Category Archives: politics

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.

The force of custom. Lecture at the Institute’s Colloquium in Hamburg

I’ll be travelling to Hamburg next week (13.11) to present the findings of my long-term ethnographic engagement in Kyrgyzstan. My book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” came out in December 2016, almost two years ago. I am still happy with how a decade of scholarship has turned out and am looking forward to hearing comments and feedback from my Hamburg colleagues. Here’s the link to the programme in case you are around. Join me!

And here’s what I will be talking about:

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.

 

 

The lecture will be in English. Venue: Institut für Ethnologie (Raum 222 im Gebäude ESA W – Westflügel des Hauptgebäudes, 2. Stock). 13.11. 6.15pm.

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

Research Granted: How to become an activist in Myanmar and South Africa

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has granted 4 PhD positions at the University of Konstanz for a joint comparative research project on “Activist becomings in South Africa and Myanmar.“ I will supervise 2 PhD projects on Myanmar while my colleague, Thomas Kirsch, will supervise two projects on South Africa. We hope that the outcomes will provide new knowledge concerning practices of democratic participation in the midst of urban and postcolonial crisis.

The project is definitely a precious contribute to the infrastructural turn and could serve as a model of research in very different parts of the world and in different social and political circumstances (anonymous reviewer)

With a focus on material and non-material infrastructure, our project seeks to provide new theoretical and methodological tools to study political formations, thereby contributing to an anthropology of activism, infrastructural studies, political anthropology, anthropology of democracy and African and Asian studies. The research project explicitly seeks to disseminate knowledge and build bridges between scholarly research and activism – something I am really excited about!

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.

Harmony ideology. On ethnographic research in Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia

Here is the full pdf-version to an article I co-authored in 2015 together with Felix Girke in Common Knowledge as part of a special issue on “Peace by other means.”

In the article we engage with Laura Nader’s famous concept of “harmony ideology” from a practice-oriented perspective by taking ethnographic material from Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kyrgyzstan.

To everyone working on the concept of yntymak in the Central Asian context and on intergenerational dynamics, this paper might be helpful. Also to researchers working on the ‘cultural neighbourhood’, on interethnic relations or on the concept of ädamo in Southern Ethiopia.

Enjoy!

 

The spider

The thought crept into my mind today and refused to let go of my brain. It said “What if we have no f*ing clue?” Going to bed with images of crying fathers holding their children – ‘Are they dead? Oh thank God, only sleeping!’ – , waking up with stories of rotten bodies, locked into a van used for transporting poultry. Heaps of rotten meat. This is not happening in Syria. This is Syria happening in Europe. Those who survived are here. But what if the war that was carried out on their backs will follow them? Did it ever occur to you that Europe is not facing a “refugee crisis” but is already part and parcel of several wars that have forced hundreds of thousands of human beings – like you, like me – to leave everything behind to save bare life? Their crisis is our crisis, but we don’t pay the price yet that they have already paid. But we might, if we don’t act.

I feel I am responsible at least in part for their desperation. Because as a German citizen I have voted for a certain party, have legitimized a certain type of government, because my taxes are used in ways I cannot control any more. Because I live in an area of Germany, which is profiting from the military industry that is located all around me; that exports weapons, drones and military equipment to I don’t know where. The thing is, there are people who do know, who are responsible, who profit, who might even believe that this is needed for ‘security’, ‘stability’ or – probably the most honest reason – because a lot of German citizens earn their money with these kinds of endeavours.

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

This morning at a local farmer’s market in my small picturesque town in Germany an elderly woman approached the mostly well-off clientele with a request to donate whatever they could afford for “refugees from Syria.” She offered small bouquets of rosemary in return which she had collected from her garden, I overheard. I felt anger. In fact, I became so angry, I had to turn away. What made me angry was not her compassion and her initiative of wanting to “do something.” Where would we be without people like her? Or so many others in Greece, Italy, Jordan, Serbia – all devoting their lives to ease the suffering of thousands. My current anger is directed towards the nebulous “system”, towards “those in power” whom I consider responsible … but how do you hold “them” accountable? There is no way to trace the origin of a ‘crisis’, which has reached the scale of what we are witnessing right now, everyday. How can you prevent our grandchildren from accusing us that ‘they knew, but they did not do anything’ – Germany has been there before. So what to do? Donate money, children’s clothes and food products? Check. Write letters to politicians? Check. Be thankful for every calm and sunny summer day and hug your own child a little longer? Check. But still. The thought won’t go away: We have no f*ing clue how to make this stop.

Looking outside my window, I see a large spider spinning its web, waiting patiently for prey. I still want to believe we are not trapped. We are the net.

Photo-by-uditha-wickramanayaka-flickr-CC-BY-NC-2.0-330x330

Update on September 3, 2015:

In the last days I have began to communicate with a couple of people who do amazing work in different parts of Greece and Germany right now. All work privately and have financed their support for refugees through crowdfunding. Please consider helping them, and donate whatever you can .

1. Help for refugees in Molyvos    (you can also contact molyvosrefugees[at]gmail.com)

2. Natasha Tsangarides

3. Blogger für Flüchtlinge

4. Flüchtlinge Willkommen

5. Jillian York (she collects money and transfers it to Budapest so that technical supplies such as cell phone chargers can be bought for refugees currently stuck at the train station; also: check her own page for another list)

6. Eric and Philippa Kempson (they have set up amazon wishlists with important food products, medical supplies, clothes,…)

*****