Category Archives: crisis

We-formation. Reflections on methodology, the military coup attempt and how to engage with Myanmar today. Lecture in Paris, 16 May 2023

In this invited lecture, I will discuss my concept of “we-formation” in regard to three different topics: First, as anthropological theory and methodology; Second, as a way to make sense of the resistance against the attempted military coup and third in regard to the possibility of a public anthropology of cooperation in these trying times.

First, I will explore the concept in regard to its theoretical and methodological innovativeness, taking an example from my Yangon ethnography as illustration. We-formation, I argue in my book Rethinking community in Myanmar. Practices of we-formation among Muslims and Hindus in urban Yangon, “springs from an individual’s pre-reflexive self-consciousness whereby the self is not (yet) taken as an intentional object” (8). The concept encompasses individual and intersubjective routines that can easily be overlooked” (20), as welll as more spectacular forms of intercorporeal co-existence and tacit cooperation.

By focusing on individuals and their bodily practices and experiences, as well as on discourses that do not explicitly invoke community but still centre around a we, we-formation sensitizes us to how a sense of we can emerge (Beyer 2023: 20).

Second, I will put my theoretical and methodological analysis of we-formation to work and offer an interpretation of why exactly the attempted military coup of 1 February 2021 is likely to fail (given that the so-called ‘international community’ does not continue making the situation worse). In the conclusion of my book I argue that the “generals’ illegal power grab has not only ended two decades of quasi-democratic rule, it has also united the population in novel ways. As an unintended consequence, it has opened up possibilities of we-formation and enabled new debates about the meaning of community beyond ethno-religious identity” (250).

Third, I will discuss how (not) to cooperate with Myanmar today. Focusing on what is already happening within the country and amongst Burmese activists in exile, but also what researchers of Myanmar from the Global North can do within their own countries of origin to make sure the resistance does not lose momentum. In this third aspect, I take we-formation out of its intercorporeal and pre-reflexive context in which I came to develop the concept during my fieldwork in Yangon and employ it to stress a type of informed anthropological action that, however, does not rely on having a common enemy or on gathering in a new form of ‘community’ that has become reflexive of itself. Rather, it aims at encouraging everyone to think of one’s own indidivual strengths, capabilities and possibilities and put them to work to support those fighting for a free Myanmar.

You can purchase my book on the publisher’s website: NIAS Press.

Here’s the full programme of the Groupe Recherche Birmanie for the spring term 2023:

“Rethinking community in Myanmar. Practices of We-Formation among Muslims and Hindus in Urban Yangon” (NIAS Press 2023) has arrived!

‘Community’, I argue in my new anthropological monograph, was actively turned into a category for administrative purposes during the time of British imperial rule. It has been put to work to divide people into ethno-religious selves and others ever since.

Rather than bestowing on community some sort of positivist reality or deconstructing the category until nothing is left, my aim in this book is to shift the angle of approach: I acknowledge that community (for reasons that can usually be traced historically) feels real to and is meaningful for individuals. Their experiences and their struggles to engage with community are no less real. Through their own classificatory practices, my interlocutors — Muslims and Hindus in urban Yangon — demonstrate that they reason and reflect on symbols and meanings in their own culture as much as anthropologists do. But my approach goes beyond a social constructivist concern over how terms such as community are used, and also beyond a representational approach in which actors are subjected to culture as a system of meaning.

When I talk about the work of community (drawing on Nancy 2015), I reflect on the ways in which individuals accommodate ‘community’ in their acts of reasoning, meaning-making and symbolization. The way my interlocutors in Yangon see and talk about themselves has a historical context that begins in nineteenth-century England, encompasses British colonial India and later Burma itself, and extends into presentday
Myanmar. I then widen the emic perspective of my interlocutors and offer a novel way of describing how a we that does not neatly map onto or overlap with a homogeneous social group is generated in various situations.

What I call we-formation encompasses individual and intersubjective routines that can easily be overlooked, as well as more spectacular forms such as the intercorporeal aspects of the ritual march I described earlier. Attending to such sometimes minute moments of co-existence or tacit cooperation is difficult, but doing so can help us understand how community continues to have such an impact on the everyday lives of our interlocutors, not to mention on our own analytical ways of thinking about sociality.

By focusing on individuals and their bodily practices and experiences, as well as on discourses that do not explicitly invoke community but still centre around a we, we-formation sensitizes us to how a sense of we can emerge .

You can purchase the book on the publisher’s website: NIAS Press.

