Reporting on Race and National Identity From The Outside

Notes from reporting on the diaspora

Is a country a community? This is a question I encounter repeatedly in my Social Journalism program at the CUNY School of Social Journalism. Each student picks a community to cover for the year. After doing some freelance journalism in Burma last year, I decided to make my community the diaspora of Burma. There are over 200,000 people from Burma living in the US, mainly refugees who span several ethnicities and religions.

The tremendous democratic change that the Southeast nation is undergoing has ginned about a lot of excitement over the future of Burma, but not for everyone. I’ve spoken ethnic minorities from Burma in the US, mainly the Karen, and I’ll say that feelings of connection with the country of their birth are complicated. Which means that my community in this program may be externally defined, similar to have some disinterested British team drew the country’s borders over 300 years ago.

There is a sense of patriotism amongst the Bamar diaspora, the main ethnic group in the country. Bamar people in the US, older folks especially, tend to support the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and the general trajectory of the nation that carries their namesake. For the other ethnic groups, the narrative is less optimistic.

I spoke with a young ethnic Karen, the largest ethnic group from Burma resettled in the US. For now, we’ll call him “Zaw”. Zaw is a bright kid who’s enrolled in university and spoke with me extensively for this project of mine. The Karen have their own language yet share the experience of most ethnic minorities from Burma- persecution from the military, an institution filled and managed by the Bamar. He refers to his relationship with the country Burma the same way I mentioned earlier- “complicated”.

The story of Zaw’s family is sadly common for the Karen. After their village was plundering by the military, they fled to a refugee camp in Thailand for over seven years.

Since he’s family was resettled in the US, Burma has begun its historic transition to civilian rule. Though civilian rule does not mean the Karen are included. The new parliament remains dominated by Bamar faces. Opportunity for ethnic groups to participate in public life is still precarious at best.

Zaw wants his country to do well, (and he still uses the term “his country”), but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily proud of his country. The closest he gets to patriotism comes when he’s with his friends, many of whom are ethnically Bamar. Zaw can speak with his Bamar classmates, in English, for hours about federalism and democracy in Burma. Sometimes their pride in the future rubs off on him.

But he knows that even in a freer Burma, the same red carpet won’t be waiting for him. He does not speak Bamar, it does not take long for his Karen roots to show. Talking about the historic oppression of minorities is often treated as a reckless indulgence at a time when Burma tests the limits of their new democracy.

When listening to Zaw, it was difficult to not think about discussions of racism in the US. There are definitely a few parallels between “race” in the US and “ethnicity” and “religion” in Burma. Chiefly, the role of patriotism: can disenfranchised groups feel the same pride in their country of birth in the same way as those with privilege? For me, the answer is “possibly”.

If patriotism is only defined as pride in the history of one’s country of birth, then a Karen has as much reason to be proud of Burma as an African American has of the United States. But what if we include history of activism and resistance as part of the definition? Does that count as part of the national identity?

The 1988 Uprising was a massive democratic demonstration led by Bamar students in Rangoon, which resulted in the killing of thousands of activists and the imprisonment of countless. An event that catalyzed a tradition of peaceful dissidence and democratic values with courage that rivals activism in western nations.

I spoke with other Karen from previous generations who’s perception of the Bamar changed completely after the 1988 Uprising. Images of Bamar students standing up against the same military that burned down their village not only changed perception of an entire people, but led to much of their activism today.

Similarly, Zaw feels the most connected to his national identity when he thinks of struggles for justice and freedom, even if no Karen voices were included. States do not act on their own, they are controlled by the people inside them. So pride in social movements is not that different than pride in one’s country, if anything the former is more tangible.

But even with consensus that patriotism has multiple definitions, that does not mean that country can be considered a community, in fact it implies the opposite. It’s hard to point to a community if the members of the body don’t agree on what it is.

There is shared experience amongst members of a country, but this is mostly seen on a local level- the experience of a family in Northern Burma is vastly different than the experience of a family in the Southern tip. You could say the same thing between a resident of Maine and a resident of South Carolina, but to a lesser extent.

The main thing that connects Americans is media (i.e. television shows) and public institutions (i.e the military), but even these entities excluded large swathes of US society for decades, a challenges that still exists today. In Burma, there are no television shows that play in the Karen language, let alone included Karen actors or reflect the Karen experience. Karen people have almost zero chance of moving up in government institutions or property ownership.

If citizens of Burma want to emulate the shared experience built in the US, it will involve addressing the nation’s history of repressions and including marginalized peoples in media and government. These changes in the national however, however, would draw ire from shall we say the “traditional” voices. We’ve seen this in the US post civil-rights movement, the backlash in the Burma, with a less developed democracy, would be far greater. If Country as Community is possible, I’m trying to figure out how to apply it to journalism.