The All-India Muslim League first voiced the demand for a Muslim homeland based on India’s northwestern and northeastern provinces in March 1940. Seven years later at the moment of British decolonization in the subcontinent, Pakistan emerged on the map of the world, an anomaly in the international community of nations with its two wings separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. Over a million people died in the violence that accompanied partition while another 14½ million moved both ways across frontiers demarcated along ostensibly religious lines for the first time in India’s six millennia history. Commonly attributed to the age-old religious divide between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, the causes of Pakistan’s creation are better traced to the federal problems created in India under British colonial rule. Despite sharing a common identity based on religious affiliation, Indian Muslims were divided along regional, linguistic, class, sectarian, and ideological lines. More Muslims live in India and Bangladesh than in Pakistan today, highlighting the clear disjunction between religiously informed identities and territorial sovereignty. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League, tried resolving the problem by claiming in 1940 that Indian Muslims were not a minority but a nation, entitled to the principle of self-determination. He envisaged a “Pakistan” based on undivided Punjab and Bengal. Since this left Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces out of the reckoning, Jinnah left it an open question whether “Pakistan” and Hindustan would form a confederation covering the whole of India or make treaty arrangements as two separate sovereign states. In the end Jinnah was unable to achieve his larger aims and had to settle for a Pakistan based on the Muslim-majority districts of Punjab and Bengal, something he had rejected out of hand in 1944 and then again in 1946.
Although frontier studies enjoy a long and robust history in China, a disproportionate amount of attention has focused on North China and its relations with Central and Northeast Asia, while only a handful of historians have paid much attention to the history of South and Southwest China. Those that do invariably offer a narrative that presents Southwest China (the current provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and the southwestern portion of Sichuan) as unequivocal parts of greater China since at least the end of the 3rd century bce. They accomplish this by selectively including only the events that reinforce inflated notions of Han superiority, while at the same time expunging from the historical records events and episodes that challenge the internal cohesion of this metanarrative and disparage the Han. Throughout China’s long history, they argue, Han from the Central Plain (zhongyuan) region of North China have continuously migrated south in search of land and opportunity, and over time Han cultural practices, centralized and hierarchical political institutions, a sophisticated written language, and a socially differentiated society that generates surplus revenue, have transformed nearly all of the “barbarian” non-Han into civilized Han. What the Chinese metanarrative fails to offer, however, is perspective, for it not only deprives the southwest of its own history, such as a thoughtful examination of the vibrant kingdoms that existed in the southwest, like the Cuan (338–747), Muege (c. 300–1283), Nanzhao (738–937), and Dali (937–1253) kingdoms, to name just a few, but also it refuses to offer a critical examination of how the Chinese empire colonized this territory.
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung
It has been conventional wisdom to attribute Myanmar’s entrenched military rule and civil war to the presence of more than a hundred ethnic groups and the near-exclusive political and economic monopoly enjoyed by the central government. While the presence of multiple ethnic groups has made it difficult to negotiate a settlement that satisfies all parties, the conflict that has occurred in Myanmar since the late 1940s originated in the colonial period and is perpetuated by the policies and practices of political and military elites since independence. Cultural identities remained fluid in precolonial Myanmar, but the British colonial government’s attempt to categorize groups based on their languages and to favor some groups at the expense of others reified and rigidified ethnic identities, creating political and economic divisions along these lines. The postcolonial government’s inability and unwillingness to accommodate demands for greater political and territorial autonomy by minority groups, as well as military repression of these aspirations, have further intensified conflict. This has resulted in the death or displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and has sharpened ethnic divisions. However, while minority ethnic and linguistic groups share common grievances against the Bamar-dominated central government, they disagree on how best to promote group interests and interethnic peace. Political reforms in 2011–2020 saw a reduced military role in politics, greater willingness of a semi-democratic government to negotiate an end to civil war, and greater space and opportunities for minorities to promote their language and culture and to push for greater political autonomy. These prospects were crushed by a military coup in February 2021 that has transformed the nature of civil conflict in Myanmar and perpetuated a cycle of violence.
The term “overseas Chinese” refers to people who left the Qing Empire (and later on, the Republic of China or ROC) for a better life in Southeast Asia. Some of them arrived in Southeast Asia as merchants. They were either involved in retail or wholesale trade, or importing and exporting goods between the Qing Empire/ROC and Southeast Asia. With the decolonization of Southeast Asia from the end of World War II in 1945, overseas Chinese commerce was targeted by nationalists because the merchants were seen to have been working together with the colonial authorities and to have enriched themselves at the expense of locals. New nationalist regimes in Southeast Asia introduced anti-Chinese legislation in order to reduce the overseas Chinese presence in economic activities. Chinese merchants were banned from certain trades and trade monopolies were broken down. Several Southeast Asian states also attempted to assimilate the overseas Chinese by forcing them to adopt local-sounding names. However, the overseas Chinese continued to be dominant in the economies of Malaya (later Malaysia) and Singapore. Malaysia introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which has an anti-Chinese agenda, in 1970. The decolonization process also occurred during the Cold War, and Chinese merchants sought to continue trade with China at a time when governments in Southeast Asia were suspicious of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Attempts by merchants from Malaya and Singapore to trade with the PRC in 1956 were considered to have failed, as the PRC had other political concerns. By the time Singapore had gained independence in 1965, the door to investment and trade with the PRC was shut, and the Chinese in Southeast Asia turned their backs on China by taking on citizenship in their countries of residence.
The name Rohingya denotes an ethnoreligious identity of Muslims in North Rakhine State, Myanmar (formerly Burma). The term became part of public discourse in the late 1950s and spread widely following reports on human rights violations against Muslims in North Rakhine State during the 1990s, and again after 2012. Claims for regional Muslim autonomy emerged during World War II and led to the rise of a Rohingya ethnonationalist movement that drew on the local Muslim imaginaire, as well as regional history and archaeology. To explore the historical roots of distinctive identity claims and highlight Buddhist-Muslim tensions, one must reach back to the role of Muslims in the precolonial Buddhist kingdom of Arakan and their demographic growth during the colonial period. Civic exclusion and state harassment under Burma’s authoritarian regimes (1962–2011) put a premature end to political hopes of ethnic recognition, and yet hastened a process of shared identity formation, both in the country and among the diaspora. Since the 1970s, refugees and migrants turned to Bangladesh, the Middle East, and Southeast Asian countries, forming a transnational body of Rohingya communities that reinvented their lives in various political and cultural contexts. A succession of Rohingya nationalist organizations—some of whom were armed—had negligible impact but kept the political struggle alive along the border with Bangladesh. Although Rohingya nationalists failed to gain recognition among ethnic and religious groups in Burma, they have attracted increasing international acknowledgment. For postdictatorial Myanmar (after 2011), the unresolved Rohingya issue became a huge international liability in 2017, when hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh following military operations widely interpreted as ethnic cleansing. In December 2017, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights acknowledged that elements of genocide may be occurring.