Deep Cuts in Burma Studies

You’ve seen new pubs from BSG. But why this fetish of the new, eh? So we have also been running an initiative focusing on the oldies, in which we circulate a (perhaps?) forgotten text, article, book, pamphlet.

The running list of annotated texts are below, and our archive of older (and hence even deeper?) cuts is here.

  • #36 (5 Dec 2022): Ed note: The following is a guest cut from Mike Dunford, PhD candidate at ANU: Lehman’s The Structure of Chin Society is one of my favorite classic ethnographies of Myanmar, but it has been massively overshadowed by Leach’s roughly contemporaneous Political Systems of Highland Burma, which came out one decade earlier but had a similar audience and intention. For me, the things that make Lehman’s work more engaging than Leach’s are the same things that have probably made it less famous: Lehman is very open about his relatively limited “time on the ground” in Chin State (roughly one year), and apologetic about the limited claims that he is able to make as a result: everything is very carefully done, and the theorization is limited to the particular relationship between the diverse groups known as “Chin” and their lowland counterparts in Manipur and Myanmar. However, Lehman does engage in some broader theorizing, which is fascinating. The book is a masterpiece on the politics of food, agriculture, and eating—i.e., how who gets to eat what (and why) is a political question. Lehman also argues for an understanding of kingdom-vassal relations as a form of class relations; and through that route, he argues for understanding of ethnic relations in Myanmar as a form of class relations as well. In that sense, Lehman’s book prefigures some of the current scholarship on Myanmar, which looks at the intersection of race and class in the Bamar majority (see recent work by Campbell + Prasse-Freeman). It’s an underplayed classic that I think ought to be read alongside Leach, not just to see what mid-century Myanmar anthropology looked like, but as a useful text to think with (and push against) in its own right.

Lehman, F.K. The Structure of Chin Society; A Tribal People of Burma Adapted to a Non-Western Civilization. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963.

  • #35 (21 Nov 2022): Tun Aung Chain examines historiography written by Burman historians during the post-independence period, concluding by arguing that: “Rather than thinking of nationhood as a process developing in the course of history, it regarded nationhood as an underlying constant of Myanmar history, innate throughout the political fluctuations of the Bamar kingdoms” (19).

Tun Aung Chain. “Historians and the search for Myanmar nationhood.” in Tun Aung Chain, Broken Glass: Pieces of Myanmar History, SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, Yangon, 2004: 9–24.

  • #34 (10 Oct 2022): An ethnography of sign language in Yangon

This week’s installment is not particularly old, but it’s fascinating: an ethnography of Yangon’s deaf community and their struggle for what author Ellen Foote calls “linguistic citizenship.” We only have the introduction, unfortunately, but see here for it, and for all the other cuts in our series.

Foote, Ellen. Sign Languages and Linguistic Citizenship: A Critical Ethnographic Study of the Yangon Deaf Community. Routledge, 2020.

  • #33 (26 Sept 2022): Genealogies of the Anyatha Revolution (part 1)

Given the incredible involvement of anya အညာ in the current revolution, we wanted to devote a few installments to understanding the area. This week two articles on the formation of anya and its people, with Myo Oo on colonial boundary making, and Michael Aung-Thwin’s conception of anya as heartland.

Myo Oo. “Making Anyatha (Upper Lander) and Auktha (Lower Lander): Crossing the Introduction of the Colonial Boundary System to British Burma (Myanmar),” Suvannabhumi 13.2 (July 2021):135-164.

Aung-Thwin, Michael. “Mranma Pran: When Context Encounters Notion”. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 39, no. 2 (June 2008): 193–217.

  • #32 (12 Sept 2022): – Political Economy during the BSPP

This fortnight features an article that conducts an efficient assessment of the BSPP’s socialist credentials. Authors Fenichel and Khan find a surprising amount of state absence for a so-called socialist state: “public ownership is largely absent in the dominant agricultural sector and does not affect about 80% of the labour force in industry” (821), which remained effectively in private hands. Outcomes for health and food security were not terrible, but perhaps this is because the state lacked ambition.

Fenichel, Allen, and Azfar Khan. “The Burmese way to ‘socialism’.” World Development 9.9-10 (1981): 813-824.

