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Myanmar's Enemy Within reviewed in The Economist

on Tue, 09/26/2017 - 14:41

The gradual implosion of an autocracy can open up a dangerous void. In Myanmar, on a fragile path of democratisation after nearly half a century of military rule, the power of the forces that filled that void - nationalism and religion - is only now becoming clear.

“Myanmar’s Enemy Within”, by Francis Wade, explores the outbreak of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012, and how it went nationwide in the years that followed.

Mr Wade, a journalist who has reported on the country for nearly a decade, looks at nationalism, the pitfalls of the democratic experiment in Myanmar and how the military’s manipulation of ethnic and religious identities laid the foundation for conflict between the two communities.

Published ten days before attacks by Muslim-minority Rohingya insurgents triggered a state-led campaign of ethnic cleansing that has pushed more than 500,000 stateless Rohingyas across the border to Bangladesh, Mr Wade’s book is exceptionally timely.

His most intriguing passages come when telling the stories of ordinary people caught up in this vicious ethno-nationalism. There is a young Buddhist nationalist who speaks of the necessity to build a “fence of bones” to defend Buddhism; a young Mon woman who sheds her ethnic identity to become registered as a Bamar - a member of the country’s ethnic majority - in order to get jobs and education available only to Bamars; and a Rohingya man who also gives up his religious and ethnic identity to enter the army, ending up as an enforcer of an apartheid system directed at his own people.

Mr Wade exposes a bizarre narrative promoted by the Buddhist and Bamar majority - that Islam, with only a few million adherents in a country of 53m, has become the new threat to Myanmar.

The book explores the tangled roots of Myanmar’s ethno-nationalism: a toxic mix of the burden of colonial rule, the army’s Burmanisation project and hate speech by radical monks, all left unchecked by a weak state and enabling politicians. It describes the deep-rooted fears of Rakhine Buddhists of losing resources and status to the Rohingyas, the collapse of social cohesion in Rakhine and the systematic dehumanisation of the Rohingyas, whom most Burmese regard as Bengali immigrants.

See full article review

Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim “Other”
Francis Wade
Zed Books
ISBN 9781783605279
Paperback, £14.99

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