Burma and the Politics of Fear
Publication Year: 2011
To come to Burma, one of the few places where despotism still dominates, is to take both a physical and an emotional journey and, like most Burmese, to become caught up in the daily management of fear. Based on Monique Skidmore's experiences living in the capital city of Rangoon, Karaoke Fascism is the first ethnography of fear in Burma and provides a sobering look at the psychological strategies employed by the Burmese people in order to survive under a military dictatorship that seeks to invade and dominate every aspect of life.
Skidmore looks at the psychology and politics of fear under the SLORC and SPDC regimes. Encompassing the period of antijunta student street protests, her work describes a project of authoritarian modernity, where Burmese people are conscripted as army porters and must attend mass rallies, chant slogans, construct roads, and engage in other forms of forced labor. In a harrowing portrayal of life deep within an authoritarian state, recovering heroin addicts, psychiatric patients, girl prostitutes, and poor and vulnerable women in forcibly relocated townships speak about fear, hope, and their ongoing resistance to four decades of oppression.
"Karaoke fascism" is a term the author uses to describe the layers of conformity that Burmese people present to each other and, more important, to the military regime. This complex veneer rests on resistance, collaboration, and complicity, and describes not only the Burmese form of oppression but also the Burmese response to a life of domination. Providing an inside look at the madness and the militarization of the city, Skidmore argues that the weight of fear, the anxiety of constant vulnerability, and the numbing demands of the State upon individuals force Burmese people to cast themselves as automata; they deliberately present lifeless hollow bodies for the State's use, while their minds reach out into the cosmos for an array of alternate realities. Skidmore raises ethical and methodological questions about conducting research on fear when doing so evokes the very emotion in question, in both researcher and informant.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
List of Illustrations
December 15, 1996: Two-dozen student protesters, carrying shoulder bags, gather in a knot in the center of a major arterial road in Ahlone Township. They stop sixty meters away from a roadblock hastily erected by soldiers who are scrambling to get to the scene of each hit-and-run demonstration. ...
1. Rangoon: End of Strife
A prostitute lies in the mud under a bridge, a knife pressed to her throat. A teenage boy, the son of an army colonel, squats beside a major arterial road plunging a used syringe full of almost pure heroin into his ankle. A young mother sucks betel paste off a banana leaf and presses her shriveled nipple into her emaciated baby’s mouth...
2. Bombs, Barricades, and the Urban Battlefield
In the fiercest heat of the year, I ride a boat and then a pony cart to a small town not far from Rangoon, in the lower Burma delta. It takes two hours and I am lulled by the soft lap, lap, lapping of the brown waves against the eroded banks, and the graceful arc made by the fishing nets from the boatmen hugging the banks...
3. Darker Than Midnight: Fear, Vulnerability, and Terror-Making
Ethnography conducted under conditions of fear and terror defies traditional methods of data collection.1 My fieldwork interpretations and the very framework by which I determine whom to interview and why are consciously embedded in a belief in the need to write against terror (Taussig 1987). ...
4. Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar
Nightmares frighten us because, for a little time, we are unable to tell what is real and what is the product of our imagination. This process began to colonize my waking world. The city became a surreal juxtaposition of the sinister and the mundane. ...
5. The Veneer of Modernity
It is only a one-hour flight from the modern Thai capital of Bangkok to Rangoon, but the difference is extraordinary. There is perhaps no other country in the world that has closed its tertiary institutions for most of the last decade; where a lost generation of youth turn to heroin if they’re wealthy...
6. The Veneer of Conformity
One of the most common propaganda signboards seen in urban areas is the National Conference signboard. It depicts a procession of progress, a march of prosperity where a young Burmese man holds aloft the Union flag, a beautiful young Burmese woman by his side (Figure 8). ...
7. The Tension of Absurdity
Before we leave the city limits and witness the suffering and dissociative strategies of the peri-urban poor, let us indulge in some dark humor, some subversive sayings, and perhaps even a little karaoke with friends. In short, let us discover the limits of discourse as a survival strategy. ...
8. Fragments of Misery: The People of the New Fields
Soon after the failed democracy uprising in 1988, mysterious fires swept through neighborhoods in central Mandalay and Rangoon suspected to harbor people with democratic sympathies, as well as those townships abutting sites marked for tourist development. ...
9. The Forest of Time
Despite the ‘‘miasma of fear’’ that Aung San Suu Kyi has described cloaking Burma, there is clearly both open and collective resistance to the military regime. The continued existence of the National League for Democracy, despite its dwindling ranks as members are imprisoned, intimidated, and die in custody...
10. Going to Sleep with Karaoke Culture
It is late 2001, the rains have stopped and the cool season has begun. I board the Circle Line train, its detergent advertising obscured by a shiny new coat of paint, already peeling in the tropical humidity. I jump off at the level crossing near Nyaungbintha and begin the trek out to the townships. ...