New blog post: Statelessness, expert activists and the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ for the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) Blog Series

I published a new blog post for the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) Blog Series of the University of Melbourne.

I describe and analyse a central characteristic of many ‘expert activists’ working in the field of statelessness: they struggle with what I call a ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’. Despite the fact that they often do cross disciplinary boundaries and fields of practice in combining scholarly and activist work, they position themselves on one side of an imagined divide. Drawing on Gramsci, I argue that the ‘practitioner-scholar dilemma’ originates in the way the state system structures the very possibilities of engagement with the issue of statelessness. I credit one newly emerging group of expert activists with the possibility to overcome this dilemma…

The article is accessible online on the CSS Blog serie’s website.

New publication: The common sense of expert activists

I published a new research article in Dialectical Anthropology as part of a (still forthcoming) special issue on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “common sense”, co-edited by Jelena Tošić and Andreas Streinzer. The special issue will also feature an afterword by anthropologist Prof. Kate Crehan, an established Gramsci scholar and an important guiding voice during the virtual workshop that Jelena and Andreas organized and afterwards when we circulated our draft papers.

In the article, I follow a group of professionals in their efforts to address the problem of statelessness in Europe. My interlocutors divide the members of their group into “practitioners,” on the one hand, and “scholars” on the other. Relating this emic dichotomization to Antonio Gramsci’s dialectical take on common sense, I argue against a theoretical reductionism that regards expertise and activism as two essentially different and mostly separate endeavors, and put forward the concept of the “expert activist.” Unpacking what I call the “practitioner–scholar dilemma,” I show that in their effort to end statelessness, “practitioners” take a reformist route that aims at realizing citizenship for the stateless, while “scholars” are open to a more revolutionary path that contemplates the denaturalization and even the eradication of the state. By drawing on Gramsci, I suggest that the impasse the group encounters in their work might relate more to the structural constraints imposed by the state within or against which they operate than to the problem of statelessness they are trying to solve.

My article contributes to a body of emergent work in anthropology that explores the intersection of scholarly expertise and activism. It is also the first article that I am writing on the topic of statelessness, drawing on my new fieldwork data that includes written observations, photographs, the recording and subsequent transcription of free-flowing conversations, oral presentations and speeches, journal entries, and textual documents, all obtained from participating in workshops, conferences, and policy briefings in various European settings such as universities in the UK, museums, and event spaces in The Hague and at the European Youth Centre and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

My ethnographic research is ongoing and involves in-person and online attendance at thematic webinars on the topic of statelessness, in annual stakeholder meetings, and the launching of new reports and other publications.

I am particularly interested in receiving feedback from the people I have been working with as I continue researching the topic of expert activism and statelessness in Europe.

The article is currently accessible through open access on the journal’s website.

Myanmar 10 Monate nach dem Putsch und die Situation der Rohingya – für ARD alpha

Mit Tilman Seiler habe ich mich nun schon zum zweiten Mal über die Widerstandsbewegung in Myanmar unterhalten, die sich nach dem Militärputsch vom 1. Februar 2021 im ganzen Land gebildet hat. Er fragte, wie erfolgreich diese sei, wie fest im Sattel die “Putschregierung” sitzen würde und auch, was von der Ankündigung des Militärs zu halten sei, es werde Neuwahlen geben nachdem Min Aung Hlaing die im November 2020 stattgefundenen Parlamentswahlen für ungültig erklärt hatte. Meine Prognosen sind realistisch, also recht düster.

Ein zweites Thema betraf die Situation der Rohingya im weltgrößten Flüchtlingscamp in Bangladesh. Hier wollte Herr Seiler wissen, wie die Regierung des angrenzenden Nachbarstaats mit den Geflüchteten umgehen würde und auch, was die internationale Weltgemeinschaft tun könne, um die mittlerweile 1,5 Millionen Rohingya zu unterstützen. Ich berichtete von den laufenden Plänen Bangladeshs, circa 100.000 Rohingya auf die eine vorgelagerte künstliche Insel in der Bengalischen See zu verlagern und sagte auch, dass dies im großen Fall gegen den Willen der Menschen dort geschehe.

Darüber hinaus erinnerte ich daran, dass vor allem im Fall staatenloser Geflüchteter wir “bei uns vor der Haustür” mit der Unterstützung beginnen können, nämlich indem man das eigene Asylsystem reformiert, welches bei Staatenlosen in den meisten Fällen immer noch unzureichend greift: Menschen, die keine offiziellen Dokumente zu ihrer Identifikation vorweisen können, haben es hier besonders schwer.