  • #31 (29 Aug 2022): Transethnicity” in Burma by Robinne and Sadan

François Robinne and Mandy Sadan, co-editors of a 2007 volume reappraising Edmund Leach’s Burma work, have a concluding essay that applies the concept of ‘transethnicity’ to Myanmar. They use the concept to destabilize the analytical primacy of the ethnolinguistic group through a pincer move wrought by two different scalar reorientations. First, they consider the broader social systems in which many ethnic groups interact (“transethnicity may refer to a somewhat arbitrarily defined area in which a social system exists, whatever may be the ethnic diversity of that area” (300), a reorientation which also allows them to get “below” the ethnic group to stress that often the relationships that matter “are not between ethnolinguistic subgroups, but between villagers and partners, whose exchanges and networks contribute to the establishment of social cohesion, albeit an unstable cohesion, in a multi-ethnic landscape” (304). And it’s only 11pp long, with a map!

Robinne, François and Mandy Sadan, “Postscript: Reconsidering the dynamics of ethnicity through Foucault’s concept of ‘spaces of dispersion’” in Robinne and Sadan eds Social dynamics in the highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering political systems of highland Burma by ER Leach. Brill, 2007.

  • #30 (22 August 2022): Sarkisyanz’s classic on Burmese Buddhist Biopolitics

Sarkisyanz traces the long history of “the royal ideal of a welfare state” (56) in Burma, from Ashokan influences, through Kyanzittha’s proclamations that “‘all the people … shall eat plenty of food, … shall enjoy happiness’” (50), to Mindon, who “refused to arm his forces with modern weapons in order not to be responsible for the destruction of life” (97). This lineage culminates, in Sark’s narrative, with the syncretic Marxist Thakins, but even more so in Nu, who eliminated the death penalty (221) and was seen by monks interviewed in 1959 as the “closest approximation to the ideal of the perfect Buddhist ruler in the Ashokan tradition” (226). Ultimately, Sarkisyanz attempts to adduce in this tradition an “aspiration to base the state on an ethical maximum” (236), although he does at least admit that the Ashokan ideal must contend with other models of kingship: “Against the background of ruthless power practices of numerous historic monarchs, the Bodhisattva ideal of kingship proved only a partial ideational foundation for the royal charisma” (80). Indeed, as a BSPP ideologue gloated after the 1962 coup, “U Nu’s government did not know ‘what it means to care for the people, far less capable of carrying out what little it knew …’  It was elected by a majority of the people. But: ‘Sometimes what a man desires to have is not what he actually needs … It happens that what a man desires is actually dangerous for him and for society. So also with nations …’” (234). The BSPP and the SPDC after it would endorse a form of “tough love” that would re-center the ruthless power imperatives of rule. Nu, it would appear, was just too soft (နု)…

Sarkisyanz, Emanuel. Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution, Springer, 1965.

  • #29 (8 August 2022): Burmanization (6 of ?) – Karen-ness in Insein

A Masters Thesis from 20 years ago by Yoon Ah Oh, which is an ethnography of Insein Karen experiences with their Karen-ness.

Oh, Yoon Ah. “Ethnic consciousness and allegiance to the state: Weak state, weak (ethnic) society and the question of dual loyalties in Myanmar.” MA Thesis, National U of Singapore, 2003.

  • #28 (1 August 2022) – A Radical Deconstruction of “Rakhine”

Since the protracted ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya (episodes in the 1950s, 1978, 1992-94, 2012, 2017) recently became an object of scholarly attention, the Rohingya’s standing as an ethnic group has generated intense scrutiny. The same attention, sadly, has not always been focused on other ethnic groups in Myanmar, resulting in the Rohingya appearing to be a “political” identity when the others are simply “natural.” The Rakhine, for instance, are often taken as existing since time immemorial. Kyaw Minn Htin’s PhD dissertation challenges that presumption, examining the historical processes of ethnogenesis that have led to the construction of the Rakhine. As he argues, “In the not-so-distant past, Burmese from Myanmar proper and Arakanese-speaking peoples themselves considered the Arakanese to be Myanmar (Mranmā) or ‘Burmese.’ In pre-colonial Arakan, these Arakanese speakers assumed various local identities depending on their place of dwelling, and it was in later colonial descriptions that the people who lived within the boundary of the map of Arakan were | collectively categorised as ‘Arakanese’” (13-4). This provocative thesis also includes arguments about the pre-colonial Muslim populations in Arakan (proto-Rohingya) and what happened to that identity after successive waves of in-migration from Chittagong during the colonial era.

