Buddhist-Muslim violence is taking place in Burma right now. I haven’t followed this issue closely, but at first it looked to me like a localized issue in the Rakhine State. Then when there was violence in Meiktila, I was surprised, but when I read somewhere someone say that the military is happy to see this happen because it will then give them an excuse to reassert control, I thought that might make sense.
More recently, however, having read about violence in Lashio, I came to realize that something serious is going on here. So yesterday I asked someone knowledgeable about this, and he talked about how there is widespread racism in Burma that simply doesn’t get talked about, and that has not been dealt with, and that now that there is more freedom to speak, it’s revealing itself (I woke up this morning and saw this nice blog post which also talks about this too).
My friend went into a lot more detail about where the racist ideas come from (this recent book also deals with that topic to some extent), and why they don’t get talked about. One of the reasons they don’t get talk about, he argued, is because the anti-colonial nationalist movement was in part based on anti-foreign/Indian racist ideas, and that therefore if people really confront these ideas, they will more or less have to acknowledge that certain nationalist heroes were. . . racist.
That can be embarrassing to people, and it made me think about how embarrassment influences the way that some people think and write about the past.
I was recently reading a preface that a guy by the name of Đỗ Đăng Đệ 杜登第 wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. This preface appears in an edition of a book called the Jade Register (Ngọc lịch 玉曆) that he paid to have republished.
The Jade Register is an illustrated text that talks about the various levels of hell. It circulated widely in the Qing empire in the nineteenth century, and versions of it were published in the Nguyễn Dynasty realm, one version of which was the one that Đỗ Đăng Đệ sponsored.
Why did Đỗ Đăng Đệ want this book to get published?
He says in his preface that in 1896, his concubine contracted an eye ailment that no medicine could cure. Having tried everything he could think of, Đỗ Đăng Đệ became despondent.
He then claims to have picked up a book that was sitting on the table in his home, and in glancing through it, he found comments to the effect that if one wants to save one’s mother or wife from harm then one should print the Jade Register.
Convinced that this was worth a try, Đỗ Đăng Đệ prayed to the Stove God (Táo thần 灶神) that the illness be cured, and then went to Hanoi to purchase and distribute copies of the book. After doing so, his concubine recovered from her ailment, and Đỗ Đăng Đệ came to believe that the gods (thần minh 神明) do indeed exist.
So according to Đỗ Đăng Đệ, his concubine’s ailment was cured by him distributing a book.
By our standards today, Đỗ Đăng Đệ was “illogical.” And while I see many stories like this in historical sources, I don’t see people write about things like this when they write about Vietnamese history.
Why don’t people write about this?
My friend brought up the point that the first generation of scholars in North America who wrote about Southeast Asian history also “purged” the past of signs of “illogical” ideas. If, for instance, you read the main historical writings of someone like the late David K. Wyatt, you will find that the Thais (or the Thai elite to be specific) are represented as completely logical, rational and even scientific people.
So I was thinking of what to call this phenomenon. “Embarrassment nationalism” was one term that came to my mind. I think there is a kind of passive form of nationalism that is the result of people not writing or talking about things in the past that they find embarrassing.
At the same time, I’m not sure how accurate it is to label someone like professor Wyatt a “nationalist.” His views certainly dovetailed with Thai royalist-nationalist interpretations of the past, but I’m not sure that this makes him a “nationalist.”
What he shared with others, however, was this practice of ignoring, or remaining silent about, ideas and behavior that we see in the historical record that doesn’t agree with the way that we want people to think and behave.
So while I’m not sure what to call this – “embarrassment nationalism” or maybe just “embarrassment” – it is clear to me that it has played a powerful role in how the past has been represented.
This, in turn, has the potential to bring about serious consequences in the present, because if historians do not look at the past with honesty, then how can we expect people in the present to be honest about their own society?
Of course it’s not simply because people in Burma don’t want to tarnish the image of nationalist leaders that they don’t deal with racism. I’m sure that there are also probably many people who simply do not want to admit and deal with the fact that many of their fellow citizens are racist. However, all of this is connected.
And it’s certainly not unique to Burma.