Category Archives: Myanmar

Paris 2019. Lectures, Conference, Keynote

Conférences de Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz), Professeure invitée de l’EHES, Chaire sécable de l’Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman
 

1. The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan

In this talk, I offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data. Drawing on a decade of anthropological fieldwork and engagement with Central Asia, I will focus on describing how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history by invoking the force of custom (Kyrgyz: ‘salt’).
Although ‘salt’ is often blamed for bringing about more disorder and hardship than order and harmony, as I will exemplify with the example of mortuary rituals, it allows my informants to disavow responsibility for their actions by pushing a model of ‘how things get done here’ to the front. Invoking ‘salt’ enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture. An ethnomethodological perspective, as I pursue it, challenges a conception of social order as hidden within the visible actions and behaviours of members of society. Rather, it examines how members produce and sustain the observable orderliness of their own actions.

  • Le 12 mars 2019 de 16h à 18h – Université Paris-Nanterre, Département d’anthropologie, salle E105, 200, avenue de la République, 92001 Nanterre

2. The arrival of the Indian Other. On classifying minorities in Burma

Migrants from India have arrived in Burma from pre-colonial times onwards up until the Second World War. They crossed the Bay of Bengal out of personal economic endeavours, but having been categorized collectively by the British colonial state already before they embarked on the steamships to Rangoon, their collective identities travelled with them. Next to looking for work, other migrants relocated there to make use of parcels of land that were given to them as a reward for their services in the colonial apparatus or in the Indian army; yet others took up positions in the higher echelons of the administration in Burma. These people entered a Buddhist polity that had been shaped by centuries of hierarchical modes of royal governance – one which included Muslims and other ethno-religious minorities. This talk traces the different types of classifications and reclassifications that were projected onto and subsequently appropriated by ‘Indian migrants’ in order to shed light on the current situation of ethno-religious minorities in contemporary Myanmar, particularly in the city of Yangon.

Dans le cadre du Séminaire “Dialogues entre recherches classiques et actuelles sur l’Asie du Sud-Est

  • Le 14 mars 2019 de 10h à 12h – EHESS, SR 737, 54, boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris

3. Accountability and justice in asylum claims. Debating the issue of Rohingya statelessness in British courts.

Accountability is a reflexive technique by means of which actors realize and lay claim to their actions. In order to be recognizable, accountability “depends on the mastery of ethno-methods” (Giddens 1979: 57; 83). If, as Garfinkel put it, “[a]ny setting organizes its activities to make its properties as an organized environment of practical activities detectable, countable, recordable, repeatable, tell-a-story-aboutable, analysable – in short, accountable” (1967, 33; italics in original), then so-called ‘screening interviews’ in asylum cases of stateless Rohingya are a challenge to this principle as they are defined by non-knowledge about the other. When UK border agents and Rohingya meet, their ‘membership’, which forms the basis of all co-production of action (and knowledge) in ethnomethodology, needs to be established ad hoc in the interview situation. What we can learn from those ‘first contact’ encounters and the subsequent travelling of a Rohingya asylum seeker’s file through the court system, is, I argue, how accountability is constantly being produced through interaction and how, as an important by-product of this production process, not only a ‘case’ is decided, but also the validity of the state’s own account is rendered plausible.

Dans le cadre de la conférence co-organisée par Yazid Ben Hounet et Judith Beyer “Claiming Justice after Conflict: The Stateless, the Displaced and the Disappeared at the Margins of the State”

  • Le 15 mars 2019 de 10h15 à 11h15 – FMSH, Salle A3-50, 54 Bd Raspail 75006 Paris

4. On little and grand narratives in Central Asia

In this keynote speech, I engage with the conference topic of “challenging” and even “disturbing” “Grand Narratives” through an investigation of the tradition of orality and the usage of oral history in Central Asia. These are two interlinked endeavours, as oral tradition has been investigated “as history” (Vansina) and oral history understood as “the voice from the past” (Thompson). Anthropologists (of Central Asia) investigate tradition as “a site of necessary engagement that aggregates people, … informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – affectively powerful” (Beyer and Finke forth. in Central Asian Survey). Examples from Central Asia show how “oral tradition”, especially when mediated by state and media apparatus, can take on “grand narrative” qualities. Moreover, in contrast to how oral history has been treated in the past, namely as history “from below”, of “the everyday” and by “the little guys” (Graeber), thus as “little narrative”, as I will call it, it is worth exploring in what ways this method of ethnographic and historical inquiry has the capacity to yield “grand” results.

Dans le cadre de la Conférence “CASIO 2.0 : Disturbing Grand Narratives” organisée par l’EHESS et ZMO (Berlin).

