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Ethnic Histories: Reflections from the Field

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 123-135 | 10.1353/jbs.2014.0000

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

This year, 2013, Mon National Day celebrations in Rangoon were held at the Pyithuyin park just west of the Shwedagon. A few days before the main event was to start, a Mon friend invited me to visit him and some of his friends on the park grounds. I found them setting up a historical display, putting up pictures of sites known to Mon history and archaeology, and of well-known Mon historical figures. Under each they were adding captions with citations of their sources, many of which were English-language. The display was arranged as a walk-through, with pictures on the walls on both sides. Prominently displayed in front of the walk-through was a bibliography of academic works on Mon-related topics, largely works of history, among them works by Burmese, Mon, and foreign-trained scholars. The items listed probably represented what my friends had amongst themselves, or were books that they had studied during their own schooling. My friend’s friends were a small, informal group of young educated people who were working under the guidance of Mon lugyi or “elders.” I found this display fascinating because it revealed how many Mon people think of their own history, what messages about their history they want to convey, and what sources they use to tell that story. As does most Burmese writing on history, this display made extensive use of the work of foreign scholars.

In this article, I want to consider my position in relation to non-Burman historians and intellectuals, particularly local Mon scholars. The Mon National Day display led me to reflect once again on some of the differences between how “we” think about and write history, and how “they” do it. In thinking over my research experiences, what have been the possibilities for crossing that divide? What have been for me the ethical risks as a professional historian? Can the history I write make me complicit in discord or actual conflict?

For many scholars, the question of ethics in doing research in Burma centers on confidentiality, informed consent, or placing oneself or others at risk. The extent to which recent changes in the country will change these concerns remains to be seen, but I think it is likely that many of them will remain for the time being. An account of the challenges I faced in doing my own research may over time prove to be nothing more than a reflection of a specific time and place, a historical curiosity with little lasting relevance to future scholars. My formal research has focused on Mon and Burmese history and language. Although it is qualitative, it is not “qualitative research” in the same way as that of anthropologists or political scientists, nor is it the same as is widely understood outside of academia: as an academic researcher, I have not traveled to villages to ask people in “key informant interviews” or “focus group discussions” about their perceptions of, for example, their village institutions (although I have done such projects as a non-academic researcher). I have dealt largely with written sources, mostly inside Burma. An expectation that many people have toward me, not least among other historians, is that I would deal with texts and archives, possibly exploring new or under-used sources. I would deal with people only to the extent that I would have to interact with the various “gatekeepers” associated with archives.

In the course of my research, however, I became interested in the social aspects of Burmese and Mon history. I wanted to understand how people today make sense of the past, where they learn their history from, and how Mon and Burmese intellectuals understand themselves through narratives of the past. The texts that I read for my dissertation were not stored in an archive or institution the way Burmese-language texts usually are, so I came to interact with the community of local Mon intellectuals and had many casual conversations with them. Over time, I came to talk about the past and history not only with Mons, but Rakhaings, Shans, Burmans, and Thais. While I did speak with a number of professional Burmese historians, the majority of the people I talked...



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