Citizenship in Myanmar: Ways of Being in and from Burma, Edited by Ashley South and Marie Lall, Singapore: ISEAS, 2018, 316 pages

Mael Raynaud reviews a new edited volume on the contentious issues surrounding citizenship in Myanmar.

There hardly could be a more timely book in Myanmar studies than the collection of essays and testimonies edited by Ashley South and Marie Lall in “Citizenship in Myanmar: Ways of Being in and from Burma”.

In recent months, the news in Myanmar has been dominated by four issues, all directly related to citizenship: the Rakhine crisis, the peace process, the NLD in government, and citizens’ participation. The Rakhine crisis, of course, revolves around the question of who has the right to be a citizen of Myanmar, to live on Myanmar territory, and too often, unfortunately, who has the right to live at all. The peace process is, fundamentally, stuck because the key question of the citizenship of members of the various ethnic nationalities has not been resolved, if it has even been discussed at all. Recent controversies around the naming of a bridge in Mon State or the building of a statue in Kayah State show that the ruling NLD does not have much of an understanding of the sensitivities that remain among the non-Bamar on the question of what it means for them to be citizens of Myanmar but members of different, separate, unique, nations. The NLD, however, won the 2015 general election in a landslide, showing that it has the support of citizens, when citizenship is expressed directly, through a vote. However, on the last issue, how citizens express themselves outside of elections, which is one definition for civil society, frustration, disappointment, and sometimes anger, has grown significantly in recent months as the NLD has all but severed ties with civil society, to the consternation of activists who, just like the rest of the population, believed in, and, in most cases, had voted for, the NLD.

The book, which is comprised of 9 academic chapters and 6 “contributions” by ethnic community and political leaders from Myanmar, opens on a long introduction by Ashley South and Marie Lall, one of the strongest sections of the book. There, the authors explain the origins of their project, a panel at a conference held at Chiang Mai University in July 2015 on “Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges”.  As the authors tell us, it is unclear whether “true citizenship can exist outside of a democratic system, in the absence of political and civil rights to participate in the affairs of the state”. In other words, the people of Myanmar having been deprived of most of what constitutes citizenship for several decades, it was now time to “look into what a social contract means in light of reforms in Myanmar”, i.e. to define citizenship in Myanmar.

But the fact that the conference took place in Chiang Mai, a city that has been home to those opposing the central government in Myanmar for decades, is an indication of an equally interesting fact: for the most part, and the authors somewhat acknowledge as much when they write that their book is only “a partial account of citizenship in Myanmar”, their book focuses more specifically on the issue of “Ethnic Nationalities and Citizenship in Myanmar”, i.e. to the first two of the four issues discussed above.

The authors, and especially Marie Lall who writes an excellent chapter on “Myanmar’s Youth and the Question of Citizenship”, are not to blame, here. For one thing, “citizenship as identity” is the most important aspect of citizenship for most people in Myanmar, when compared to the two other aspects of citizenship South and Lall refer to, “citizenship as status”, and “citizenship as rights”, as showed by the findings presented by Lall in her chapter. As South and Lall put it, “being a citizen involves more than just ethnic orientation. Nevertheless, issues of ethnic identity and citizenship are closely linked in Myanmar”. But even in this context, Lall must have found it a rather lonely experience researching the relationship the Bamar develop with their own citizenship. Precious little exists in this field, in academia and beyond which, as crises like the Rakhine crisis have shown, leads the world to a situation where it is unable to understand the people of Myanmar.

The roots of this problem are obvious: few people see (but they really should) that there is indeed a difference between the Bamar and the Myanmar State, of which many have been very much the victims, too, through repression, or simply the inability to access education, or health care, and the poverty that has plagued all but a tiny elite, in the last decades and still today. Still, it is true that Myanmar is “a state which has historically been dominated by a Burman elite”. As South and Lall show, “many Asian post-colonial countries made the establishment of a common national identity across ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries a political priority, often using education as a political tool”.

