“To be Burmese is to be Buddhist” is a slogan commonly identified with the dawn of nationalism in the country known today as Myanmar, where violence between Buddhist, Muslim, and ethnic communities has increasingly jeopardized liberalizing reforms. How do contemporary forms of Theravada Buddhist discourse shape ideas of belonging in a multi-religious and ethnically diverse Myanmar following the dissolution of military rule in 2011? How do digital technologies and globalizing communication networks in this nation influence rapidly changing social identities, anxieties, and imaginaries that Brigit Meyer identifies as ‘aesthetic formations’? In this article, I trace diverse genealogies of belonging to show how contemporary constructions of meaning facilitate religious imaginaries that may exacerbate difference by drawing on past ideologies of conflict or may seek to envision a new and diverse Myanmar.
Identity, Law, and Gender in the Anthropology of Contemporary Buddhism
This article examines current debates for and against Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) in Myanmar. The analysis, based on interviews with key local, national, and international actors involved in HMA, reveals why so many of them regard the mapping and removal of “nuisance” landmines as posing a security threat to the peace process. (Landmines deny people access to territory; when conflict ends, these landmines no longer serve a strategic purpose and thus become a dangerous nuisance.) These same debates also shed light on the growing role risk management approaches now take in Myanmar as a response to decades of authoritarian misrule by a succession of military regimes. The landmines, although buried in the ground, actively unsettle such good governance initiatives and the neoliberal development projects to which they are often linked, most often by reterritorializing military, humanitarian, political, and economic authority in overlapping and conflicting ways at multiple scales. The findings reveal why HMA actors resist labeling the crisis landmine contamination poses to civilians as a “crisis” that requires immediate humanitarian action.
The Reappropriation of Photographic Images from a Museum Collection
A collection of photographs by colonial officer and amateur anthropologist James Henry Green now in the collections of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has been extensively reappropriated and reused by members of the Kachin community from northern Burma who originally formed their subject. This article considers one specific use, in a music track and video produced as part of a collaboration between a Burma-based Kachin rap artist and a Kachin singer and media producer currently living in China. Released at a critical moment for the Kachin community, following the recent breakdown of a long-standing cease-fire agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Burmese government, the track and video reveal some of the tensions at play between the outward-looking, transnational, and cosmopolitan tendencies of the growing overseas Kachin community and the nostalgic, territorially based ethnonationalism that has been at the heart of Kachin demands for greater political autonomy since the 1960s.
Wenyi Zhang and F.K.L. Chit Hlaing
This article outlines three historical transitions in Kachin chieftaincy in Burma and China. Picking up where the three main theoretical models in the literature leave off (the models of Leach, Nugent and Friedman), we put forward an analysis of Kachin sociopolitical organization using new China-based material. We compare this with Burma-based material in the literature, and re-analyse the interactions between the internal dynamics of Kachin chieftaincy and the politico-economic systems in Southwestern China and Northern Burma. We argue that Kachin chieftaincy in Burma and in China shared the same logic, although this logic was manifested differently in the two countries. We offer new material for understanding the lowland polities and upland chieftaincy in Southwestern China and mainland Southeast Asia.
An Inquiry into the Initiation Process in a Burmese Organization of Exorcists
Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière
The Manaw Seittokpad congregation, an organization of Burmese exorcists with headquarters in Bago, presents some unique features, such as a rigorous registration procedure during the initiation process. Exorcism is linked to superhuman figures, or weikza, at the center of a religious domain often characterized as a form of Buddhist esotericism. Based on observation of rituals during this congregation’s annual conventions in Bago, the initiation process is analyzed with reference to an anthropological understanding of rites of passage and religious conversion. The article shows how undergoing these rites induces healed patients to enter a specific community formed by the members of the congregation. Furthermore, the acquisition of a new ‘truly’ Buddhist identity is understood as a process equivalent to an ‘internal conversion’. Finally, the contrastive use of ritualism is seen as a way to construct the practice of exorcism in the weikza domain as a specific ‘path’ within the Burmese religious field.
Epistemic Claims, Practices, and Ideology in the Production of Burma's Political Order
Following the 1962 coup of Burma's first post-Independence and parliamentary democratic government, a succession of military régimes has asserted their legitimacy on diverse grounds. Their ability to keep the upland minorities contained and the country unified, to implement a socialist-style redistributive system, and contemporaneously to act as chief patron to the sangha (order of monks), have each functioned as claims to legitimate rule and to nation-statehood. In 1990, the régime refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, following a landslide election. Aung San Suu Kyi's resistance to the régime, and claims for her own political legitimacy have been asserted, predominantly through an emergent `global society' (universalizing) discourse about human rights, régime performance, and democratic self-determination. In this paper, I examine these separate assertions for legitimacy as distinct but interrelated frameworks for thinking and action, the inconsistencies among which complicate the process of stable state making in Burma.
