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.
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.
Wer sind die Menschen, die zur Zeit in Myanmar auf die Straße gehen, um gegen den Militärputsch vom 01. Februar 2021 zu protestieren? In einem Radiointerview mit Radio Eins rbb in deren Reihe “Die Profis” (“Die Sendung mit der Maus für Erwachsene”), bei der es vor allem um Stimmen aus der Wissenschaft geht, erkläre ich “Wer in Myanmar protestiert“, sowie weitere Hintergründe der aktuellen Situation in Myanmar und was die “internationale Gemeinschaft” tun kann, um die Menschen zu unterstützen.
In this post I highlight a special dynamic linking the different generations within the ongoing protest movement in Myanmar: The current protests combine the experiences the older generation has had under decades of military rule with the digital know-how of the younger generation that grew up during a decade of partial democratic freedom.
For many years, resistance to the military regime centred around the iconic figure of General Aung San and his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under arrest. This is now changing. The form of resistance is no longer just a “family affair”, I argue. The organization of protests is decentralized, without clear leaders. It involves all generations and brings together very different groups. The rallying cry now resounding on Myanmar’s streets is ‘You messed with the wrong generation.’
”Why are human rights defenders being targeted?” asked Al Jazeera Rajat Khosala from Amnesty International, a specialist for advocacy and policy, Tobi Cadman an International Human Rights Lawyer and myself. Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” draws a bleak picture of the human rights situation worldwide with repression in authoritarian states increasing. Human rights defenders are particularly being targeted. I reported about the current situation of human rights activism in Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar where we have just witnessed a military coup. I also spoke about the situation of the 10-15 million de-facto stateless people worldwide who cannot even claim human rights as they lack a nationality.
I explained the difference between de jure and de facto statelessness and emphasized that the roles of the state system and that of the United Nations need to be rethought when it comes to statelessness in particular and how we can all ensure the adherence to human rights in general. We also touched upon the importance of staying connected digitally as activism is increasingly being carried out online.
Myanmar’s immediate neighbours have reacted very reluctantly in regard to the military coup that began on February 1 2021. Whereas ASEAN member-states have largely declared the coup an “internal affair” into which they would rather not get involved, China said it had “noted” the events and urged the country to uphold “stability”.
Stability, however, is not a neutral or entirely positive concept I argue in this German-language article for the daily newspaper TAZ: it is possible to justify not only repression and coups in Myanmar with it, but even the recent genocide of the ethnic Rohingya.
Stability has been a key metaphor during previous military dictatorships as well: Until 2010, for example, the second out of four so-called “national causes” that the military government under General Than Swe promoted under the title “The People’s Desires” read “Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the state and the progress of the nation.”
It had also been Aung San Suu Kyi herself who, in December 2019 in her role as a member of her country’s delegation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) left the more legalistic arguments to the specialists for international law, and challenged the legitimacy of the case on the basis of harmony ideology.
In the name of stability,she argued that the principal judicial organ of the United Nations should refrain from interfering in Myanmar’s domestic affairs.
In my recent article, I thus hold that invoking ‘stability’ is more in line with what the military government is advocating than it it is supportive of the civil resistance that is currently beginning to form.
This is from my twitter thread which I started on March 9, after having returned from Singapore and Myanmar. I am saving it here for better readability and for those, who do not use social media.
Here are my thoughts on the corona virus from the perspective of an anthropology of the state: Having just returned from 2,5 weeks of short-term fieldwork in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Myanmar) I noticed the following:
When we look at the policies of authoritarian states such as Singapore and Myanmar we can see highly diverse tactics in how to deal with an epidemic or pandemic – Singapore: closes its borders, monitors its citizens, checks every persons temperature at the airport and at hotels. Provides sanitizing gels everywhere, cleans public spaces regularly several times a day. Informs on all media channels how to wash hands, keep distance, when to stay home and whom to call. The population not only cooperates, but even copies the state’s measures (e.g. in restaurants, in gyms, and malls). Singapore reports all cases early. As a result, the growth rate of new cases has slowed down and the number has almost remained the same since February.
