Finding the Political in Myanmar, A.K.A. Burma

By Taylor, Robert H. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Finding the Political in Myanmar, A.K.A. Burma


Taylor, Robert H., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


From the British colonial soldier-officials and amateur historians who sought to explain the behaviour of the Konbaung monarchy to contemporary academics who attempt to decipher the relationship between 'the people', or 'peoples', and the current military government, the political studies image of 'Burma / Myanmar' has been conducted through a glass darkly. Prognostications and prescriptions are part of the enterprise as interpreters try to see forward by looking backward. Often the prevailing ideological or foreign policy interests of the society or government from which the analyst hails has shaped their lenses. Sometimes they write in minute detail, but more often, and less helpfully, in broad sweeping generalities. The scholarly goal of objectivity and empirically informed theory occasionally gives way to the activist's wishful thinking and / or the policy adviser's creation or shaping of 'fact' to fit desired outcome.

A number of factors have hampered our attempts to find the political in Myanmar. Included among them are our own prejudices, opinions, and prior experiences. No analyst comes to the task without intellectual and experiential baggage that shape the questions asked and the answers sought. No analyst ever has all the data required to make a complete and full analysis. Each must rely on hunches and informed guesses that may or may not be completely accurate. Certainly one of the most important skills in contemporary Myanmar political studies is the rare ability to find one's way through the thickets of information and misinformation that provide the backdrop to all political analysis. Particularly in the present time when both the government in Naypyitaw and its opponents at home and abroad are engaged in a form of cyber politics, trying to discern reality from fiction becomes a major and primary obligation of the analyst. Given the paucity of reliable facts available to study the political in Myanmar, one is required to think it through despite possessing insufficient knowledge. As Race Williams mused in 1931:

   I won't say I reasoned things out as I rode down town in the taxi.
   Not me. Reason only too often confuses, especially when you've got
   little to reason on--not reason with. But thoughts would flash
   through my mind, and I let them swing along. (1)

We foreigners' capacity to understand and analyse Myanmar politics are also limited by our linguistic capacities and immersion in the structures of the English language in which we reason, argue and write. Political thought in Myanmar is usually reasoned, argued and written in Burmese or one of the minority languages. Yet few students of Myanmar politics ever manage to learn even one minority language and those who tackle Burmese quickly discover that the language is very different from English. The lack of 'fit' between Burmese and English makes accurate translation very difficult; there is often room for interpretation and this bedevils agreement.

The linguistic problems involved in studying Myanmar's political disputes cloud issues, perhaps unnecessarily. Illustrative is the name taken to describe the country, state and majority population. An analyst's politics is believed revealed if he uses Myanmar or Burma. Before enacting of the Adaptation of Expressions Law (2) in 1989, individuals such as General Ne Win and Dr Maung Maung wrote on their party membership forms that their ethnicity was Myanmar while U Sein Lwin, for example, indicated that he was a Mon; yet all were citizens of Myanmar and leading officials in the Myanma Hsoshelit Lansin Pati. However, to the English-speaking world, they were Burman or Mon and leaders of the Burma Socialist Programme Party of the Union of Burma. (3) After the unelected military government rectified this anomaly, Western governments, opposition political activists, and party leaders refused to recognise the change, just as a few anti-military activists in Thailand persist in using Siam and Siamese despite the name change made in 1939. …

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