Saturday, July 11, 2009

Opaque Burma

It is striking how ignorant we are about the most basic facts about Burma. I don't mean simply that the western public is poorly informed; I mean that a lot of the basic facts about contemporary Burma are simply unknown, to scholars, journalists, and other expert observers. The experts don't know what is going on in Burma, in quite a few important areas of life.

Take the junta itself. How does it work as a government? how does information get collected, how do goals get set, how are policies arrived at, and how are policies implemented over the expanse of control that the Burmese army exercises? It seems that there is very little factual knowledge about these very basic questions. The general impression that the media present of the Burmese military is that it is reclusive, corrupt, and irrational. The first two features are probably true; but "irrational" is a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that the army has successfully preserved its rule for decades. And there appear to be relatively clear strategies in place for controlling the armed ethnic populations and for securing economic development relationships with China and other non-western states. (This is where the corruption comes in; the army appears to use its control of Burma's natural resources for its own benefit and the benefit of its allies in the ethnic organizations.) We hear a lot about the junta's war with Aung San Suu Kyi, but very little about other aspects of its organization and behavior.

Or take everyday life in villages and towns in peripheral states. What is ordinary life like in the countryside? How visible is the central government and the Burmese army? What state or municipal entities provide services and collect taxes? How do people earn their livings? What is the state of public health in rural areas? What organizations and community-based groups are active?

Or consider the realities of the ethnic armies; how do the Kachin or the Karen armies preserve their organization and mobilization over time? What is the infrastructure that provides supplies, weapons, and money? How are young people recruited into these movements? What are the strategies and motives that guide decisions -- whether to continue the cease-fire or return to active armed conflict?

Or consider, finally, the circumstances of the monks' rebellion of 2007. Where are the detailed studies of this uprising in terms of motivations of participants, organization, mobilization strategies, and repression?

I suppose the explanation for this level of ignorance is fairly obvious: Burma is essentially closed to outside scholars and journalists, so it is difficult to impossible to do social-science fieldwork in Burma today. The observers who are able to gain a snapshot of insight are mainly occasional travelers and writers who manage to make their way to remote and often dangerous places. And organized social-science research is difficult or impossible to carry out under these circumstances. And there is very little by way of independent journalism within Burma -- we are dependent on emigree services that do their best to provide some of the news from the periphery. (It would appear that the situation of research in Burma is orders of magnitude more limited than in Thailand or Malaysia.)


Antonin & Damia said...

There are people doing ethnography in Myanmar - a friend of mine finished his PhD thesis over there last year.

Jon Fernquest said...

If you live there and listen to people, it is truly amazing how much you can learn about the way Burma works and about life in Burma.

The trouble is that most academics who profess to be experts in the place aren't interested in objectively describing what is going on there.

They obsess on a few issues to the exclusion of everything else.

I lived there for two years, spoke the language everyday and did not hang out in the foreigner society like the American club or the French group, etc. Some scholars of Burma do that, but most seek the confront and security of fellow academics.

This social network resists penetration from outside elements with useful different perspectives and real world experience, a recipe for teh disaster you describe.

Dan Little said...

Thanks, Linca and Jon,

Thanks for both comments. Any suggestions about how to find some of the reports of these kinds of experiences in Burma? Jon, did you publish any of your observations and reflections while you lived in Burma?

June Nash has a postscript in Practicing Ethnography in a Globalizing World on a visit she was able to make in 1998. Here's a link on Google Books.

Antonin & Damia said...

My friend has published some stuff through the usual academic channels. Mostly in French obviously - although he regrets it, in France the social sciences can be quite insular.

But he certainly knows quite a bit about the daily life in Myanmar, and tries to live there as much as he can. Sometimes purely doing fieldwork, sometimes working for NGOs.

One problem is the teaching constraints on scholars in many countries - he's currently trying to avoid it.

Another obvious problem in describing such places is that of the journalist wanting to keep access, which puts constraints on what is put on paper.

If you are very interested, try to contact him...