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Fostering an Objectionable Burma Discourse

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 97-122 | 10.1353/jbs.2014.0010

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

Truth about Burma always seems to escape one’s grasp. During the long years of military rule, those inside hungered for outside representations of their country — indeed, border-dwellers and exiles often insisted that the regime had morphed Burma into an ersatz version of itself, and that the various Thai-Burma border outposts had crafted more authentic copies than the original. Yet even so, those outside regularly described a feeling of being too far away to see Burma adequately. A similar set of schisms seems just as apparent as I write this article: descriptions of a majestic new Myanmar and those of the same old military-backed Burma seem to describe different places altogether, with authors of each respective version incapable of displacing the suspicion that there is more to each story.

At first glance, there is nothing wrong with this situation in itself. Indeed, meta-narratives deployed to define a nationstate are almost always suffused with exclusionary essentialism that can result in symbolic and physical violence for those who do not qualify as normal. Putting Burma’s pieces back together under the tyranny of such meta-narratives may result in many pieces being discarded. At the time of writing, many Burmese Muslims were directly experiencing this tragic violence because of impoverished ideas of what constitutes a member of the Burmese community. Burma’s official ethnic minorities have been experiencing such degradation with differing degrees of intensity for much longer.

And so for these reasons, a related reconstructive project — a search for “Burma” that would consider these excluded perspectives — hence seems immediately necessary. How Burma will be reconstituted after the years of divisive military misrule matters for millions of people. Narratives, meta and otherwise, must be mobilized to assist with this work.

I want to suggest that the inability of many who are searching for “Burma” to construct these meta-narratives — to put Burma’s pieces together, to develop an indigenous politics that is based on and constructs Burmese political values — is a more fraught problem than it first appears. Indeed, the main challenge is not that Burma lacks a “public sphere” that would aggregate and regulate narratives. Nor is it simply that information flow is constrained (due to censorship before, because of meager communication infrastructure now) although both certainly contribute to this challenge. These problems are hypothetically quite easily fixable. Even Orientalist knowledge structures — which render some Burmese diffident about speaking back against stylized representations of their society, or make them willing to conform to those representations — can be deconstructed.

I would like to extend the Orientalist critique a bit further by developing the following argument: discourse on Burma creates objects (“Burma” and “Burmese” for instance) out of the real subjects that it purports to describe. The way these discourses are constructed is a function of ideological gate-keeping devices that privilege and delegitimize specific Burmese voices. Certain kinds of speech and opinions — those we can gloss as consistent with Western political liberalism — are ratified and accepted, while those that fall outside of this narrow canal are disregarded. This article will track the mechanics of this phenomenon — the repertories and strategies that both (a) compel and construct narrow forms of acceptable Burmese speech; and (b) disregard Burmese speech that does not conform to the model.

Further, as these discursive objects are constructed, they operate back on those subjects and social institutions that find themselves indexed by the discourse (“Burmese”). As a result of these two processes — discursive policing and interpellation — many Burmese are compelled to only mimic or reflect the characterizations of themselves. What is noteworthy here is that, following Bruno Latour’s framing, Burmese are often unable to object to them. As such, in the extreme case, these discourses assume a power in their circulation that alters the collective understanding of these objects and hence often the collective reality itself.

This system of symbolic circulation has major repercussions for politics today. Indeed, now that Burmese themselves are thrust back into political leadership roles, the liberal doxa (those things assumed to be true without question) that the dominant discourses have transmitted — of human rights, “rule of law,” etc. — are being exposed as politically impotent: they do not seem able...



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