Category Archives: Myanmar

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.

Workshop: Divergent resource claims in plural ecologies. Case studies from Southeast Asia

Workshop 6–8 July 2017
Institute for Advanced Study, Konstanz.

Organized by Judith Beyer (University of Konstanz) and Birgit Bräuchler (Monash University)

In this workshop, we intend to investigate divergent claims to resource access, thereby furthering our common interest in plural ecologies across Southeast Asia. Following Ribot and Peluso’s Theory of Access (2003), we define access to resources as the “ability to derive benefits from things – including material objects, persons, institutions, and symbols” (2003:153). Access to natural resources (such as land, water, mineral resources) is always legitimized, negotiated, defended, and denied through the recourse to cultural resources.

Cultural resources include economic (markets, infrastructure, etc.), political (legitimation discourses about civil rights, ethnicity, indigeneity cultural heritage, etc.), and religious (traditional knowledge, cosmology, etc.) forms of power and influence. In social-political practice, natural and cultural resources never appear separately but are always intertwined, and, to a certain extent, interdependent. Competition for and claims to resources is decisive since privileged access and the inclusion of a particular group usually involves the exclusion or neglect of others (see Hall, Hirsch, & Li 2011: 8, 13; Adhuri 2009).

We here consider the concepts of majority, minority, and indigeneity as political constructs functioning at the interface of local identity claims, traditional resource demands, the enforcement of national laws, and internationally promoted human rights. The “right to culture” is central in the recent development of collective human rights (see, for example, Francioni & Scheinin, 2008; Stamatopoulou, 2007) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007). Among others, it concerns the granting of long denied access to resources and promotes the advancement of group-specific rights on a national level, which is fostered by an increasing number of decentralization and demo- cratization processes in Southeast Asia and does not go undisputed as it leads to the exclusion of non-group members (compare e.g., F. v. Benda-Beckmann & K. von Benda-Beckmann, 2010; Kymlicka & Norman, 2000; Rosaldo, 2003; Taylor, 1994; Young, 1989). In debates on minority and indigeneity the question is whether it is justified to grant specific rights to individuals or groups within a state for historic reasons (see, in particular, Barnard, 2006; Bohnet & Höher, 2004; Guenther et al, 2003; Preece, 2005). Again, this implies a close interlinkage of political, cultural and natural resources.

What is of special interest for this workshop is how such ambivalences and contestations between local, national and international rights and claims inform ecological policies and power struggles at the respective levels. Given the rising demand for cultural rights and the plurality of ecologies within and across countries in Southeast Asia, a regional comparison would shed
new light on debates about diverging normative orders, the translation of individual and collective human rights, and the (sustainable) management of a broad range of resources.

For a full programme of the workshop see here.



Doing Fieldwork in Myanmar

On April 1, 2016 I co-organized a one-day research workshop on “Doing fieldwork in Myanmar”  with Dr. Felix Girke and the anthropology department of the University of Yangon. The event brought together 24 participants from Myanmar and German-speaking countries. Eleven PhD and MA students presented first findings from their on-going anthropological fieldwork in the country. The topics ranged from labour and migration to religion, livelihood, and cultural heritage ( see the final programme ). A major focus rested on questions of method and fieldwork practice. The students debated challenges and obstacles that they experienced while carrying out their research. More senior scholars guided them in further developing the conceptual frameworks of their studies.

After fifty years of authoritarianism, Myanmar has only recently become accessible for foreign researchers again. These students are thus on the forefront of a new generation of anthropologists carrying out long-time qualitative research in this Southeast Asian country. The University of Yangon itself had been off limits for most foreigners until 2014.

In our effort to bring about a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Konstanz in Germany and the University of Yangon in Myanmar, this workshop was an important first step towards  more institutionalized collaboration and academic exchange.

Yangon, Myanmar

DSC02209First impressions from Yangon, Myanmar where I will be based until May 2016. The city has changed a lot in the last two years since I visited, mostly in terms of transportation and mobile phone use. What has remained the same are the great street food eateries, the use of loudspeakers to convey religious messages, lottery ticket sales and other important or not-so-important events. I missed the people a lot and its great to find almost everyone in good health and spirits. Nothing beats fieldwork, really! J. DSC02350DSC02219DSC04064DSC03713DSC03679DSC03683DSC02229DSC02211DSC03736DSC02138