A long way to peace: identities, genocide, and state preservation in Burma, 1948–2018

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A long way to peace: identities, genocide, and state preservation in Burma, 1948–2018
By Adam E. Howe and Zachary A. Karazsia  — Department of Politics and International Relations, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA.  25 September 2018.

Following independence in 1948, successive Burmese regimes have fought continuous wars against ethno-religious minorities living on the periphery. The following article analyzes these conflicts through the lens of prospect theory. According to this perspective, regimes are highly sensitive to relative losses and may employ genocidal policies as a means of state-preservation. Our framework applies this theory to three sub-national cases of genocide perpetrated against the Karen, Kachin, and Rohingya ethno-religious groups.

Through qualitative case analysis, we unpack multifaceted processes of violence perpetrated against civilians and noncombatants in Burma. Based on our findings, we argue that the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) engaged in genocidal policies, including forced displacement and labor, slash-and-burn tactics, ethno-religious co-optation, and political killings as an instrumental means of preserving the state. Notably, while the military engaged in extreme violence against all three groups, their interest in state preservation varied. Genocidal violence employed against Karen and Kachin, long recognized by the military as “legitimate” groups, was perpetrated to assimilate “hill tribes” into the state. Conversely, violence against the Rohingya evolved with the goal of pushing a perceived “foreign” group out. This study contributes to the growing body of literature within Genocide Studies, linking macro-level theory to sub-national case studies.

On the morning of 23 October 2012, thousands of Arakanese ad-hoc “militia” men wielding small arms and homemade Molotov cocktails, launched a coordinated attack on Muslim communities across Arakan State (Human Rights Watch 2013, 7). For nearly 11 hours, these mobs, supported by local police and army personnel, disarmed Rohingya Muslims, looted and burned houses, beat and macheted entire families, and proceeded to enact vigilante “justice” throughout the province (10). These acts, though instigated by local political entrepreneurs, are but a piece of the Burmese state’s genocidal policies directed toward sub-national ethno-religious groups like the Rohingya, who are perceivedas an existential threat to both Burmese culture and the Tatmadaw’s (Burmese Armed Forces) power.

Genocide and genocidal policies in Burma are not the product of a “master plan” developed in the corridors of power decades ago. They have been contingent upon the variable strength of domestic opposition. Over the years, several prominent ethno-religious minorities have exerted varying degrees of civil and militaristic resistance against Burma’s military junta. In response, the Tatmadaw has engaged in a campaign of genocidal policies that stiffens or weakens, depending on the threat posed by oppositional forces at a given moment. In this sense, Burma’s genocides have emerged as a function of its politics and not from internationalist actions designed to suppress, coerce, and subdue rival forces. Thus, eliminationist killings and corollary political violence are instrumental in preserving the Burmese state and the regime’s control over its subjects. Such hegemonic geno-/politicides are but one tool by which the Tatmadaw maintains its tenuous grip on power.

Within the interdisciplinary field of Genocide Studies, initially, few scholars focused on peripheral cases. For most of the 1950s–1980s, theoretical explanations for understanding why and how genocide occurs, originated from studies of the Holocaust, Armenian and Rwandan genocides (Hinton, La Pointe, and Irvin-Erickson 2014, 6). This triad represents, by far, the most “popular” cases and has been the breeding ground of theory-building for decades. All three genocides feature extreme violence, large body counts, totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, widespread social support for killing, ideological motivations, and involve the state as primary perpetrator. Within the past two decades there has been a well-deserved effort to explain peripheral cases of genocide or widespread group destruction. While studies on Myanmar (Burma) are still emerging there has been a wealth of studies addressing previously marginalized episodes.

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