chapter  11
11 Pages

Ritual and issues of ethnic integration in the borderlands of the State of Rakhine/Arakan (Myanmar)

WithAlexandra de Mersan

The frontier between Burma (Myanmar) and what is now Bangladesh was established on a racial basis in the 1930s and became effective in institutional, administrative, and political terms as the accepted demarcation line between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of South East Asia. In Burma (Myanmar), a lengthy process of population differentiation was required for the Arakanese (or Rakhine) to become clearly recognized as a national race. At its conclusion, race (as defined by criteria of language and religion) became a decisive aspect of identity. The process started during the colonial era and was accentuated in the specific context of military authoritarianism when political struggle for cultural recognition led by ethno-nationalist movements became a way of legitimizing political rights. However, as a consequence, the Muslims of Arakan became progressively both socially and politically marginalized in Burmese social space until they came to represent a – if not the – figure of the foreigner in contemporary Myanmar representations. In terms of day-to-day existence, however, there were many inter-relationships based on economic and social exchanges, often acting hierarchically in favour of the Arakanese (Buddhists) that could be qualified as a form of neighbourly interdependence. In the absence of reliable studies describing them and in the face of official or social censorship, an investigation of spirit cults offered a way of accessing an alternative discourse. Spirit cults in Arakan are celebrations of specific localities through all their characteristic features. These include the land and its resources, topography, and soil, but also history, relationships, economic activities, and so on. They illuminate those groups with whom the Buddhist Arakanese (Rakhine) interact most frequently in daily life, among which are the Muslims, recognizing their presence and role. These rituals represent group values at the local level, and are lasting evidence of a network of relationships between different social components.