Journal of Burma Studies

Volume 18.1, Abstracts 

The Academic Life of Savages

Violet Cho

Knowledge, in the context of Karen culture, has long been transmitted verbally through oral poetry, known as hta in S’gaw Karen. This form of knowledge transmission has been transformed by the continued hegemony of colonial ways of knowing that privilege written tradition and scientific objectivity. New ways of knowing, through text, has displaced orality so deeply that it is virtually irretrievable. This article is an experimental reflection on Karen ways of knowing and an attempt to speak back against the oppression of the written word. In this article, I explore modes of knowing and power through hta in the context of my own experience growing up in Western systems of education. The hta is first written in S’gaw Karen in a missionary script, followed by an English translation and a brief discussion. As hta is an oral form, I have recorded an audio version produced after the piece was written down. My aim here is to make something new out of cultural traces that remain from the long period of colonisation.

Sitting on the Fence? Politics and Ethics of Research into Cross-border Aid on the Thailand-Myanmar/Burma Border

Anne Décobert

This article analyzes the politics and ethics of anthropological research in a situation shaped by decades of conflict and violence, as well as a polarized and emotional debate. Drawing on two years of ethnographic research with a cross-border aid organization on the Thailand-Myanmar/Burma border, the author identifies issues of wider concern to researchers working in sensitive and politicized research contexts. In particular, the article illustrates the difficulties of academic neutrality in a context shaped by a history of conflict, violence and disputed claims to socio-political legitimacy. It highlights the political and ethical complexities of “participant-insider” research. It focuses attention on how academic research is not only contingent upon, but can influence evolving socio-political relationships, positionings and perceptions. Finally, it discusses the importance of recognizing and taking into account objections to academics’ work – objections for which researchers are often underprepared, which remain largely absent from academic writings, but which raise important issues to do with intellectual and ethical debts to research participants.

On Sensitivity and Secrecy:  How Foreign Researchers and Their Local Contacts in Myanmar Deal with Risk Under Authoritarian Rule

Maaike Matelski

In this article I describe some of the challenges faced by western researchers and their local research participants in trying to uncover the experiences of life in Myanmar under military rule. Perceptions of ‘sensitive’ topics, activities and affiliations differ among local people, and the resulting practices of secrecy sometimes clash with academic requirements for transparent and balanced reporting of research findings. As a result, field-based publications related to politics and human rights are scarce, and those that exist are vulnerable to accusations of bias or lack of transparency. Research in authoritarian environments comes with a particular set of dilemmas, which are often inadequately addressed by formal guidelines on research ethics. This might prevent research in unfamiliar or risky circumstances from taking place. Yet the absence of background knowledge and guidelines in the academic world should not deter us from studying people living under these circumstances, many of whom are interested in being heard, and are well positioned to assess the risks and opportunities of participation. Given the power inequalities between western researchers and local participants, the question is who should decide what level of risk is acceptable in order to gather knowledge on local experiences in ‘difficult situations’. I argue that the researcher is ultimately responsible for both the treatment of research participants, and the subsequent reporting of research findings. However, relying on the guidance of local contacts can help determine the ethical boundaries of one’s research, and can lead to valuable insights not only on events in the field, but also on how to act in difficult circumstances in the absence of clear guidelines.

Who Do You Know Over There?” Fieldwork Experiences in Restricted Southern Shan State, Burma

Busarin Lertchavalitsakul

This essay reflects the researcher’s experiences from ongoing ethnographic field research concerning Shan laborers’ migration and commodity flows in the Burma-Thailand borderland regarding a main research question-- To what extent how are migration and commodity flows interconnected? It describes researcher’s various methods used to enter restricted zones to foreigners: both applying for a tourist visa to get inside Burma and then getting special permission to enter non-Burmese restricted zones, as well as border land-crossings from Thailand without going through immigration control. This essay proposes that creating a genuine rapport with informants—a key requirement of ethnography—may raise ethical dilemmas when these same informants facilitate access to sensitive research areas. The question: “Who do you know over there?” reflects the fact that as a researcher, one sometimes needs to form connections with influential people, whether it be intentionally or otherwise. The researcher’s experience reflects the ethical quandaries created when methodological approaches intersect with ethical issues during field research activities. If one wants to build a close rapport with local people that is required in ethnographic fieldwork, it is difficult to avoid cultivating connections with powerful people that facilitate research, as one may not know at first who possesses power in this complex political landscape.

Fostering an Objectionable Burma Discourse

Elliot Prasse-Freeman

Discursive truths about Burma are constructed within ‘cultures of circulation’ that can deny access to their putative objects, Burmese themselves. Moreover, even as these discourses are fabricated they operate back on Burmese people, often producing mimicry of the content of those discourses, ossifying that content as ‘common-sense’. Applying Bruno Latour’s analysis of objectivity in the social sciences, the ethical demand raised here is to create situations and frames of analysis that allow Burmese stakeholders of various class, religious, ideological, etc positions to object to what is written about them, thereby contesting essentializing discourses. By exploring the ‘hard case’ that is the Rahkine / Rohingya conflict, the paper will conclude by arguing that even within exclusionary vitriol there are critical political objections that must be heard – and contested in turn.

Ethnic Histories, Reflections from the Field

Patrick McCormick

This essay is a consideration of the relative positions and the possible ensuing ethical hazards of an “international” scholars of Burma when dealing with the histories of Burma. Based on my own experience interacting with Mon and other Burman and non-Burman ethnic scholars, I reflect on the differences in how international and local scholars conceptualize history, view the purpose of writing it, and what is at stake for each. While international scholars in the past may have claimed the ability to be objective and to write from a neutral position, local scholars may invoke the exclusive privilege and right to interpret their pasts and represent them to others, both within Burma and without. Ethical questions related to doing research in or about Burma have often focused on the possibility of international scholars putting others or themselves at risk. I consider here instead a possibility that may arise when international scholars interact with local scholars: that our scholarship may be complicit in perpetuating discord or actual conflict. This possibility may arise when local scholars and interlocutors attempt to “convert” the international scholar – viewed as ignorant but as a potential ally– to local points of views on local histories. These local narratives embody the political and representational interests of the group, and therefore often focus on a common enemy and memories of violence being perpetuated against the group. A conundrum arises when the international scholar is caught between conflicting desires to take seriously the self-representations and narratives of local scholars, while also not wanting to participate in perpetuating discourses that can instigate conflict, hostility, or violence.

The Idealization Of A Lost Paradise Narratives Of Nostalgia And Traumatic Return Migration Among Indian Repatriates From Burma Since The 1960s

Renaud Egreteau

Drawing on recent interviews of Indian returnees from Burma, this article sheds light on a well-known yet understudied moment of Burma’s postcolonial history, the forced repatriation of Indian communities during the 1960s. The research has gathered first-hand narratives about the traumatic experiences shared by Indian repatriated families, from their much debated decision to leave Burma, to the perceived humiliation of departure and the dramatic (re)migration to India. The article builds on the scholarship on exile and nostalgia, which claims that repatriation processes often lead to a retrospective idealization by the returnees of what has been left behind. Interviews have indeed revealed how nostalgic memories of a “golden past” and a “paradise lost” in Burma have been shaped among the first generation of Indian repatriates ever since their resettlement in India. In contrast with the classic diaspora literature, which postulates that diasporic groups tend to idealize their homeland, Indians in Burma have tended to rather romanticize their Burmese host- land. They cherish the “golden days” they once lived in Burma, whilst expressing highly condescending feelings about their new Indian “homeland” where resettlement and re-integration to the Indian national space have proved harsher than expected.

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