31 July 2004

Changing Chin Identity in Burma

The July 2004 IIAS Newsletter includes a review of the book In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma by Lian H. Sakhong (NIAS Press, 2003).
Traditional tribal society was exclusivist and tightly knit, with a hierarchy of nobles, commoners and slaves. At its apex, chiefs (ram-uk) were not only owners and distributors of land, heads of their communities and commanders in war, but also high priests, responsible for offering sacrifices to the Khuahrum, locally rooted guardian deities whose good will was believed necessary for prosperity. When Baptist missionaries challenged the power of the Khuahrum and Khua-chia (evil spirits, causing accidents and disease), conversion to the new faith was eased by the old belief in Khua-zing, a Supreme God to whom the chiefs did not sacrifice, because He, viewed as the source of all life (zing), is 'good, never cruel and never harms people' (p. 46).

The British 'pacification' of Chinram between the first invasion of the country in 1871 and the Anglo-Chin War of 1917-19 cleared the way for 'detribalisation', the breakdown of the old 'chief-land-god' nexus. Sakhong, however, argues that detribalisation did not result in dehumanisation, as the Christianity preached by American Baptist missionaries provided the Chin with the basis for a new way of life. The latter overcame the traditional isolationism of the tribes, creating a new Chin identity based on a community of worshippers in a wider world where they could relate as equals to 'civilized' lowlanders....

The author does not carry his narrative through to the Ne Win (1962-88) and State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (1988-) periods. This is unfortunate, since there is limited information in Western languages on how the Chins maintain their identity in the face of military-enforced 'Burmanisation', including the post-1988 junta's aggressive promotion of the Buddhist religion. While the SPDC builds new pagodas nationwide, it discourages the construction of new churches and mosques and the renovation of old ones.
This same pattern broadly describes so many parts of the boondocks of Southeast Asia, where the hill people only began to "join civilization" and adopt one of the major evangelical religions during the 19th and 20th centuries, often converting to some variety of Protestant Christianity, no matter whether the long-converted lowlanders were Buddhist, as in Burma, Thailand, or Cambodia; Muslim, as in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago; or Catholic, as in the Philippines.

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