  •  Le 28 mars 2019 de 10h à 12h – PSL, Salle du Conseil, 60, Rue Mazarine, 75006 Paris.

Making sense of …

Communal sense. The making of ethno-religious selves and others in Myanmar

I am going to present my ongoing work on Myanmar at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz on December 6, 2018 at 5pm (Bischofsvilla, Otto-Adam Str. 5).

In my presentation I will give an overview of my book manuscript which is based on ethnographic data I collected over several long stretches of fieldwork between 2013 and 2018. The focus of my book lies on critically reinvestigating the category of ‘community’ in light of new material from Southeast Asian Myanmar. My study is geographically situated in Yangon, a fast expanding metropolis and the home of various ethno-religious minorities whose ancestors built the city when they were shipped across the Bay of Bengal by the British colonial forces in the 19th century. My informants, who are Hindus and Muslims, are often referred to as “Indians” in the literature or simply “Blacks” by the local Burmese population, but in their self-understanding, they are the true founders of Yangon. My interest lies in understanding how, in a local context of imperialism and ethno-religious nationalism, these people organize themselves as ‘members’ of groups that perform and are recognized by others as ‘communities’.

My theoretical aim in this book, and my contribution to wider anthropological and sociological debates, is to develop an alternative angle towards the category of ‘community’ that focuses on how and when exactly a collective ‘We’ emerges. In the social sciences the process of we-making has so far been analysed only as a by-product of the process by which ‘Theys’ are created (Appadurai 2006: 50). The concept of communal sense, which I am putting forward in my book, focuses instead on the successful establishing of community as an effect of we-intentionality (Walther 1923) which become ethnographically observable in moments of communitas, in the articulation of common sense and in the material anchoring of common goods.

Going back to Paris …

In the middle of my ongoing sabbatical, there is some light at the end of the (writing) tunnel:

I will be going back to Paris for a month, almost exactly a year after my last one-month stay.

From March 11 until April 11 I will be staying again at the Maison Suger, writing my book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar. My host this time will be the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman and I will be invited as a Professeure invitée together with other international scholars.

My task is to give a series of four lectures which I will focus thematically on the roles of Muslims in Asia, most generally. One presentation will be directly on my new Myanmar project, the second will be on legal pluralism in Central Asia. The third is a keynote I was invited to give in the frame of a conference on “Grand Narratives in Central Asia” in which I will focus on the role of oral history. The final lecture will be a first attempt to bridge to my newest project which aims at investigating the issue of statelessness in Europe, working with case material concerning Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar who are applying for asylum in the UK.

For the official press release of the University of Konstanz see here.

 

 

Facebook withdrawal symptoms

I had thought about it repeatedly. I had deleted the app from my phone several times, only to reinstall it at a later stage. I had opened a second account for “work purposes” and kept the first for family pictures. Turned out, my family is too much anthropology and my work too familiar. Then came the time of personalised ads and whatever I had googled reappeared as an advertisement on the sidebar – and later as a video “suggestion” in the middle of my feed. During my month in Paris I once watched a French baking show. Since then, my account got spammed with cake videos.

What also changed was the tone and style of many posts. Facebook became more political – which in theory is good – but it got political in a bad way where I noticed more and more people simply screaming at each other. The pictures became crueler, too, the trigger warnings more frequent, the hate more direct, and the frustrations multiplied: academic precarity, genocide in Southeast Asia, the clown in the White House, the National Right allover Europe. Posts on these utterly depressing topics were interspersed with cat videos and other moments of cuteness. As if watching Panda babies rolling down a hill would make it all go away. It not only felt increasingly surreal, it was bullshit.

I remember while I finished my PhD (2009), I harvested strawberries on Facebook every day. They were ripe after three hours. Other fruit and vegetables took longer. I think I spent an average of 3-5 hours daily in the FarmVille app. I now wonder how much faster I would have finished the PhD had I not played. I was not the only one – half of the doctoral candidates I knew at the time were virtual farmers. It was unclear which labour felt more unreal: sowing words or sowing seeds.

Facebook also became part of my fieldwork in unforeseen ways. In Myanmar, the mobile phone market is among the fastest growing worldwide. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook IS the internet. The police looks for their villains by posting on Facebook, the monks preach online, the government publishes official announcements there first. Hate speech, fake news, ad hominem attacks amongst academics – all happening in and regarding Myanmar.

But there are positive sides, too: Facebook has been the fastest way to stay in touch with informants, find new people and fix appointments. Everyone is online. When I could not attend an important mourning procession in fall 2017 as I was not fit to fly to Yangon due to a sinus infection, my informants positioned themselves with their cell phones at different parts of the event and “recorded live”. Laying on the sofa, I “stood” in the middle of a flagellation ritual and could chat parallely with another informant who watched from further up the road while taking notes of what I saw on the screen, saving videos others were putting up of the same event. I am still processing what kind of data I generated that day.

