Introduction: Communities of Interpretation and the Construction of Modern Myanmar

By Aung-Thwin, Maitrii | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Communities of Interpretation and the Construction of Modern Myanmar


Aung-Thwin, Maitrii, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In the past 120 years, the idea of Myanmar (Burma) has come to be known, produced, and understood through a variety of perspectives that reveal particular and sometimes contested perceptions of the Burmese past, present, and future. One has only to take a cursory glance at our 'living' bibliography to view firsthand the numerous ways in which the subject of Myanmar has been delineated by a wide range of scholars, officials, and commentators over time and space. (1) From the proclamations of kings to the official communiques of colonial officers; from the 'classical' architecture of Pagan to the paintings of Sein Myint; through the study of nat (spirits) to the roles of Buddhism--the idea of Myanmar has emerged through a complicated mixture of historical, cultural, and political forms that have been continually shaped by an array of agendas, intellectual influences, and personalities. The discourses that characterise what has been generically spoken of as 'Burmese' are exemplified by the rich exchanges over its histories, institutions, memories, and cultures. Lively debates in scholarship, media, and in local teashops have produced often divergent views about what constitutes the social, political, and cultural domain that is known today as Myanmar. (2) The articles in this symposium represent an attempt to reflect upon the various ways through which predominantly English-writing scholars have produced the idea of Myanmar while suggesting ways in which differing interpretations might be examined together. (3)

A useful approach to consider might be found in the concept of 'interpretive communities', in reference to what literary scholars identify as groups of readers (or interpreters) who share distinctive ways of defining, debating, and thinking about their texts. (4) Contributors to 'reader-response' theory have drawn our attention to the processes of interpreting, the strategies employed, and the contexts that produce interpretations rather than the differences in the interpretations themselves. (5) Simply put, our attention might be directed towards understanding how commentators have defined, categorised, and structured Myanmar and its vicissitudes. Examining how a writer's particular experiences can influence how Myanmar is 'read' recognises the diverse processes that lead us to ask certain questions, privilege certain approaches, and utilise certain methods. Attending to the role of those experiences (educational, political, geographical, cultural) and the various ways of writing about Myanmar enables us to examine differing interpretations on somewhat more equal footing while recognising their contribution to its larger epistemological history. For particular groups, the terms employed for describing the Myanmar they encountered may have stemmed from particular discourses of power-relations, such as the terms available to fourteenth-century Chinese emissaries, conceptions of Social Darwinism that informed colonial administrators at the end of the nineteenth century, or more contemporary terms associated with democracy, sanctions, and the 'war on terror'. At the same time, other communities of observers may have conceptualised 'their' Myanmar as a struggle against elites, the British, the Japanese, and even the state itself. In today's context, particular ideas about acceptable forms of governance, political ideology, and notions of legitimacy structure the debate over what Myanmar is, what it has been, and what it may become. (6)

This recognition that many communities contribute to the construction of what we might call modern Myanmar draws attention to how shared socio-cultural, intellectual, and political experiences can play an important role in shaping how we understand the process of interpretation, the construction of meaning, and the writing of texts. (7) Travelogues in the nineteenth century paint particular images of the landscape reflecting not only what was deemed symbolic and significant of Burmese culture, but the particularly benign nature of the imperial project's encounter with Burmese society. …

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