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“Who Do You Know Over There?”: Fieldwork Experiences in Restricted Southern Shan State, Burma

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 83-95 | 10.1353/jbs.2014.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The uncertain political situation in Burma has had an immense impact on how I have carried out my recent research into the lives of the Shan people there, and especially on the ethical choices I have had to make when attempting to visit restricted zones in southern Shan State. In October 2012, two years after the new government was formed, I traveled to Burma in order to collect data concerning migration and commodity flows undertaken by the Shan people. In the early phase of my fieldwork, I had difficulty accessing my research sites, until I decided to take a few risks. One lesson I learned from these activities: it is often knowing someone with economic or political power in a research area that makes it possible and indeed legal to conduct research that would otherwise be impossible. Of course, Burma is similar to other societies in this regard, but knowing powerful people is especially important in Burma because, despite the nominal transition that is taking place from military to democratic rule, a number of state and non-state actors control the territories that researchers may wish to access, and as a result, extra-legal exchanges are still commonplace.

In any setting, building connections when doing ethnographic fieldwork can raise ethical questions, since close relationships may create the expectation that researchers will engage in extra-legal or unethical behavior in order to maintain those relationships and access data. Questions emerged in my mind as I went through this process: Is building close connections with those who facilitate my fieldwork activities unethical? If I am asked, “Who do you know over there?” while trying to access a research site, should I name my connections if it allows me extra-legal access, or if it might cause problems for my informants? While in the field, ambivalent feelings arose — did I really want to collect data with the help of these powerful people?

Here, I propose that creating a genuine rapport with informants — a key requirement of ethnography — may raise ethical dilemmas when these same informants facilitate access to sensitive research areas. I believe that what I did was unethical in the sense that I broke the laws prohibiting non-Burmese citizens from entering the country’s restricted zones. However, I also believe that my actions reflected the complexities of carrying out fieldwork in Burma. At first I tried to maintain a traditional ethical code of conduct in relation to fieldwork, and several times thereafter felt guilty about the decisions I had made. However, after I had been in the field long enough to become more acquainted with the situation there, I began thinking about how I could visit southern Shan State by taking advantage of the influence of powerful people in the area. By that time, doing so seemed ethically acceptable.

Researchers in Burma may have different degrees of ethical behavior — as well as ideas as to what situations are deemed dangerous or too adventurous. I rationalized my decisions based upon the particular situation I faced at the time, taking into account the views of local people regarding my status. As a result, I believe that researchers need to remain flexible with regard to the ethical codes they follow when doing fieldwork, as different research sites will have different political and social systems in place, creating the need for a variety of methods.

Researcher’s Positionality

Employing multi-sited ethnography throughout my study in order to understand the cross-border movements taking place in the area, I tried to balance the time I spent on both sides of the border. Since my focus was the flows and movements of Shan migrant workers, I planned to follow their migrations from their starting points in Shan State to their destinations in Thailand, thus filling a gap in the literature.

At the onset of my fieldwork, I introduced myself as a Thai student investigating the extent to which migration and commodity flows were interconnected. Linguistically, as a Thai researcher my level of understanding of the Shan language was already at 30 to 40 percent prior to my research due to the similarities between the two languages. However, I decided to take a short, private Tai (Shan...

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