Belonging neither to India nor Myanmar

For me Uttar Pradesh is a very intense and quintessentially Indian experience. Since I first visited a year and a half ago, the State’s hot dusty planes, the crowds of people, the worshipping in places like Varanasi, the evident poverty as well as the bustle of small scale economic activity have embodied India’s toughest as well as most stimulating and interesting side. I was therefore very happy with our spontaneous Taj Mahal/Agra detour and its welcome side effect of having an extra day of driving across India’s fifth largest and most populous State.

However interesting, it certainly wasn’t a smooth introduction to driving in India! As we navigated the so-called highways trying to avoid collisions with speeding buses and top-heavy lorries, cars, motorcyclists, cows, dogs, goats, pigs and people who choose to nap on the tarmac, I quickly decided to leave the riding to Andy for now and save my newly acquired Enfield riding skills for later.

And so in fact, when I really had to distract myself from the growing pains in my butt, I spent a bit of time in the back reading (really!) up on Indian migration to Myanmar.

Whilst today, Uttar Pradesh together with Bihar has the largest net amount of people migrating out of the State – most of them men in search of employment – it has contributed only modestly to Burma’s Indian population. Uttar Pradeshi immigrants are far outnumbered by Tamils and Bengalis, and to a lesser extent Gujaratis, Oriyas and Punjabis.  Most of these Indians migrated to Burma during British rule from the mid 19th century to the separation of British Burma from British India in 1937, sailing from ports in the Bengal, Orissa and the Coromandel. Favoured by the British, they soon formed the backbone of the government and economy as soldiers, civil servants, traders, shopkeepers and moneylenders.

After independence, resentment over their success and outright oppression combined with the nationalisation of private ventures post-1962 led to a large exodus of Indians who at the time of WWII had formed about 16% percent of Burma’s total population.  Apparently, the Government of India arranged for ferries and aircraft to bring Burmans of Indian origin back to India. According to the 2006 CIA World Factbook, Indians now form approximately 2% of Myanmar’s population (i.e. 3,000,000 people), although we cannot be sure as exact figures do not exist in Myanmar (the last census took place in 1983, and controversy surrounds later counts – holding a census is in fact a big priority for the new Government of Myanmar and is scheduled for 2014).

Like many of Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, the position of Indians in Myanmar society remains contested up to today. This is not only because of persisting resentment over their good fortune in previous times. Reasons are complex and varied but prominent amongst them is certainly also the Muslim identity of many Indians. Anti-Muslim sentiments run deep among the Buddhist Burmese and have their roots in persecutions and forced conversions carried out during  Mughal rule. Since the opening up of the country it appears that there is more space for anti-Indian and anti-Muslim sentiments to be expressed. In the past year or so Burmese of Indian descent have faced severe discrimination and attack, as evidenced by the outbreaks of communal violence in Rakhine, Meiktila and Thayawaddy.

Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, still active today, restricts citizenship to groups that immigrated before 1823, effectively barring most Indians from being full citizens. According to the International Observatory on Statelessness, at least half a million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) are stateless, some of whom have been living in Burma for over four generations. The 1983 census reported 482,000 PIOs, although the Indian government estimates that as many as 2.5 million PIOs could be living in Myanmar. Lacking documentation, they cannot travel outside the country and face economic hardship.

This seems particularly sad to me between two countries whose cultural and religious ties date back ages. From Thant Myint U I understand that Indian imports range from mathematics and astronomy to notions of kingship and of course Buddhism itself. The most popular out-of-country travel destination for Buddhists from Myanmar remains Bodh-Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar, the place where the Buddha reached Enlightenment. Annually, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar people visit there, and apart from Calcutta it is the only place in India you can fly to directly from Yangon and Mandalay. But this site also became a place of violence a few months ago when a bomb was planted in the complex possibly by Muslims seeking revenge against anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

I state only the obvious when I say that one of the biggest challenges Myanmar faces in its transition is giving all of its people a place in history and society.

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