Before presenting key legal documents such as the Union Citizenship (Election) Act of 1948 or, as will be obvious to anyone who has followed the Rakhine crisis, the 1982 Citizenship Law, South and Lall remind us that “citizenship in Myanmar has to a significant degree been dependent on membership of a taingyintha”, a national race, also referred to as lu myo. To the point that it is very doubtful that anyone reading this review would fail to know that there are officially 135 of them. Last but not least, South and Lall point to the fact that these categories, that used to be fluid before they were somewhat “frozen” by British colonial administrators, have been further entrenched by the 2014 census, and remain the source of many of the issues facing Myanmar.

The book, then, can be divided along the lines of three big questions:

  1. Who has the right to Myanmar citizenship?
  2. What is the relationship between ethnicity and citizenship?
  3. What does citizenship mean in the Myanmar of the 2008 Constitution, with a still dominant Tatmadaw, an electorally hegemonic NLD (probably in 2020 again), and an elite in Nay Pyi Taw, NLD included, that doesn’t listen to or respect civil society?

Martin Smith, who writes the first chapter, “Ethnic Politics and Citizenship in History”, takes us on an informative journey from independence in 1948 to the current peace process, mixing a short history of the conflicts and military rule with a useful literature review.

Similarly, Nai Hongsa, Vice Chairman of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) offers, in “The Way Forward for Peace, Stability and Progress in Burma/Myanmar”, a poignant testimony of what it means for ethnic nationalities to live in Myanmar but retain their specific identity, and explains how these issues have led to conflict over the last 70 years.

His sentiments are echoed  by Khu Oo Reh, Vice-Chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who tells us in “Karenni People at a Glance” of the origins of the Karenni people and “modern era Karenni State” (also known as Kayah State). He insists on the role of his own organization, but also on the importance for ethnic nationalities to build “unity” among themselves, and for the NLD to provide ethnic nationalities with opportunities. Listening to ethnic nationalities would indeed be a good start…

Aung Naing Oo, a former exile and political analyst, who came back to work for the Myanmar Peace Center and now the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee (JMC), completes this series of testimonies by telling in “I am a citizen of Myanmar” how, for 24 years, in exile, it was impossible for him to even support the Myanmar football team (which I hear he very much supports now), as its victories could be seen as political victories for the country’s military leaders as well. Importantly, he also tells us how the ability to work for the future of the country has given him his identity back.

This, in many ways, is a parallel story to that told by Sai Khuensai in “How I became Shan”, where, as the poet he truly is, he tells us how his identity has been shaped both positively, as a Shan, and negatively, as a non-Bamar.

In Ashley South’s “Interview with P’Doh Kweh Htoo Win”, the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) shows how much ethnic activists like himself, even those fighting the Tatmadaw for decades, can actually feel very much like they are indeed citizens of Myanmar, and he provides much hope that if peace and equality were achieved, a common identity, one that would be respectful of identities such as his as a Karen, could indeed finally be imagined.

It is very sad (but it is important), then, to read Nurul Islam’s “Rohingya and Nationality Status in Myanmar”, probably many months after he wrote his own contribution. A man full of hope in 2003 when I met him for the first time in Dhaka, it would be hard to read his testimony as anything else than an answer to those wondering why so many people would flee their homes…

Helene Maria Kyed and Mikael Gravers, in “Representations and Citizenship in the Future Integration of Ethnic Armed Actors in Myanmar/Burma” tackle fundamental issues (best described as the DDR/SSR aspects of citizenship), and quite interestingly so. The first is the reintegration of members of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) at the end of the conflict, “the process through which fighters change their identities from combatant to civilian”, and again in the context of a federal system. Kyed and Gravers ask, while discussing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) of 2015 (and showing they’re much closer to said EAOs than to Nay Pyi Taw): “how much powers can the EAOs claim, and what would be the geographical markers of ethnic as well as multi-ethnic areas? What kind of local governance arrangements and sub-national power sharing could a federal system imply?“.

