not take into consideration the importance of redefining, broadening and re-imagining the national identity of Myanmar.

This is not simply a matter of amending the constitution to include other ethnic group such as the Rohingya people, but also to adopt a broad range of policies through education and media to promote a new sense of being one nation and ensure that all ethnic and religious groups within the country feel at home. One ethnic or religious group cannot be excluded as a stranger to the nation. This implies that the policies produced by the government have to be as inclusive as possible to make sure that relations between the different ethnic or religious groups are normalized in long term.

Evolutionary theorist Bradley Thayer explained that xenophobia, which is identifiable in the animal kingdom, has also evolved and persisted in humans for the reason of ‘inclusive fitness’. The fear of strangers and perception of others as a threat drives one group of human beings to attack other groups in order to maintain their own survival. Ethnocentrism refers to a collection of traits that predispose the individual to show preferences for groups with the closest affinities to himself and belief in the superiority of his or her ethic group over others. This set of beliefs is developed through the exclusive narrative that one obtained from his or her own ethnic or ethno-religious group.

Both xenophobia and ethnocentrism evolve alongside man and can be easily manipulated for the interest of any ethnic, religious or political elites.  

The implication for multiethnic states is that they will be vulnerable to appeals for separation made along ethnic lines, a point well demonstrated in the 1990s with the breakup of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and widespread ethnic conflict from Rwanda to Indonesia. Understanding of this is very important for Myanmar policy makers in setting up policies related to nation and state building, including the establishment of inclusive political institutions.

In the long run, the Myanmar government needs to develop a more inclusive education system, promote multicultural ideas through films and other media and encourage cross-ethnic and cross-religious civil society groups through sports and arts, etc. Social theorist Robert Putnam once argued that it is possible to have smaller, integrated groups like clubs, and local organizations that create “social capital” - the contacts that affect the productivity and cohesion of a society. Trust among the members of different ethnic and religious groups can stem from these common activities and nurture a sense of common mission for the making of the nation.  

Where social capital is strong, a dense network of reciprocal social relations will develop as people participate in clubs and local sports, visit friends and relatives, volunteer in local organizations, etc. As a consequence, ethnic cooperation is promoted and the creation of a new multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation can be made. Putnam speaks from the context of American society but his ideas are also relevant in the case of Myanmar. With a long national history deriving from one of the world's most ancient cultures and civilizations, Myanmar should be able to generate its own local initiatives to create a new multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation in Southeast Asia, the imagined political community of Myanmar. 

The ‘imagined political community’ was once made popular by Ben Anderson, an expert on state and nation building in Indonesia, a country which has a similar multi-ethnic and multi-religious structure to that of Myanmar. This modernist view of nation-state building doesn't require an existing ethnic or cultural identity.

The good news is that it seems President Thein Sein is going in this direction. The bad is that overcoming ethnic lines won't be easy. But in the long run, an imagined political community of Myanmar is not an option but a necessity if the country is to exist as it is now.

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