So Facebook has been amazing. To stay in touch with friends and colleagues, to network and organize, to lobby and advertise (Allegra Lab! Go check it out!). But while there has always been the good, the bad and the ugly about it, the ugly seems to have increased in the last year.

I am also under intense time pressure now and should no longer be sowing likes and harvesting hearts. I got a book to finish and while Facebook is an immense data accumulator and this data easily harvested, there is just no time to properly preserve the fruits thus gathered. And winter is coming.

So I am weaning myself off. I harvested email-addresses of all those with whom I was connected only via messenger up to date. To not lose contact, to remain in each other’s lives. It will be more difficult, no doubt, and less colorful and likeable, but if I manage, it will also feel less intrusive and nose-pokey as I often felt when “following” people…

So I have saved all my data, said goodbye, and deleted the account. Facebook’s policy is to keep all data still available for a period of 14 days. If you log in again within this time frame, the account is back up and you are back in. I have – subconsciously – already opened the page three or four times in the last 24 hours. It’s not only a habit. It’s an addiction.

I am using twitter and Instagram as methadone. So if you see me on Facebook, kick me out, gently, but kick me out.

Yesterday I went harvesting strawberries again – in real life.

Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On community and the problem with ‘communal violence’ – Talk in Paris.

During my upcoming stay in Paris, I will be giving several lectures, the first one taking place at the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman. Come join me!

March 6, 17h-19h – Salle des étudiants. 1er étage, 96 bd Raspail 75006 Paris.

Organized  by:  Séminaire de l’équipe « Anthropologie comparative des sociétés  et cultures musulmanes » (LAS)

In my talk, I take the example of Muslim communities in Yangon, the former capital of Southeast Asian Myanmar, in order to investigate the various groups’ strategic useage of their religious property (mosques and graveyards) as a form of material, symbolic and political capital. I argue that it is through their religious property that Muslims in Yangon make claims to their right of existence as communities in the public sphere. They thereby manage to fend off both the Buddhist majority, the state and private investors. In a time of increasing ethnonationalism, which results in the destruction of mosques and the writing of discriminatory laws against religious Others, property becomes part and parcel of these communities’ survival strategies. While the creation of ‘communities’ along ethno-religious lines had been part and parcel of colonial and post-colonial state-making, some communities who understand themselves in this way or have come to present themselves in this way, are now being pushed to the very margins of their own society and their own country. Some of them have been denied not only citizenship, but with it the right to exist and their name to even be mentioned. However, religious minorities were among the first inhabitants of Yangon in the 19th century. Burma, as the country was called formerly, had been part of the British Empire during the colonial period of 1824-1948 and was under colonial legislation of British India. Muslims were brought to the country from India in 1840. They worked in the colonial administration, as soldiers or as unskilled workers on the shipping docks. Around 1880, Burma became the third largest destination for Indian workers worldwide. This lecture questions the contemporary portrayal of communities in the country in terms of  ‘communal violence’ only. It traces the historical development of the ‘community’ concept from British colonial times to the contemporary era. Using ethnographic fieldwork data gathered between 2013 and 2018 as well as textual data, legal documents and other sources, I explore why the current invocation of  ‘the Muslim community’ has made living together in Myanmar more difficult.

Bibliography:

Amrith, Sunil. 2013. Crossing the bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2009. Community. Seeking safety in an insecure world. Polity.

Cheesman, Nick (ed.) 2017. Interpreting communal violence in Myanmar. Special Issue of Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Freitag, Sandria. 1989. Collective action and community. Public arenas and the emergence of communalism in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2005 [1887]. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Yegar, Moshe The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972

Saints in politics. On imaginaries of power, gender and the dilemma of Aung San Suu Kyi

This week I published a post in openDemocracy on Myanmar and its “State Counsellor” Aung San Suu Kyi that focuses not on the horrific situation we are currently observing from the safety of our screens, but on our own expectations and imaginaries that we have regarding leader-figures in general and female politicians in particular:

Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi. 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

“In the case of Myanmar, we are in danger of reducing a complicated reality to an imaginary that we try to bring into being through sheer desire. We attribute the qualities required to make change possible to a person who is then expected to be both saintly and powerful. That person is thus saddled with the impossible task of doing what is morally just, while at the same time acting strategically in order to maintain the power required for any sort of political action.”

In the article I further list three reasons why Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has become a burden to her and argue that when we are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi to both embody the state and continue to ‘do the right thing’ we delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto politicians who have no intention of embodying them.

Read the full article here.