Kyaw Minn Htin. “Where Mandalas Overlap: Histories, Identities, and Fates of the People from Arakan and South-Eastern Bangladesh.” Dissertation, National University of Singapore, 2017.

  • #27 (25 July 2022): Scholar Research and Development Journal, 2.1 (2011)

This week we feature a mostly Burmese language journal, devoted in this issue to study of village social life. See articles by Myat Thein, Mya Than, Maung Aung, Aung Ni Oo, Aung Aung Hlaing, and others.

  • #26 (18 July 2022): Sacrifice and the ah-zah-ni (အာဇာနည်)

Geoff Aung’s searching essay on the anti-coup rebellion from last year included a discussion of the ah-zah-ni, perhaps best translated as “martyr,” and a critical figure in Burma’s long history of resistance to authoritarianism, colonial or afterwards.

This week we feature some texts that sketch the contours of the ah-zah-ni. Nick Cheesman’s Master’s Thesis that covered school textbooks in Myanmar (featured in DC recently) discusses the ah-zah-ni (pp 215-18).

Houtman’s work, featured recently on DC for its treatment of Myanma-fication, is worth mentioning again, as it contains a discussion of the ah-zah-ni on pp 241-42.

The anthem kaba ma’ chay bu: (“The world is not fulfilled”), written by Naing Myanmar after the 1988 anti-government uprising ,contains the line ah-zah-ni dway nay de’ dain: pyi – “The country where the martyrs live.”. We include Min Zin’s essay (pp 225-26) for a discussion of the song.

Min Zin. “‘Kabar Ma Kyei’: Imagining the Nation through Songs,” Myanmar Affairs, number 1, October 2016.

  • #25 (11 July 2022): Burmanization (5 of ?) – Reflections on the Races Village

I’m particularly proud of this one, as it comes from a now-defunct but much-loved weekly journal published by our hard working friends at Pansodan Art Gallery between 2013 and 2014 (or thereabouts). Called Pansodan Arts and Culture Friday Journal, it featured ruminations on Myanmar society in both Burmese and English. We feature a dispatch by anthropologist Felix Girke on the much-maligned National Races Village in Thaketa. He finds, pace the conventional foreigner wisdom that the place is full of only lies and stereotypes, “more than meets the eye.”

Girke, Felix. “More to it than meets the eye: Visiting the National Races Village,” Pansodan Arts and Culture Friday Journal, 2013.

  • #24 (4 July 2022): we proceed with our on-going examination of education in Burma (see directly below for part 1), with two more texts. Cheesman, better known for his work on law in Myanmar, also has a Master’s Thesis on Myanmar educational curricula, where he looks “into the texture of text: its style, form, organisation, history and context, and not merely its contents” (2002:112). Then we have Brooke Treadwell’s 2013 dissertation that attends to how such texts are actually transmitted (by teachers) and received (by students). Her ethnography reveals, perhaps not surprisingly, that the state’s ideology was not transmitted through pliant mediators to docile recipients (see ch 5 and end of ch 4). ‘

Cheesman, Nick. “Legitimising the Union of Myanmar through primary school textbooks.” Master’s Dissertation, University of Western Australia, 2002.

Treadwell, Brooke. “Teaching citizenship under an authoritarian regime: A case-study of Burma/Myanmar,” PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, 2013.

