Category Archives: politics

#corona On being prudent

In a recent post for Allegra Lab, I ask what we can do from our homes, to which we are confined these weeks, being overwhelmed, seeing the problematic and political nature of  all these facts and narratives that are presented to us in the Covid-19-crisis.

I have elaborated on three tasks:

First, we can join public debates and be a voice of prudence. This is to help de-escalate discussions where people – sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes out of hurried obedience and often out of fear – demand that their states take extreme measures of surveillance, deprivation of liberty and sanction. The term “state of exception” has been used to such an extent that we have gotten used to it already – exactly what Giorgio Agamben warned us about.

Second, we can engage with our students and address their sense of insecurity by adapting our upcoming or ongoing courses, seminars and lectures in a way that allows the topic to influence whatever subject we had intended to work on. Since few things are as pervasive as a global pandemic, there is hardly any subject (in anthropology and beyond) which we could not reconceptualize by taking account of COVID-19. As we will have to teach digitally, it is also important to discuss the pitfalls that come with online learning, while making use of newly available resources.

Third, we can practice writing our fieldwork diaries in our homes: Note down how the virus has already impacted our own personal everyday lives, how it has led to a restructuring of our daily schedules, how it has decreased and altered the amount of time we spend with colleagues and friends and how it might have increased the number of hours we spend with members of our household. For those of us who have children, we can observe how they, too, struggle to adapt to a physical world that has suddenly shrunk and to a digital world that has suddenly expanded. We can look outside our windows and correlate how changes in governmental policies become observable in the very way people physically move in the streets. And we can honestly record our own feelings from day to day. We can then come back to these notes at a later stage – just as we do when we come home from the field.

This too, to me, is public anthropology. One directly engages with the media, the second takes up current topics and reworks these with our students for whom we are responsible, and the third collects data diligently in order to be able to draw from this source later on when we have the capacity and the psychological distance required to take a long hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes right now.

Read the full post here. My intro is part of an ongoing series which we have labelled #corona thread.

#corona: Views from an anthropology of the state

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 pandemicSingapore: 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.

tbc…

 

 

Harmony Ideology at The Hague. New Blog Post for Public Anthropologist

Together with Felix Girke, I have just published another op-ed piece on the genocide case currently pending at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. There, The Republic of The Gambia has filed a case against Myanmar, accusing the country’s army of having committed genocide of Muslim Rohingya. We have published on this issue also at OpenDemocracy, focusing on the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who has decided to act as the “Agent” of a high-profile team of lawyers. While her status as an ‘icon of democracy’ is unbroken within the country, especially in Western countries, commentators are grappeling with what they perceive to be a sudden and unexpected shift in her personality since she became “state counsellor”. However, as I have argued in 2017 already, this is in line with how she has always been doing politics.

Yangon, 10. Dec 2019. © B. Mette-Starke

In our blog post for Public Anthropologist, we take a look at Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at the ICJ on December 11 2019. We argue  that she employs “harmony ideology,” a concept coined by the legal anthropologist Laura Nader in the 1990s, based on her work among the Talean Zapotec in southern Mexico in the 1960s. Later, Nader applied her new terminology to so-called alternative dispute resolution (ADR)-cases in the United States of America.

“Harmony ideology”, so Nader, needs to be understood as a counterhegemonic force with which her Zapotec villagers tried to keep the Mexican state at bay. By pretending that they are a harmonious people and capable of dealing with their disputes internally, they tried to fend off any outside interference. In ADR-cases, Nader showed how “harmony ideology” was used to “outsource” dispute cases that judges thought to be too irrelevant for to be decided in state courts. In the case of Myanmar at the ICJ, however, Felix Girke and I argue that

Aung San Suu Kyi acted as if her country were a southern Mexican village, needing protection from illegitimate legal governance that interfered with its internal affairs, while at the same time embodying the very state apparatus that is now internationally accused of having committed genocide against its own population.

