Last week it was the anniversary of the anti-Indian riots that broke out in colonial Rangoon in 1930. They were ignited when striking Indian dock workers came into conflict with the Burmese labourers recruited to replace them. This clash then spilled over into a broader wave of anti-Indian violence, leaving over one hundred Indians dead. In the current climate of anti-Muslim violence in Burma, this should be a particularly poignant anniversary. In September 1938 there was another spell of rioting in Rangoon which left many dead. In this case the apparent cause of the riot was not labour relations, but an anti-Buddhist tract that had been published by a Muslim. Despite the fact the offending publication had not been written by an Indian but by a Burmese Muslim, Indians were the main victims of the violence. In both of these cases there was a specific grievance that sparked general violence against a community – but this targeted ‘community’ was ill-defined and identifications of Indian and Muslim were blurred.
This slippage between Indian and Muslim was a reflection of the structures of imperial rule. The colonial state in its vast bureaucratic operations in Burma divided the population confusingly according to both race and religion. There were Europeans, and then there were Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, among others, who were assumed to be Burmese, Indian or Chinese – although this wasn’t always the case. The imperial legal system attempted to disentangle these interconnected, overlapping and diffuse cultural identities and render them into discrete categories of people, but inevitably it failed. This was a common trait of colonial rule, colonized populations were governed as categories based on race and/or religion, but the categories themselves were imprecise and couldn’t be fully policed. British imperialism (to speak in very broad terms) was based on racial difference and imperfect ethno-religious categorisation.
The contemporary newspapers’ reporting of the 1938 riots reflected this slippage: a partly religious conflict was described predominantly as an ethnic one. Following suit, and attempting to overcome this confusion, most histories place these riots in the longer trend of 1930s anti-Indian sentiment in Rangoon, similarly downplaying its religious content. But to argue that the riot was mainly a racial one (or to do the opposite and insist instead that it was predominantly a religious one) is to miss the lesson of these tragic events. In colonial Burma there was, and today there remains, an inherent slippage between religion and race.
The most recent waves of anti-Islamic violence directed against the Rohingya are a stark portrayal of this continuing slippage between race and religion. The state has attempted to strip Rohingyas of their legal rights by describing them as illegal immigrants and coercing them to register as ‘Bengalis’ instead of Rohingya. In this way their religion and ethnicity is represented as foreign by extremist Buddhists and the government. The vulnerability of the Rohingya is partly the result of this overlap in notions of race and religion, an overlap also apparent eighty years earlier. The recent violence has now developed into a more generalized and everyday attack on Muslims in Burma, regardless of perceived racial background. The events that some initially attempted to describe as local clashes that were not motivated by religious or racial hatred, is revealing an embedded strain of popular racism in Burma. As in the 1930s, rumours of individual acts of violence, allegedly committed by Burmese Muslims, are circulating and are used to justify and condone further violence.
In Britain in the days following the shocking murder of Lee Rigby, a similar slippage between race and religion has also been apparent. This has not only been clear in the rhetoric of the fascist English Defence League and their ilk, but in the reporting of the murder by the BBC’s political correspondent Nick Robinson: he carelessly described the attackers as ‘of Muslim appearance’ (for which he apologised). Beyond rhetoric, as in Burma, this individual case has resulted in a rise in abuse against all Muslims (although particularly women). This mimics the role played by the rumours circulating in Burma – an isolated, individual case has been used to engender hatred towards British Muslims as a whole. Because of the slippage between race and religion, this inevitably means people from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, not only Muslims, also experience abuse. As postcolonial theorists and historians have noted, British perceptions of Muslims have long been part of broader negative portrayals of so-called ‘Oriental’ populations and have an imperial lineage.
I don’t mean to deny the obvious and important contextual differences between contemporary Burma and Britain – particularly the Burmese state’s backing of discriminatory policies. Nor do I want to downplay the far greater level of violence in Burma in comparison to Britain – whilst hate crimes anywhere are to be condemned, the scale of the violence in Burma is particularly alarming. However, at the same time, I don’t think the events in Burma and Britain should be treated as unconnected. The mode of thinking in which communities are held to be responsible for the crimes of individuals, and the tendency to treat disparate groups as one homogeneous ‘Other’, both have historical antecedents in a shared colonial past.