Myanmar's Buddhist-Muslim Crisis

Rohingya, Arakanese, and Burmese Narratives of Siege and Fear

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John Clifford Holt
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , September
     2019.
     328 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824881795.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John Clifford Holt’s Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis: Rohingya, Arakanese, and Burmese Narratives of Siege and Fear is a distinctive book which provides crucial and underrepresented perspectives on this ongoing conflict, by an author with decades of experience studying Theravada Buddhism. Holt, a historian of Sri Lankan religion, has been one of the only scholars in religious studies to conduct comparative research across Theravada Buddhism. Holt received a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2014 to study Buddhist militancy in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis, as Holt states in the preface, is the result of the first four years of this fellowship.

I was surprised when first looking at the table of contents that this book is not divided into thematic chapters. In Spirits of the Place (University of Hawaii Press, 2009), Holt, as a historian of religion, separates the book’s chapters into chronological periods including premodern kingdoms, colonial and modern periods in Lao history, and ends with ethnographic research in Luang Phrabang, Laos. I expected something similar for the book being reviewed. However, although this book provides an introduction into the problems, narratives, and backgrounds of the Buddhist-Muslim crisis in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and especially Myanmar, Holt does not engage in as much of this historical contextualization, as I expected. At the same time, Holt’s reflective and accessible writing style is welcome here, as in his previous books.

Instead of historical or thematic chapters, Myanmar’s Buddhist-Muslim Crisis is presented as a series of interview profiles from Holt’s time in three sites in Myanmar from 2015 to 2018: Yangon, Arakan, and Mandalay. Each of these places is one part of the book, and each part contains perspectives from individuals he met and interviewed over the course of his research. Holt located his interviewees mostly by using his contacts as a senior researcher and scholar. The Yangon section contains the most profiles, with seven. The Arakan part contains five, and Mandalay has three.

All of the chapters are titled after nicknames Holt gives to his interviewees, for example, “The Historian” or “The Nationalist,” or “The Gadfly.” Some of the interviewees remain anonymous and others are public figures, such as the infamous Burmese monk, U Wirathu. These chapters are written more descriptively than a transcript of an interview, although there are long quotations and summaries of responses from his interlocutors. Almost all of these conversation partners met him on several occasions so the reader sees how the thinking of each person has changed over time, and in response to various flashpoints regarding Buddhist-Muslim violence close to the time these incidents occurred. For each profile, Holt adds bold type to the interview date so that the reader can follow chronologically.

The book makes clear that this is actually not a Buddhist-Muslim crisis, it is a crisis among three groups: Arakanese Buddhists, Bamar Buddhists, and Rohingya Muslims, each of which has their own “narrative of siege.” Holt is successful in getting representatives of each of these groups to articulate their perspectives. In Yangon, Holt meets Rohingya Muslim leaders, thereby setting the stage for the Arakanese and Burmese Buddhist perspective in the Arakan and Mandalay sections. When the interviews move to Arakan, the reader can understand how difficult it is to travel and conduct research there, while gaining vastly different viewpoints from the Rohingya Muslims inside the Rakhine state and from Arakanese Buddhists. In Mandalay Holt interviews Burmese Buddhist monks, including U Wirathu and a close monastic associate of Sitagu Sayadaw.

Holt often reveals his personal feelings about the person he is in dialogue with, along with his thought process in asking questions while conducting the interview. In this way the book is partly autoethnographic. In the Mandalay section, he wrestles with debating his interlocutors the most, and it’s fascinating to read his mental gymnastics, trying to figure out how to maintain restraint and keep the interview going, despite the inaccuracies he was hearing. Holt’s liberal perspective is always present as a kind of sounding board for the reader. When discussing the election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with U Wirathu, Wirathu states his praise for Trump’s anti-Islamization stance, while Holt declares he voted for Clinton.

The structure of the book and reliance on interview profiles is certainly innovative and allows the reader to deeply understand the multiple positions in play. Yet, as Holt reminds us, it is difficult not to become personally invested in the conflict. This reader felt similar frustration levels similar to Holt during his interview with the “Anti-Nationalist,” Venerable Jotika, who claimed international media is reporting fake news about the situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Although Holt’s lengthy introduction is crucial and necessary for setting the stage, it is difficult to read through the interviews with all the context in mind for the various dates and time periods and political moments he and his interlocutors refer to. If the book were structured chronologically instead, and interweaved with interview data, this would alleviate the necessity of remembering various incidents and governmental interventions. However, more confusion might be created with the voices of so many people at once.

This is a crucial book for understanding of the Buddhist-Muslim crisis in Myanmar. It illuminates the conflict in an affecting and impactful way because neither Holt nor his subjects are detached from the situation. The book would make for thoughtful discussion topics with undergraduate and graduate students interested in southeast Asia. The Mandalay chapters of part 3 would be especially interesting for a class on Buddhism or interreligious relations. Scholars of contemporary Theravada Buddhism and Islam in southeast Asia will find this book exceptional for Holt’s ability to give voice to multiple perspectives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Schedneck is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
January 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Clifford Holt is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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