The second issue discussed is that of the role played by EAOs in electoral politics, i.e. the question of whether EAOs will transform into political parties, or remain parallel administrations, which they de facto are on the ground, as direct counterparts to the Myanmar State. Here, they include some surprisingly candid comments, including from a monk saying: “the leaders of EAOs are not ready to be politicians in a democracy. They are not educated and civilized. They do not understand that democracy is to be representative of the people”. With this chapter, Kyed and Gravers have brought a significant contribution to those of us working on decentralization and federalism, asking some of the difficult questions, and showing how there can be no discussion of citizenship without a clear definition of the political system of which people are supposed to be citizens.

This is precisely the topic of the chapter written by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and Yadana, “The Role of National Race Affairs Ministers in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution”. They question the relationship between minority rights and citizenship, and look into the way it is addressed in the 2008 Constitution, through the NRAM (see title of the chapter), an acronym anyone interested in federalism in Myanmar is bound to become very familiar with, and for probably many years to come.

This is where Matthew Walton (co-founder and editor of Tea Circle) opens the debate on the non-ethnicity related aspects of citizenship, in “National Political Dialogue and Practices of Citizenship in Myanmar”. The “practice” of citizenship is a concept Walton has already brought to the fore, one that needs to remain an important element of current debates. Indeed, “the practice of citizenship would include various perspectives on what citizenship entails, the role of the state and civil society groups in fostering citizenship, and expectations of citizen participation”. While much of the chapter is dedicated to the national political dialogue process (NPD), the issues raised here apply to the Bamar majority, too. If “transformative citizenship”, a concept also brought forward by Walton, is to mean anything, then certainly it can’t develop through two different processes, one for the young Bamar, and one for the young among ethnic nationalities. Otherwise, the seeds of the issues Myanmar has faced for decades would simply be sown again by the very people trying to solve them…

In other words, if a future sense and definition of citizenship is to develop in Myanmar, it needs to be built from the ground up, and no one could build it better than the youth, and nowhere better than in the fora where peace and national reconciliation are discussed. This is precisely the argument Marie Lall makes in “Myanmar’s Youth and the Question of Citizenship”. Like Walton, Lall explains the role of education, in citizenship, and the importance of educating future citizens on this aspect of their lives and participation in society: “society cannot develop a concept of citizenship and a social contract unless this is formally taught”.

Gerard McCarthy, in “The Value of Life: Citizenship, Entitlement and Moral Legibility”, takes a fascinating look at existing practices of citizenship, starting with the practice of  “social actions for others”, parahita, explaining its role in what Walton has dubbed the Buddhist “moral universe”. Presenting the evolution of parahita in recent times, and its present day forms, McCarthy explores how it helps shape citizenship in Myanmar.

So much has been written in recent months, and in the context of so much controversy and passion, not to mention suffering, it is difficult to even review the last three chapters of the book.  In “Conflict and Mass Violence in Arakan (Rakhine State): The 1942 Events and Political Identity Formation”, Jacques Leider explores a little known, and little researched event that contributed to the process that led to the current crisis. In “Exploring the Issue of Citizenship in Rakhine State”, Derek Tonkin presents the history of the Myanmar State’s handling of citizenship (or lack thereof) and legal status as citizens.  And in “Myanmar’s Other Muslims: The Case of the Kaman”, Nyi Nyi Kyaw tells us of an often forgotten community, one that does enjoy recognition as one of the 135 “national races” of Myanmar, yet faces religious discrimination.

There are many lessons to be learnt in this book. Give the youth (and others) the opportunity to practice citizenship in the ways they choose, to build bridges and not repeat the mistakes of the past, and educate them, including in history and civics. There’s more than a life’s work in this project as it is. Citizenship and its discontents in Myanmar is a fraught and harrowing issue, but South and Lall’s volume offers rich material to unpack the situation and think deeply and widely about ways forward.

Author: maelraynaud

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.