Chu May Paing reviews a new book on narratives of siege and fear in three cities of Myanmar.
John Clifford Holt’s Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis: Rohingya, Arakanese, and Burmese Narratives of Siege and Fear makes a timely contribution to the growing literature on the Rohingya affairs in Myanmar. A scholar of Buddhist studies whose primary work is on Sri Lanka and Laos, Holt lends his expertise in the comparative analysis of Myanmar’s ongoing ethno-religious turmoil among Bamar Buddhists, Arakanese (or Rakhine), and Rohingya with its neighboring, predominantly Buddhist countries, Thailand and Sri Lanka. In addition to a thorough historical context that introduces Buddhism on a global scale, the narratives in the book are organized based on three geographical locations in Myanmar: Yangon (Part One), Arakan (Part Two), and Mandalay (Part Three) because “many of the referents within the discussions are locale, and [his] conversational partners were steeped in those specific concerns” (p. xvi). Holt provides a disclaimer in the Preface that his limited linguistic skills in Burmese led him to conduct the interviews primarily in English. The author notes that interviewees’ command in English indicates their well-educated backgrounds, and therefore, the narratives in the book are by no means “representative of most Rohingya, Arakanese, and Burmese” (p. xii). While I appreciate the disclaimer about the possible limitations of the author’s interviewees, it is also important to keep those of the author’s own (lack of linguistic command in local languages) and his researcher positionality (Sri Lanka as his primary field of study) in mind when reading this book. The book is accessible with little to no academic jargon. The interlocutors’ narratives are coherently interlaced with the author’s own reflexive thoughts. The kaleidoscopic nature of narratives situated in three different cities offers much needed context that is nuanced, and provides first-hand perspectives for any layperson who is concerned with Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim conflict, but exasperated by the over-generalized and sensationalized nature of news media stories about the topic.
Part One constitutes the narratives from Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital city. The author visited Yangon in 2010, where he described it as “in a sorry state of disrepair and physically reflected the terrible economic condition of the country at large” (p. 43). However, during his later visit in 2014, Yangon was in the spirit of political and sociocultural transformation after the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) “decamped for Naypyidaw” (p. 44). Seven narratives are featured in Part One: The Historian, The Elder Statesman, The Gadfly, The Stringer, The Commentator, Real Bengalis, and The Activist. In the narrative of “The Historian”, the author’s summary of his conversation with Abu Tahay over the course of three years is particularly enlightening. Born as a Rohingya in Buthidaung in Arakan in the 1960s, and now working as a senior licensed engineer for the municipals, Abu Tahay “faced no restriction because [he] and [his] parents had full citizenship” (p. 55). In his interview with Abu Tahay over three years, Holt highlights how different versions of Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim crisis inform the question of Rohingya belonging to the state. For instance, Jacques Leider, “a good friend of [his] who is a specialist in the history of Arakan” introduces Holt to him although the author is unsure if Leider ever met Abu Tahay (p. 45). Juxtaposing Leider’s claims that “the term ‘Rohingya’ came into political currency only in the 1950s” (p. 45), Holt seems to be skeptical of Abu Tahay’s historicizing of the presence of Islam in Arakan and “whether or not they stand up to verification” (p. 45). I find this personal anecdote somewhat conducive to Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya sentiments. In my own Myanmar Buddhist social circles, I have witnessed first-hand how Jacques Leider’s claims about the emergence of the term are usually cited to support anti-Rohingya arguments. This is a question to ponder for all of us academics—the impact we make on the world of the people with whom, not about whom, we study.
Holt’s conversation with the famous Rohingya activist, or what Holt calls “a rising star” (p. 100), Wai Wai Nu provides me with a generous preview of her life prior to her activism and her stance on the Rohingya affairs. The chapter about Wai Wai Nu is brief but appropriate for catching up on her story (see The Gadfly). The narrative of three Bengali brothers who own a well-established medical supply shop in downtown Yangon is also an invigorating read. When asked why they remained in Myanmar after the 1964 Ne Win government takeover, they answer, “We stay because we love Myanmar. Burmese people are polite and hospitable. We were raised as both Hindu and Buddhist, and so have been practicing Buddhism and patronizing both types of temples all our lives. This is Myanmar and it is our home” (p. 127). The author notes the prominent displays of the photographs of Sitagu Sayadaw and Aung San Su Kyi at the brothers’ shop as a sign of their ethnoreligious kinship with the majority. Holt speculates this sense of shared kinship as an outcome of hardship during the Ne Win regime. I am left yearning for more discussion on this brief speculation at the end of the chapter. Unfortunately, it is not only the readers but also, Holt himself who will never be able to find out. During his last visit to their shop, however, the brothers end up avoiding the author and their relationship turned sour towards the end of his fieldwork (p. 136).
