Category Archives: Myanmar

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.

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.