Myanmar – in contrast: no checking of temperature at airports, no entry denial to travellers from high-risk countries, no information beyond a couple of posters in downtown Yangon. No cases reported until today. No trust in the government, but a lot of rumours.
Then I return to Germany and I find: people buying toilet paper (?) and pasta in large quantities. People still not understanding how to sneeze and when to stay away from crowds. People stealing sanitizing gels even at my university – with the result that none are provided. Due to Germany’s federal system, there is no centrally communicated measurement in place, but an endless trickle-down of bits and pieces of news – all in the form of recommendations, none binding, in many cases not adhered to. There is a lingering sense of defeatism. There is also a slight sense of panic. The hoarding of toilet paper and the sanitizing gels standing in for trying to substitute danger with purity. The buying of pasta seems to be a post 2WW phenomenon, though. None of it is rational behaviour, but driven by fear.
Authoritarian states such as Singapore, China, but also Israel switch into command mode, and its citizens obey as there is no other option. They fear the state more than the virus. In authoritarian states such as Myanmar (and the current US) there is politics by denial: Business as usual, nothing to see here or to report. And in democratic states such as Germany, it takes an epidemic such as the current one to see where the limits of governmental agency are:
The downside of upholding individual freedom is that we are on our own.
While China’s effort has been written about as “collective”, as in this article, it was really a top-down decision by a few officials that was adhered to because people fear the state. While we in Germany are still enjoying our individual freedom to ignore governmental recommendations, an unintended side-effect of surveillance and micro governance in authoritarian states is that it ultimately aids health care measurements and helps curb epidemics and pandemics. And a side-effect in democracies and other authoritarian states is that the upholding of individual freedom comes at a prize, as does the complete denial of the issue. The two are actually close. That is, when it comes to epidemics, Germany and Myanmar have a lot in common!
March 24: I’ll continue: “Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve” – This is a statement from organized crime in Rio, Brazil who enforced a nightly lockdown because they would take care of the population, in contrast to the government. Also, ISIS has warned its people not to enter “the land of the epidemic” (aka Europe ) and layed out a “sharia directive” that includes how to wash your hands properly.
We live in interesting times when organized crime and terrorists care more than the state.
On December 8 2019, Open Democracy’s Transformation-series published an op-ed written by Felix Girke and me on the upcoming court hearing between The Republic of The Gambia and Myanmar in The Hague at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from December 10-12 2019.
Flickr/Jason. CC BY-NC 2.0.
No other than Aung San Suu Kyi, the “State Counsellor” of Myanmar will be travelling to the Netherlands to personally respond to an international case that has been put forward by The Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The case concerns atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims since 2016 by the Myanmar army.
Felix Girke and I argue — contrary to much current reporting in Western news — that it is not surprising but in line with how Aung San Suu Kyi has been doing politics ever since she returned from the UK in 1988, that she personally wants to attend and respond to this case.
What counts as political in Myanmar is deeply personal: “the focus of her personal engagement is not the world, but her own country. She shoulders the burden … but at the same time avoids the hard task of changing Myanmar’s trajectory” we argue.
In 2007 I attended one of my first academic conferences, the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)-Conference in New York, which is held yearly at Columbia University. I enjoyed travelling to New York as I had lived in this city for one and a half years in 1997-1998. It gave me a chance to see friends and my former host family.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, particularly meeting colleagues I had gotten to know during my field research in Kyrgyzstan (2005-2006) and, for the first time, seeing “big names” in person whose work I had read as a graduate student and when preparing for my PhD-project. I presented a paper on the imagination of state law in Kyrgyz aksakal courts (lit. courts of elders) — the first part of my ethnographic data I decided to work with. I did not expect winning an award for this that early, but I guess part of the reason why I won is that I just followed my intuition to start with the most fascinating part of ethnography that I gathered during my field research.
Here is the interview with ASN – go check out their new website, too! You will find more interviews with other scholars as well as a bunch of new resources.
Judith Beyer Interview
April 2, 2019
In 2007, Judith Beyer wrote an award winning paper on Kyrgyz legal pluralism. Today her academic focus also includes Myanmar and issues of statelessness.