  • #23 (27 June 2022): Education and Ideology in Myanmar’s Schools (Pt 1 of 2)

This week we have the first of a two-part series featuring analyses of Burma’s education system through the years. The first is Salem-Gervais and Metro’s examination of the changes in Myanmar’s school curricula from the BSPP period through the SPDC one. What is shocking is the amount of pruning of content on non-Bamar peoples. At one point the authors ask, acidly, “Since the national races are portrayed as being completely unified politically, one may begin to wonder what differentiates them at all” (2012:52).” Myo Oo compares two specific textbooks during the independence period, an era which he argues is understudied. He finds an apparent contradiction: the history book analyzed asserts that many ethnicities consolidated into a homogenous population in Myanmar; the civics book, by contrast, articulates liberal principles of governance that displace the importance of national identity.

Salem-Gervais, Nicholas, and Rose Metro. ‘‘A Textbook Case of Nation Building: The Evolution of History Curricula in Myanmar,’’ Journal of Burma Studies 16.1 (2012):27–78.

Myo Oo. “Nation-Building in Independent Myanmar: A Comparative Study of a History Textbook and a Civic Textbook.” Suvannabhumi 9.1 (2017):149-171

  • #22 (20 June 2022): The Rebel of Rangoon

This is one of the most underrated books on activism in Burma – not sure why it has not received more attention. Perhaps because the author is a journalist rather than a minted PhD, and hence the book did not make it onto the radar of academics? It’s a shame, because it is a fantastic account of activism under the regime and during the early transition period.

  • # 21 (13 June 2022): Burmanization (4 of ?) – Can’t spell “Miscegenation” without “nation”: Mixed Race Problems (ကပြားပြဿနာ)

Last week’s DC featured Nemoto’s complication of the Do-Bama (see here). We complement that article this week with a book from the same era, Pu Kalay’s Kabya Pyetthana (Mixed-Race Problems), which identifies the risk to the nation of miscegenation. While the title implies the perils of all racial intermixing, this book only zeroes in on the unions between Burmese and South Asians (the introduction by U Hla encourages a broader treatment in the future). Even with this narrow remit, when read deconstructively, kabya acts as a kind of diagnostic, throwing into relief the way that racial systems are understood by those who live in them (or at least write about them).

As long as we are on the theme of kabya, we might re-examine Deep Cuts #14, which featured the entire Burmese Lives volume. In there Ma Thida (Sanchaung) has an essay entitled “A Mixed Identity, a Mixed Career,” in which she discusses her own Shan / Chinese background and the way it becomes irrelevant for her as she thinks of herself “as a citizen of Burma, not as any ethnic nationality” (206). We might compare this with Sai Kheunsai (DC #12) who had a very different experience with his Shan-ness.

Pu Kalay. Kabya Pyet-thana [Mixed-race Problems]. Yangon: Prosperity, 1939 [Burmese]

  • #20 (6 June 2022): Burmanization (3 of ?) – Doh-Bama (တို့ဗမာ) and Thudo-bama (သူတို့ဗမာ)

Much historiography on Myanmar has taken the Doh-bama Asi-Ayoun (တို့ဗမာ အစည်းအရုံး) as an example of how a narrow Bamar nationalism suffused the country’s anti-colonial movement. But Kei Nemoto’s excellent article, appearing two decades ago in JoBS, destabilizes that conventional wisdom by suggesting that Doh-bama was more complex. Nemoto shows that “Bamar” for the Doh-bama had a different valence: it was a term that described all the peoples of Myanmar. The distinction that mattered was whether these Burmese people were aligned with the colonists (Thudo-Bama) or were working for Burmese independence (Doh-Bama).

Nemoto, Kei. “The Concepts of Dobama (Our Burma) and Thudo-Bama (Their Burma) in Burmese Nationalism, 1930–1948.’’ Journal of Burma Studies 5 (2000):1–16.

  • #19 (30 May 2022): Tattooing and the Body

The body in Burma is an understudied object (we introduced some discussions of it in DC #15). One of the ways to get at it is through the way it is adorned and how that connects with theories of apotropaic power. We include this week Tannenbaum’s classic on Shan (Tai) tattooing practices and how they relate to protection / enhancement of the body. Students of weikza ဝိ္ဇ္ဇာ, the Burmese wizard with supernatural powers, also explore the uses of the body in fascinating ways – give you Patton’s exploration of the way ingestion of sacred diagrams enhances potency, and Coderey’s ethnography of weikza healing practices in Arakan.