While the Talean Zapotec might have had effective measures for local dispute resolution and good reasons to keep the state courts at bay, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya and the poor record of Myanmar to police itself suggest that Suu Kyi’s harmony ideology at the ICJ is sorely misplaced, we argue. Read the full post over at Public Anthropologist.

Aung San Suu Kyi goes to court

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.

Read the full article over at Open Democracy.

Thematic Thread for Allegra Lab on Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance

For Allegra Lab, I curated a thematic thread on the topic of Statelessness, Displacement and Disappearance. Together with Catherine Allerton, Alice Wilson and Siri Lamoureaux we explore these categories in a total of four blog posts with a focus on who can claim justice on whose behalf and in regard to the various ways in which uncertainty and accountability are being processed.

This thematic thread evolved out of a workshop on Claiming justice after conflict. The stateless, the displaced and the disappeared at the margins of the state, co-organized by Yazid Ben-Hounet (Paris) and myself. The presenters consisted of anthropologists and sociologists and convened for a full day on March 15, 2019, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.

In my introduction to this week-long thematic thread, I show in what ways statelessness, displacement and disappearance have become familiar and inescapable features of contemporary politics worldwide. The question of who can claim justice on whose behalf is first of all a question of representation, but also touches on scale, resources and access.

In the first post, Catherine Allerton engages with statelessness and the problem of the invisibility of migrant children and their families in Sabah, Malaysia. Their stories are about vulnerability as much as they are about resilience. Employing the concept of “documentary pragmatism,” Allerton explains that for her interlocutors, the goal is “being safe” rather than being documented.

statelessness

In  my own post I explore the relation between accountability and statelessness. First, by investigating the case of expert activists in Europe who have declared a fight against statelessness by trying to hold nation states accountable. Second, I look at asylum cases in the UK where stateless individuals have to give accounts of themselves. I argue that while expert activists demand accountability from nation states, it is nation states who demand accountability from stateless people.

 

If people cannot make claims vis-à-vis the state at all, we pondered the question of what they might be doing instead. One option that Alice Wilson explores in her post is a shift in the very discussions people are having about disappearance: in her case in the context of Oman’s southern Dhufar region. She argues that the possibilities for claims-making, and its potential success, vary within different political environments.

Finally, Siri Lamoureaux explores in her post on displaced Nuba women in Sudan women’s options such as public shaming and the accusation of perpetrators by the so-called “Nubian Queens.” In light of the recent events her post bears particular urgency. Drawing on long-term fieldwork, she then asks “Where are the Nuba queens”, namely those women who “due to (pre/post)colonial histories of divide and rule, and unequal centre-periphery socioeconomic relations, have never donned a white towb?” that has become so emblamatic of the ongoing protests.  “Without denying the sacrifice and suffering of elite women in the protests, displaced women have suffered immeasurably from the Sudanese government’s policies”, she argues.

You can find all posts of this thematic thread here.

 

On the politics of ‘standing-by’. Post for Public Anthropologist

In the arena of national politics, there is a widespread moral expectation that citizens should be informed about politics and exert agency to “take part” rather than merely “standing by” apathetically. Especially in light of the recent (ethno-)nationalist shifts towards the right in Europe, there has been an increasing demand on people to not close their eyes to the right’s attempts to claim the streets … In ethnomethodological studies, the acquisition of “membership knowledge” is regarded as a prerequisite for being able to analyze the practices of the actors the researcher intends to study. But what kind of knowledge is there to be acquired if a crowd consists mostly of by-standers?

In this recent post for the new blog of Public Anthropologist, a journal devoted to providing a space “beyond the purely academic realm towards wider publics and counterpublics”, I reflect on having spent a Saturday in March 2019 in Paris, encountering three different types of manifestations in which I became involved as a by-stander. I argue that while the investigation of movements, resistance and direct action remains essential, we should not forget to “assume the perspectives of those on the side-lines. Because it is there that the majority of us become part of public politics.”

You can read the full blog post here.

New Publication: On ‘the transition’ – in Myanmar and beyond

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!).