JB: I had just returned from 15 months of fieldwork in rural Kyrgyzstan and had to decide which part of the data that I had gathered I wanted to work with first. I decided to start with an extended case study I had found particularly intriguing. Part of my research had been devoted to understanding the type of work of the so-called “aksakal courts” (lit. “courts of whitebeards”, i.e. male elders) in the two villages I was working in. This institution can be described as neo-traditional, although the figure of the “whitebeard” and the assumption that (male) elders, in their roles as household or lineage heads, are capable of solving local disputes, goes back centuries in Kyrgyzstan. The paper drew on a particular case I had participated in, centred on questions of divorce, remarriage, separation of property and child support. What intrigued me most, however, was how – in a rural setting where “the state” was experienced as absent, where the end of the Soviet Union had resulted in the demolishing of the social security system, where there was no police and no formal state court – the local court of elders engaged in what I call “performing the state” by replicating what they imagined to be state court procedures. “There is no state here anymore” was a sentence I regularly heard from my informants. Thus, feeling left to their own devices, the aksakalshad to handle their new role as judges by themselves, a role into which they were pushed by new laws on local dispute resolution, enacted after the country had become independent in 1991. In court sessions they tried to create the appearance of a state court and introduced procedures they claimed were derived from state laws. They also invoked the state apparatus as a threat, specifically when people did not want to heed their decisions. While the institution of the aksakalcourt had been explicitly set up in each village of the country to allow adjudication according to “customs and traditions” as a special law on the aksakalcourts stipulated, the elders acted out imagined state law instead.
ASN: What stage in the graduate program were you at the time?
JB: I was a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, where I was a member of the working group “Legal Pluralism” headed by the legal anthropologists Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann. I was also enrolled as a PhD student at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg from which I then graduated in 2010.
In October 2014 I have been appointed Professor of Anthropology (tenure track) at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
What projects are you working on now?
From 2010 onwards, I developed a new regional interest in Asia, starting fieldwork in Myanmar. There, I work in Yangon, the former capital of the country, a metropolis of seven million people – quite a change of scenery compared to the Kyrgyz village I used to live in! My interest lies in understanding the positioning of religious and ethnic minorities in this city, particularly Hindu and Muslim groups, their histories of migration from India in the 19th century as part of the final expansion of the British Empire, and their current political situation in a de facto Buddhist state which has had a long history of repressing minorities, particularly Muslims. I am specifically interested in understanding my informants’ strategies of acting as “communities” in order to secure their religious properties as well as to keep a realm of autonomy and self-determination in an increasingly hostile environment. There are, however, numerous overlaps to my research in Central Asia and I have begun to publish comparatively by drawing on my insights from Kyrgyzstan. Most recently, for example, an article on the concept of “transition” that has been so central in scholarly analyses of the entire post-Soviet world and that has now migrated from Central Asia (where I encountered it first) to Myanmar. The article is called “’Transition’ as a migratory model in Myanmar” and has been co-published with Felix Girke.
I am also working on new projects related to the issue of statelessness, both in Myanmar and in Europe. Since statelessness is a problem in Central Asia as well, there might be future possibilities to again link my different field sites with each other.
In a new publication in the Journal of Burma Studies (2018; 22/2), together with Felix Girke, I am returning to an old topic of mine: a critical investigation of the so-called ‘transition paradigm’, which I have explored in the context of post-Soviet Central Asia during the time of my doctoral research. I have published on this topic already in 2006 here, drawing on my data from Kyrgyzstan. In this new article, Felix and I are tracing the genealogy of the transition paradigm across disciplines, regions and decades from Latin America in the 1960s, via Southern Europe in the 1980s, Central Asia in the 1990s to contemporary Myanmar. We argue that
[the transition paradigm] has the potential to become a ‘god-term’ (Burke) as it did in other places … Burke suggests that a god-term is treacherous in that it ‘explain[s] too little by explaining too much (1945:107).
Challenging the concept’s current status within the subfield of Myanmar/Burma studies, our task in this article is to alert a regionally interested and educated audience to debates that have been going on elsewhere already decades ago. Offering the framework of conceptualizing transition as a ‘migratory model’ (drawing on Behrends, Rottenburg and Park 2014), these are some of the questions we ask in the article.For a full version of the article, see here (paywalled; for a pdf contact me!).