In Part Two, the author sketches five voices—of two Buddhist laymen and two Muslims—from Arakan, the second least economically developed state in Myanmar: The Neglected, The Senior Citizen, The Social Worker, The Spokesman, and The Teacher. The author’s visible Americanness associated with unwanted foreign intervention on the Rohingya affairs in Arakan left him feeling “isolated” and “uncomfortable” or what he calls “contemporary otherness” (p. 151). The author’s encounter with an unorthodox monk in Mrauk U offers “how the Arakanese see themselves as sandwiched between two adversaries [the Bamar and the Rohingya]” (p. 153; see “The Neglected”). It is in Arakan that the author’s use of the term Rohingya is quickly corrected and he is suggested a recently published book, Arakan: A Neglected Land and Her Voiceless People by Khin Maung Saw, a poet and an author now residing in the US. In his book, Khin Maung Saw refers to the Rohingya by the “R word,” a euphemism for the term Rohingya. Holt was struck by its inevitable and unfortunate similarity with the pejorative use of the “N word” in the US context (p. 157-158).
In the Introduction, Holt compares the anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar and those in Sri Lanka. Holt is especially struck by the similarities in the position of the leaders of those movements and their ideologies—Wirathu and his Mabatha (acronym for the Association for the Preservation of the Society and Religion) in Myanmar and Gangodawila Soma and his Bodu Bala Sena (BBS: Buddhist Power Force). The voice of a charismatic leader, the Venerable Gangodawila Soma, was the most prominent in expressing Sinhalese anti-Muslim sentiments following the Civil War in Sri Lanka (1983-2009). Similarly to Wirathu’s anti-Muslim sermons, speeches, and political agenda, Soma’s portrayal of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country that was now “under siege by Hindu, Muslim, and Christian conspiracies” (p. 4) in his message was used to incite sentiments of siege and fear among the state’s 65 percent Buddhist public. Holt therefore looked forward to interviewing Wirathu about this transnational connection, only to find out that Wirathu (The Nationalist) “doesn’t know anything about Soma or the JHU (Jatika Hela Urumaya; the Sinhalese People’s Heritage, a monastic political party founded in 2004)” (p. 212). Wirathu’s remarks not just about the Rohingya and the Muslims in the country, but also about the women are still outrageous. However, I am displeased with the author’s attempt to theorize Wirathu’s patronizing view towards women as a result of his anger and hatred toward his mother for her second marriage (p. 222). Unfortunately, Holt seems to be tied up on this “perfect explanation” (p. 222) for Wirathu’s misogyny although his interviews with Wirathu do not seem to support this claim.
Holt explains that the phrase “narrative of siege” is indicative of “the importance of the national memory of loss and lack, or more specifically, how the exigencies of time are understood to bear witness to a people’s identity and contribute to the formation of a historical consciousness” (p. 24). Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis captures the sentiment of siege imbued in the colorful assemblage of the narratives from the three cities of Myanmar. It also highlights the disjuncture between Myanmar’s self-imagination as post-authoritarian, where public anxieties of fear still permeate in everyday life – even in a cosmopolitan city like Yangon, after “the fascist regime” (see Monique Skidmore’s 2004 Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear). It is also apparent through his reflexive accounts that the author encounters various difficulties in getting access to his interlocutors due to linguistic, social, and political limitations. Those limitations, some of them mentioned above in this review, have led to a need to further explore and unpack some of the author’s conclusions about the narratives of siege and fear in Myanmar. Those are the gaps to be filled for the scholars of Burma and of Rohingya affairs. Still, I appreciate the multiplicities in the sentimental “expressions of siege” shone through the voices of his interlocutors and through his perspectives as a scholar of Sri Lanka and an American. The strength of this book is the author’s ability and depth of knowledge to contextualize the rise of Buddhist violence across nations beyond the context of Myanmar. In the Afterword, Holt solemnly provides a possible way to initiate a change for the future of Myanmar’s Rohingya: first, establishing safe spaces, then a form of self-determination for Rohingya while maintaining ties within Rakhine State and the Myanmar Union (p. 277). Whether or not the author’s recommendations are to be read and considered by the Myanmar state officials, I recommend this book to those who become troubled by and want to be directed to a synopsis of “the Rohingya crisis” in Myanmar.
The book left me pondering about the question of positionality in conducting field research. I wonder if the author plans to do research again in Myanmar, especially after severing ties with some of his interviewees during this research as he outlines in some of his chapters. The author repetitively mentions the difficulties to take on such a project due to its politically sensitive nature and its shattering of the Euro-Americans’ stereotypes about “Buddhism as pacific and Islam as aggressive” (p. 271). While it is easy for foreign researchers to come and go, as a native scholar, not being able to go home and visit my family because of my research agenda would be a hard price for me to pay. As I begin to prepare for my own fieldwork, I am reminded to listen to the people about whom I will study as a researcher, but with whom I share both joy and fear for life simply as a fellow Myanmar. All in all, Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis presents the topic against the backdrop of the emergence of ethnoreligious identities in the nation’s colonial history, and most importantly, the voices of actual people from various ethnic, religious, and sociocultural backgrounds who collectively call Myanmar home and share a sense of siege and fear—although their ideological stances and actions may drastically differ.
Chu May Paing was born and raised in Yangon. She is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow and a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at University of Colorado Boulder and currently researching on the topic of urban political activism in Myanmar.