Tannenbaum, Nicola. “Tattoos: invulnerability and power in Shan cosmology.” American Ethnologist 14.4 (1987):693-711.

Patton, Thomas. “In pursuit of the sorcerer’s power: sacred diagrams as technologies of potency,” Contemporary Buddhism, 13.2 (2012):213-231.

Coderey, Céline. “Healing through Weikza: Therapeutic Cults in the Arakanese Context” in Benedicte Brac de Perrière, Guillaume Rozenberg, and Alicia Turner, eds. Champions of Buddhism: Weikza Cults in Contemporary Burma. NUS Press, 2014. 

  • #18 (23 May 2022): Burmanization (2 of ?): Holmes and Houtman

Where did “Burmanization,” as a term, come from? We think the first mention is in a 1967 article by Robert Holmes entitled “Burmese domestic policy: the politics of Burmanization.” But there the author took “Burmanization“ to mean the cleansing of specific ”foreign“ elements (Western, Chinese, and Indian capitalist) from the country after the 1962 military coup. In other words, “Burmanization“ was not used as a way to differentiate Bama from taingyintha, at least in this specific text.

Houtman’s might be the first published use. Although his contribution, to be fair, is not explicitly on Burmanization but on Myanmafication. And this is not just a semantic quibble – for his use of “Myanmafication” focuses on the SPDC’s attempt to create a new quasi-civil identity under the sign “Myanmar” (all while smuggling in Bama normativity). His towering book is not just on these issues, however, and must be engaged by all serious Burma Studies students for the arguments about mental culture and its relationship to politics.

Holmes, Robert. “Burmese domestic policy: the politics of Burmanization.” Asian Survey (1967): 188-197.

Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, ILCAA Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Monograph Series No. 33, 1999.

  • #17 (16 May 2022): A.L. Becker and Burmese linguistic analysis

In linguistic anthropology, there is a theory called “linguistic relativity” (often described through the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which never actually was advanced by either Sapir or Whorf, tbf) that holds that there is a recursive relationship between cognition/culture and language. Meaning that if your language is shaped a certain way, you will think about the world in a certain way; that if you and your kind think about the world in a certain way, your language may eventually come to reflect it. So, as an example, if your language has a strongly grammatically marked future tense, you may think about the future in different ways than languages that do not. Anyway, A.L. Becker’s obscure writings on Burmese language probably could be described as taking the ling relativity hypothesis too far, but they are nonetheless pretty fascinating as suggestion rather than science: compelling us to open up our eyes to the way that language may operate on thought.

Becker, A. L. “The elusive figures of Burmese grammar,” in William Foley ed, The Role of Theory in Language Description, Mouton de Gruyter: New York and Berlin, 1993.

______. “A linguistic image of nature: the Burmese numerative classifier system,” International journal of the sociology of language, 1975, 5, pp 109-122.

  • #16 (9 May 2022): Suvannabhumi, a SEA journal with mostly SEA contributors, featuring this week 4 articles by Burmese scholars

This week in DC we feature an entire journal! Some of you will roll your eyes – of course you’ve known about Suvannabhumi for years. Nonetheless, many do not know about it, and given recent discussions about decolonization of SEA (where decolonization is both a metaphor and material – which is actually repetitive, because metaphors are themselves material*), it seems relevant to feature a journal that publishes lots of Myanmar academics, and feature their work.

Included here are just some of the contributions by Burmese scholars in recent years: Kyaw Minn Htin’s study on the Marma, what he identifies as a “de-Arakanized” Chittagong Hill Tract Community; Zaw Lynn Aung’s study of the mahasammata model of Kingship in the Mrauk U period; and Myo Oo on conceptions of time, and how they intersected historically with social class and Buddhist traditions. Let this also act as a chance to hype future features of Myo Oo (on Anyatha) and KMT (on Rakhine identity) in coming weeks.

Kyaw Minn Htin. “The Marma from Bangladesh: A ‘de-Arakanized’ Community in Chittagong Hill Tracts”. Suvannabhumi 7.2 (December 2015):133-153.