Das zehnminütige Gespräch ist in der ARD alpha-Mediathek zu finden.

Staatsterror in Myanmar. Neuer Artikel für “Blätter”

Zusammen mit Felix Girke habe ich einen neuen Artikel zum Thema “Staatsterror in Myanmar” für Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik verfasst.

Darin diskutieren wir wer die zivile Widerstandsbewegung Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) trägt, was deren Ziele sind und warum sie auch angesichts des zunehmenen Terrors seitens des Militärs nicht aufgibt.

Wir setzen die aktuelle soziale Bewegung in Bezug zu früheren Protest- und Widerstandsbewegungen und gehen bis in die Kolonialzeit des Landes zurück. Neben der zentralen Bedeutung von Aung San für die Unabhängigkeitsbewegung der 1920ger und 1930ger Jahre machen wir deutlich, dass in allen Jahrzehnten die Bewegungen vor allem von Studierenden getragen wurden.

Der Verfassung von 2008 widmen wir besondere Aufmerksamkeit, denn nur über sie konnte das Militär auch in den vergangenen Jahren in einer zunehmend demokratischen und offenen Gesellschaft weiterhin die Macht auf sich zentrieren und letztendlich durch ein Uminterpretieren einer Ausnahmeklausel, wieder an sich reissen.

Wir sehen die gesetzten Ziele der CDM als Herkulesaufgabe an, die vor allem von den Menschen im Land zu stemmen sein wird, da die internationalen Organe wie die Vereinten Nationen zunehmend lethargisch reagieren, vor allem mit China und Russland als Vetomächten. Angesichts des zunehmenden Terrors, der sich nicht nur gegen Demonstrierende, sondern auch Unbeteiligte wie Frauen und Kinder richtet, werden die Rufe der Bevölkerung nach Intervention aus dem Ausland immer lauter.

Radiointerview für Saarländischer Rundfunk. SR2 Kulturradio

Rund acht Wochen nach dem Militärputsch findet der zivile Widerstand auf den Straßen von Myanmar vor allem in der Nacht statt – und auch in den sozialen Medien. Ich habe mit SR-Politikredakteurin und Moderatorin Katrin Aue über die Lage vor Ort gesprochen. Das Interview findet sich unter dem Titel “Die Menschen wollen nicht in einer Militärdiktatur leben“.

Radio Interview for rbb/inforadio

This morning I was interviewed for the German radio station rbb/inforadio on the ongoing state of exception in Myanmar. In the feature “Vom Militär verhängter Ausnahmezustand in Myanmar” I was asked to talk about how the crisis affects me personally as a scholar, but I tried to emphasize what I find most striking in the way the population deals with the emergency: I continue to be deeply impressed by their determination to remain on the streets and to fight the military regime despite the increase in violence. I have clearly stated that all military operations are most likely mounting to crimes against humanity and go against international humanitarian law.

The reporter asked about the possibility for mediation and I stated very clearly that the population of Myanmar would consider this a betrayal to their cause as none of them is willing to enter into negotiations with the military regime. Instead, it is of utmost importance for Germany, for the EU and the UN to not legitimize the military-imposed “State Administration Council” (SAC). Instead, I emphasized that Germany should grant political asylum to individuals who are in danger of persecution, that communication should be established with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), that the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) should be supported as well as local journalists who are currently risking their lives in reporting the atrocities.

You can read a short summary and listen to the interview on “Vom Militär verhängter Ausnahmezustand in Myanmar“on the radio’s website.

Myanmar — das Ende der Demokratie? Interview für ARD alpha-Demokratie

Am 02. März 2021 war Myanmar das Thema der Sendung ARD alpha-Demokratie. Ich war als Expertin zugeschaltet und habe Fragen zur aktuellen zivilen Widerstandsbewegung (CDM) beantwortet, aber auch zu ökonomischen, sozialen und (geo-)politischen Hintergründen, sowie zur Rolle der Staatsrätin Aung San Suu Kyi.

Die Sendung “Myanmar — das Ende der Demokratie?” ist online.

On atrocities committed by the Myanmar military on Feb 28. For Al Jazeera English.

I spoke to Al Jazeera again after what turned out to be the deadliest day in Myanmar since the coup d’êtat on Feb 1st, 2021. They wanted to know how activists in Myanmar coordinate with others in the region and I explained what the “Milk Tea Alliance” is.

I was also very clear about the need for action beyond statements of “grave concern” from the international community and that people in the streets in Myanmar expect more from the outside world.

For more updates on the situation in Myanmar, please follow my twitter threads.