Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear

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Monique Skidmore, Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004,264 pages.

Skidmore did difficult fieldwork in Burma during 1996, a period of increasing turmoil as students and others openly demonstrated against the current regime. Her research was, ostensibly, to "understand the idioms of emotional and psychological distress used by various Burmese communities, and to explore the role of religion and medicine in conceptualizing and mediating such distress and as pathways for action" (p. 8). Rather than focussing directly on these topics, Skidmore directs our attention to the all encompassing fear that Burmese have to deal with on a day to day basis and the consequences this has for individual Burmese as well as for Burmese society. Researching fear is not easy, as Skidmore asks, "How does one research fear when doing so produces the very emotion in question, both in the research and the informants?" (p. x), something she explores most completely in her third chapter.

To get to this exploration, Skidmore first provides a brief introduction to Burmese history and a sketch of the resistance activities in Rangoon in September 1996. These activities are juxtaposed with places of refuge that Burmese Buddhism provides, both physically and spiritually. The third chapter then explores the fear that Skidmore faced and the Burmese continue to face. Here Skidmore argues that her experience of fear and her understanding and analysis of her embodied fear allows her to "intuit the experience of Burmese people whom I have come to know. In so doing, I argue that emotional knowledge arising from similar (never identical) circumstances can be important, in this case, necessary, for an analysis of fear in everyday lif e" (p. 35). These three chapters are compelling but difficult reading. After finishing part of a chapter I would have to put the book down because of the overwhelming awfulness of the situation that I was reading about.

In the next four chapters, the focus shifts to the contexts that the Burmese must interact in and the role of the government and its military in defining these contexts. Skidmore discusses the way the military define spaces and the thin veneers of modernity and conformity as well as the tensions created by the juxtaposition of modernity, fascism and terror. These chapters also include accounts of how people deal with the situations created by propaganda and the continuing inability to trust people because of informers and the consequent self-censorship that this entails. For her analysis, Skidmore draws on scholars of modernity and fascism, particularly Benjamin and the Frankfurt School (p. 84). I found these chapters equally difficult to read but more because of the analyses than the content. In the end, I was not convinced that drawing parallels between the situation in Burma and high modernity in Paris and Nazi Germany provided any enlightenment about the Burmese generals and their behaviour or the situation that the Burmese people face. A more meaningful comparison would have been to place the Burmese situation in its Southeast Asian context of political violence with discussions of similarities and differences with Cambodia under Pol Pot and Indonesia in the aftermath of Sukarno's defeat in 1965, the annexation of East Timor, or, more recently, the end of the Suharto period. …