Myo Oo. “New Calendar, Old Social Class, and Buddhist Tradition: A Case Study of Wekmasuk Wundauk U Latt and His Family Members,” Suvannabhumi 12.1 (Jan 2020).

Zaw Lynn Aung. “Study on Mahāsammata Model of Kingship in Mrauk U Period(1430-1784)Suvannabhumi 7.2

  • #15 (2 May 2022): Gender in Burmese Politics

Given the way that women have been at the forefront of the revolution, and that feminine power has been weaponized in interesting ways in the htamein protests, the intersection of gender and politics is a particularly relevant topic today. With apologies to the many other important texts on gender in Myanmar that we hope to get to at some point, we give you Spiro’s hard-to-find chapter on a village perspective on the danger of women’s sexuality, one we counterpoise with Chie Ikeya’s exploration of P Monin’s progressive (if bourgeois) ideas about sex. We have Tharaphi Than’s book on women in Burma, one that examines a number of interesting political positions held by women across history, including the role of woman soldiers; Jenny Hedström’s more recent work reveals how Kachin women provide emotional, physical, and material labour to support their autonomy efforts. Finally, Chu May Paing argues that Buddhist nationalist desires are mediated through the female body and its reproductive potential. And a bonus: for a related text that features women’s voices in political revolution, see our very first Deep Cuts, here.

Chu May Paing. “In Need of Daughters of Good Lineage: Placing Gender in Myanmar’s Buddhist Nationalist Discourse.” Journal of Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (2020):42-52.

Hedström, Jenny. “The political economy of the Kachin revolutionary household.” The Pacific Review 30.4 (2017): 581-595.

Ikeya, Chie. “Talking sex, making love: P. Moe Nin and intimate modernity in colonial Burma” in Modern Times in Southeast Asia, 1920s-1970s, Susie Protschky, Tom van den Berge, and Timothy P. Barnard, eds. Leiden: Brill (2018).

Spiro, Melford. “Sexual Components in Marriage” from Kinship and marriage in Burma: a cultural and psychodynamic analysis. Univ of California Press, 1977.

Tharaphi Than. Women in modern Burma. Routledge, 2013.

  • #14 (25 April 2022): ပွဲစား Pwe-sa studies

This week we feature Benedicte Brac de la Perriere’s wonderful gem of an essay on “Lay Lay,” a pwe-sa (broker) in Yangon. Through an ethnography of Lay Lay’s life, in which she acts as a go-between for various enterprises and schemes, we learn how this ubiquitous but understudied social role functions. In the end, when Lay Lay turns to political activism, we see the similarities between economic and political pwe-sa. (And I can confirm that Lay Lay indeed became a social activist, as I actually met her in my own research on contentious politics in Myanmar!) Izzy Rhoads likewise explores the pwe-sa in her article in the recent Kyed edited volume (see here for e-book download). Rhoads shows that pwe-sa are not simply market-facilitators, but their significant market experience and superior access to information makes them effective justice brokers as well, in which they serve as “primary arbiter[s] in housing-related dispute settlement[s]” (284). On this theme, we will also throw a plug for Kristina Simion’s Rule of Law Intermediaries: Brokering Influence in Myanmar (Cambridge University Press, 2021). It’s a bit too soon after publication to just brazenly throw the entire PDF up on the site, so it will have to stay just a shout out. But her work also looks at the pwe-sa figure, also in the realm of the law. Also, one last quick thing: there are a number of other gorgeous articles in this much ignored volume Burmese Lives in which Brac de la Perriere’s essay lives, so I’ve decided to upload the whole book (minus Boutry’s article, which i couldn’t get to download. See his tribute page as a consolation).

Brac de la Perriere, Benedicte. “A Woman of Mediation” in Wen-Chin Chang and Eric Tagliacozzo, eds. Burmese lives: ordinary life stories under the Burmese regime. Oxford University Press, 2014, pp 71-82.

Rhoads, Elizabeth. “Informal ‘Justice’ Brokers: Navigating Property Transactions in Yangon.” in Helene Kyed, ed. Everyday Justice in Myanmar. NIAS press, 2020.

Simion, Kristina. Rule of Law Intermediaries: Brokering Influence in Myanmar. Cambridge University Press, 2021.