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In this article, we assess ideas of “progress” in the evolution of Burma/Myanmar studies, asking whether shifting conditions might offer openings to reconsider narratives about the country. We question two recurring tropes consistent across the work of journalists, policy analysts and scholars: an alleged history of undifferentiated “isolation,” and the ensuing state of Burma/Myanmar following a seemingly “natural” decline. Such language reflects assumptions that otherwise go unspoken in accounts of Myanmar’s current transition.
We consider descriptions of Yangon’s colonial architecture, asking what depictions of the city as having languished following the colonial era might tell us about assumptions in Burma/Myanmar studies. Such depictions are emblematic of a common trope in the literature, whereby historical narratives of isolation replace more dynamic accounts of interaction, particularly in regard to land and property. Drawing on work in Yangon and Shan State, we question common descriptive impulses related to the difficulty of accounting for history— including dependency on a conventional timeline broken into unquestioned periods, and recurring references to “isolation,” “nationalization” or “customary tenure” as glosses for the relations present in such periods. We ask how those analyzing Myanmar might progress beyond such impulses, cognizant that increased access to the country offers opportunities to trouble simplistic narratives, highlighting their political and intellectual perils.