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Kachin Communities in Myanmar  

Mandy Sadan

The term “Kachin” is an exonym that references several subcommunities, all of which have traditionally resided in the northernmost region of Burma (modern Myanmar). The name “Kachin State” for this region evidences this historical connection. Kachin communities are identified as comprising six main subgroups, but the boundaries of these are often contested. Identity politics in Myanmar is complex and highly sensitive, given the ongoing conflicts in which many communities, including those identified as Kachin, have been involved for many decades; it is also ongoing. Kachin communities also have strong cross-border relations with cognate groups of people residing in northeast India, Yunnan, and Thailand, as well as a globally dispersed diaspora, which is particularly large in the United States, Japan, and Thailand. Kachin communities were impacted directly by the experience of British colonial rule from its beginnings in Burma in 1824, even though they were not brought under any administrative system until after full British control over the Burmese kingdom was established after 1885. However, neither British nor Burmese (later, Myanmar) administrations have been able to bring the Kachin region fully under their control. At independence from British rule in 1948, many Kachin elites hoped that there would be a federal system, but as hopes for this diminished with the emergence of a military dictatorship, the movement for resistance gained ground. As many other parts of the country fell into civil war, so too did the new Kachin State. The Kachin Independence Army was founded in the early 1960s and by 1963 had declared open conflict with the Burmese military regime. A ceasefire was signed in 1994 and provided some respite, but as the situation again deteriorated through exploitative resource extraction, environmental degradation, and the social harms caused by the widespread availability of narcotics and opiates, considerable popular support for a return to war was felt. The ceasefire collapsed in 2011 leading to more active conflict. This social and political upheaval over many decades has resulted in dramatic changes to Kachin communities and has impacted their tangible and intangible heritage irreparably. There is a great deal still to learn about the histories of Kachin communities in Myanmar, but to do so will require creativity and long-term support for and engagement with local scholars and researchers.

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Religion and Migration in Rakhine  

Michael W. Charney

The historical migration and religious development in Rakhine (Arakan) up to the end of the second decade of the 21st century is complicated. This region was a crossroads for South and Southeast Asian civilizations and existed at the overlap of the frontiers of Islam and Theravada Buddhism. Existing in an ecological niche with a difficult topography and climate and a low population base, Rakhine social and state formation was built around inclusivity and tolerance. Although for much of its history the dominant religions of the population of the region were animism and then Brahmanism, successive waves of immigrants from both Bengal and Myanmar meant that Islamic and Theravada Buddhist influence was very strong. The early modern kingdom that emerged at Mrauk-U, its main political center, was built on maritime connectivity with the Indian Ocean world and developed a court culture that was both Muslim and Buddhist and ruled over a population that was religiously heterogeneous. Toleration was challenged, however, by the conquest of Rakhine by Myanmar in 1785 and efforts to eradicate local religious autonomy. Things did not improve under British rule after the British annexation of 1826. The Myanmar and British rulers of Rakhine politicized the region’s history and tried to retell the history of the region in ways that excluded some populations and included others, leading to efforts to force the Rohingya out of Rakhine from August 2017.

Article

The Ainu and Japanese Settler Colonialism  

Michael Roellinghoff

The Ainu people are Indigenous to Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island in the early 21st century), the Russian-administered island of Sakhalin, and the adjacent Kuril archipelago. The Ainu traditionally refer to these lands as Ainu Mosir (meaning “the land of the people”). In the early 21st century, an increasing number of Ainu refer to Hokkaido itself as Yaun Mosir (roughly “the land of land”). Long neighbors with the Japanese, they historically resided as far south as Honshu and as far north as Kamchatka. As of 2023, most Ainu are concentrated in southern Hokkaido and the Tokyo metropolitan area. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), the Matsumae Domain maintained a deeply exploitative, if not outright colonialistic, relationship with Ainu groups across Hokkaido (then known in Japanese as Ezo). Nevertheless, Tokugawa leaders explicitly recognized Ainu territorial sovereignty and political formations. Following the Japanese annexation of Hokkaido in 1869, however, the Westernizing Meiji state (1868–1912) adopted settler colonial practices in Hokkaido that closely resembled those of the United States, the British Empire, and the Russian Empire. Declaring Ainu territories across Hokkaido terra nullius (empty or ownerless land), the Kaitakushi (the Japanese Colonial Office) and successive Hokkaido-based prefectural governments disregarded Ainu sovereignty entirely and engaged in a zero-sum colonization program, dispossessing the Ainu of their unceded land, waters, and resources. While this led to deadly waves of famine and epidemic disease in Ainu communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many resisted. This ranged from physical confrontations with colonial agents to large-scale peaceful protests. Amid widespread social Darwinist-inflected narratives of the Ainu as a self-destructively inferior race, in 1899, the Meiji government passed the so-called Hokkaido Former Aborigine Protection Act (Hokkaidō kyūdojin hogo-hō), rendering the Ainu wards of the state. In the 21st century, the legacies of the Protection Act and surrounding racist and colonialist discourse continue to impact the Ainu. This most often takes the form of Japanese disavowals of Ainu existence and the state’s rejection of Ainu calls for self-determination. Nevertheless, many Ainu maintain distinct cultural identities, spiritual traditions, and epistemologies and assert sovereignty on their own unceded territories.