From Colonial Rangoon to Postcolonial Yangon
Beth E. Notar, Kyaw San Min and Raju Gautam
This article investigates three historical moments in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar) when the city has restricted certain forms of mobility. The first occurred in 1920, when British authorities restricted rickshaws pulled by Indian laborers. The second was in 1960, when the military “caretaker government” sought to sideline pedicabs and horse carts as part of an urban “cleanup” campaign. The third happened in 2017, when city authorities under a new democratic government sought to limit the number of taxis and allow digital ride-hailing services such as Uber and Grab to operate in the city. Despite three very different forms of government, the later discourses eerily echo the exclusionary logic that certain forms of migrant driven mobility need to be cleared away for more “modern” mobility.
Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand
Steve Kwok-Leung Chan
English abstract: Thailand is a popular destination for irregular labor migration from Myanmar. Among some three million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, more than half are undocumented. Undocumented migrant workers rely on brokers to smuggle them into Thailand. Some undocumented migrant workers are lured, tricked, and forced to work but they are not rewarded with a reasonable wage. A conceptual framework of the shadow sector of labor migration is formulated in this study, which attempts to explain why ethnic minorities in Myanmar are socially categorized by the level of their deprived citizenship. Those low in the hierarchy of categorization are likely to fall into the shadow sector of the labor migration process. Ethnic minorities from areas of insurgency are exposed to a high risk of human trafficking.
Spanish abstract: Tailandia es un destino popular para la migración laboral irregular de Myanmar. Entre unos tres millones de trabajadores migrantes birmanos en Tailandia, más de la mitad son indocumentados. Los trabajadores migrantes indocumentados confían en intermediarios para pasar de contrabando a través de la frontera a Tailandia. En este estudio se formula un marco conceptual del sector paralelo de la migración laboral que trata de explicar por qué las minorías étnicas en Myanmar se clasifican socialmente por el nivel de su ciudadanía privada. Aquellos que se encuentran en la jerarquía de categorización baja probablemente caigan en el sector oscuro del proceso de migración laboral. Las minorías étnicas de las áreas de la insurgencia están expuestas a un alto riesgo de trata de personas.
French abstract: La migration irrégulière de main-d’oeuvre et la traite d’êtres humains sont des sujets récurrents des études migratoires, mais le sujet le plus traité jusqu’à présent concerne le mouvement Sud Nord. La Thaïlande, en tant qu’économie en développement de l’Asie du Sud-Est, est une destination prisée pour la migration de main-d’oeuvre irrégulière myanmaraise. Parmi les quelques trois millions de travailleurs migrants birmans en Thaïlande, plus de la moitié sont sans papiers. Les travailleurs migrants sans papiers comptent sur les intermédiaires pour passer clandestinement la frontière de la Thaïlande afin d’y rechercher un emploi. Certains travailleurs migrants sans papiers sont attirés, trompés et forcés à travailler sans la récompense d’un salaire raisonnable. Un cadre conceptuel du secteur parallèle de la migration de main-d’oeuvre est formulé dans cette étude qui tente d’expliquer pourquoi les minorités ethniques du Myanmar sont classées socialement par leur niveau de privation de citoyenneté. Ceux qui sont au bas de la hiérarchie de la catégorisation risquent de tomber dans le marché parallèle du processus de migration de main-d’oeuvre. Les minorités ethniques des zones de l’insurrection sont exposées à un risque élevé de traite d’êtres humains.
Women's rights and the transnational movement of Shan women in Thailand and Burma
This article explores the relationship between women, nation, nationalism, and transnational women’s practice through the Shan women’s movement in Thailand, particularly the international campaign to stop the systematic rape of Shan women by Burmese soldiers. Employing a feminist critique of nationalism, the article argues that transnational networks allow for the negotiation between national, local, and women’s identities. Whereas the authoritative power of nationalism continues to suppress and silence the transnational subjectivity of women, the Shan women’s movement represents a transnational attempt to contest the confinement of women’s subjectivities within the territorialized nation-state.
This article analyzes certain aspects of the work of Jonathan Friedman, especially as they are relevant to an "insurrection of subjugated knowledges" that Foucault imagined began in the 1960s. The article traces Friedman's critique of Marvin Harris's cultural materialism and of Edmund Leach's interpretation of highland Burma's socio-political systems. It discusses Friedman's pioneering development of global systems theory based on an integration of Marxist and Lévi-Straussian structuralism. Finally, it argues the insurrection that Foucault spoke of was febrile, and suggests how Friedman's work might be employed to help develop a fiercer struggle against subjugation.