How the Chinese can define Burmese national identity

The Rohingya have for centuries been denied Burmese citizenship on the basis that they are not originally from Myanmar. Their Muslim identity has made them ‘un-Burmese’ in a country heavily influenced by Buddhism.

By Kiyomi Ran

I visited Myanmar in early September at the height of the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. The Rohingya, who mostly reside in Rakhine State near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, have for centuries been denied Burmese citizenship on the basis that they are not originally from Myanmar. They have been categorized as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite anthropological studies that prove their residence in the territory for centuries. Their Muslim identity has made them ‘un-Burmese’ in a country heavily influenced by Buddhism.

My visit was pre-planned months before the resurgence of the issue. I went because my mother, a Chinese immigrant to Japan, needed to attend the 14th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention in Yangon. Now, this was a large event; it was almost surreal to an extent. Every international hotel in Yangon had a reception area dedicated to the attendees with shuttle bus services and Chinese-speaking Burmese helpers to make sure that everything went smoothly, and most importantly, to the satisfaction of the Chinese entrepreneurs. There were people with red name tags everywhere staying in every five-star hotel imaginable, from the Melia to the Shangri-La, whilst down below the locals walked barefoot the unpaved, flooded streets of monsoon season Yangon.

I (thankfully) did not attend any event, but being surrounded by Chinese people the entire week, I noticed the peculiar relationship between the two countries and how that affected the formation of the Burmese identity that may provide some insight into the Rohingya crisis, demonstrating the separation of the Burmese and the ‘other’ – who is and who isn’t Burmese.

For example, our guide’s method of identifying herself as Burmese was different. Her father emigrated from Fujian province (historically famous for mass emigration), which is how she learned to speak Mandarin. However, her ethnicity on her travel identity card listed her as ‘Burmese.’ She told me she married a Burmese so her daughter is ‘mixed-race.’ I asked her what her daughter’s official ethnicity is, then – she replied, ‘Burmese.’

Due to forced migrations under British colonial rule, Myanmar has a significant Indian presence. I asked her how these people, who are now fourth or fifth generation, must be identified. She said they are “Indians” and that she could easily identify them by their skin colour. Sounds familiar?

Why then does she, as a second-generation Chinese, get to identify as ‘Burmese’?

After all, one of the largest humanitarian breaches of the Rohingya’s rights, largely criticized by the international community, has been the government’s treatment of their identity. Because they are not citizens, they are given special identity cards that emphasize their ethnic difference, limiting their movement in daily life and in so doing exploiting, systematising and entrenching segregation and exclusion based on identity.

My politically unaware mother managed to very vaguely ask our guide, ‘I hear there has been lots of killing of Muslim people?’ to which she replied, ‘They kill us, too.

But do two wrongs make a right?

To them, Rohingya are not Burmese and they never will be. And neither will the Indians. But if you’re of Chinese descent? Sure, you’ll fit right in. Just get a (slight) skin-tan, which you’ll easily be able to do here in Myanmar.

This goes back to the crazy spectacle of a weekend in Yangon. From what I could see, Myanmar happily hosted the Chinese visitors, putting up banners all over the city to welcome the entrepreneurs. It’s not a surprise that they were trying hard to please the Chinese delegates. After all, China is one of their most important allies – so significant that western countries were once adamantly opposed to Myanmar’s joining of ASEAN in 1997 on the grounds that it would strengthen Chinese influence in that region.

But my question is this – has China been able to control Burmese national identity, whether overtly or covertly?

Based on our guide’s conception of Burmese identity, being of Chinese descent has meant she belonged in Myanmar. She wasn’t seen as an outsider in any way and she was truly Burmese since it is clearly written on her ID card. Her skin-tone (really her race) also perfectly fit the image of a typical Burmese, unlike the darker-skinned Indians or Rohingya.

But it can even go beyond this concept. The omnipresent Buddhist influence in Myanmar is so large that the whole country is defined by it. Try flying domestically in Myanmar: one can easily spot dozens of golden pagodas from the sky dotting the landscape, and in a country so impoverished, it seems like a waste.  But to the Burmese, it clearly isn’t a waste – it is part of their life. This large fascination and appreciation of Buddhism has created a religious identity that has become fixated on pointing out the ‘other,’ particularly the ‘other’ religions like the Muslim Rohingya. Here, the ‘other’ is constructed by connecting religion to national identity and then by placing the blame for the country’s immense issues on that ‘other’. It is difficult to pin-point who controls who, as in, whether the government controls the religion or the other way around, but there is certainly a close connection between politics and religion in the country’s decision-making.

The creation of such a narrow, radically exclusive national identity, fuelled by religiosity and Buddhist influence, may be an attempt to divert attention from domestic issues by exploiting the fact that religion is the only source of salvation for many people here in the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

To take a step further, this so-called Buddhist nationalism has been very beneficial to Myanmar’s relationship with China. After all, the Chinese are also battling their restive Muslim population, the Uyghurs, so they have common ground. China has also been fixating on the issue of ‘true’ Chinese identity as demonstrated through their melee with not only the Uyghurs, but also Tibetans and other minority groups. Furthermore, while China does not have as pervasive a Buddhist identity, many Han Chinese are still strong believers. Those who came from Fujian are proportionally more Buddhist than the rest of the country, so perhaps, as in the case of our guide’s father, they found it easier to integrate in a society that clearly favoured such amalgamation of identity.

Perhaps “favouring” is not the right term. Being Chinese in Myanmar is being neutral. But neutrality can easily tip over one way or another, as it has done. But this neutrality also demonstrates that identity politics are merely a construction, and the Burmese society has constructed an identity that accommodates Chinese culture.

In fact, the amalgamation of the Chinese identity into the Burmese one has certainly benefitted the bilateral relationship in one obvious way. While the Chinese in Myanmar are now officially considered ‘Burmese,’ the Burmese government has no objection to their overt self-identification as Chinese descendants. This allowed the Chinese community in Myanmar was able, for the first time, to host the 14th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention in Yangon, quite literally showing off to the world what their country has been capable of with the ‘help’ of the Chinese. In a country extremely sensitive about its national identity, the Chinese-Burmese population does not need to hide anything. Throughout the convention, there were tourist buses that brought people to all the important symbols of the bilateral relationship – the Chinese temple in Yangon; the bridge that, with the help of Chinese money, now connects the city, as well as other projects and landmarks, clearly designed to reinforce the resurgent Chinese exceptionalism and exhibit Chinese soft power to their own people and the world.  Of course, this would mean greater rapport with Myanmar.

So, is China supporting Burmese Buddhist nationalism? China is not saying anything about Myanmar’s rising Buddhist nationalism that is resulting in the horrific treatment of the Rohingya because doing so would probably expose their own humanitarian breaches against the Uyghurs and other minority groups. Rather, such similarity is enforcing a certain identity that can easily fit in to the Burmese identity, that requires and results in the creation of the ‘other’ that fuels nationalism. And what does China have to lose with this rising Buddhist nationalism? China has long-shown that it is ambivalent towards humanitarian issues, so it is not expected to do anything in relation to the Rohingya crisis. Instead, it will probably enjoy and exploit the benefits of rising nationalism – part of a grand strategy to help China expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

One thing is for sure: there needs to be further exploration of Burmese nationalism from different fields.


Picture: “The kick-start to the weekend of China in Yangon”, source: Xinhua News


Kiyomi Ran is a Chinese-Japanese-American student currently in her final year of Bachelors in International Relations. She is particularly interested in East Asian affairs. Having worked as a political journalist in Tokyo, she is fascinated by the increasing nationalism in the region that affects the political climate of the region.


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