Author: Patrick McCormick
Burma and Burma Studies
Burma is open for business. Recent changes in government have meant positive developments for those doing research in and about the country. While some foreign researchers already found ways to do research inside in the 1990s, it was not until the early 2000s that greater numbers started to arrive. Even if many of the technical difficulties and restrictions, such as obtaining long-term visas or access to areas outside major cities, still remain in place or are only gradually beginning to ease, more people inside the Burmese system may be embracing the idea of openness, change, and possibility. Just in the past few years, an ever-growing number of scholars and researchers have been spending time in the country.
Moving intellectual conversations forward in the study of Burma has been a slow process, and it is worth reviewing how this came to be. For decades, Burma Studies mostly fell off everyone’s radars. Before WWII, much of the scholarship related to Burma was the work of scholar-officials of the British colonial administration, including historian D.G.E. Hall, J.S. Furnivall, and archaeologist-art historian-linguist Gordon Luce, and their Burmese protégés, such as Taw Sein Ko, Pe Maung Tin, and Htin Aung. After WWII (followed by independence in 1948), several foreign researchers conducted fieldwork through the early 1960s, and some of the resulting scholarship remains influential even today, such as the work of anthropologist Melford Spiro.
When U Ne Win came to power in 1962, he effectively shut the country off from the outside world, and access for foreigners was tightly restricted. Many scholars who had intended to study Burma chose other research sites, although others tried to study the country by proxy by doing research among cross-border communities who either lived on both sides of the Thai-Burma border, or had moved to Thailand to escape conflict inside the country. Research on Shans, Mons, Akha and some other upland groups falls into this category. Few of those researchers spoke Burmese or had much direct experience with the country, so that it was difficult for them to place their observations in a larger Burmese—as opposed to Thai—context. Finally, there were some scholars, such as historians Victor Lieberman and Michael Aung-Thwin, and the political scientist Robert Taylor, who were either able to negotiate access to the country or the nature of their work allowed them to make use of documents and other sources available outside of the country.
This decades-long, near-total hiatus in research and scholarship has put Burma Studies in a rather different situation than found in other nearby countries. Scholarship on Thailand or Indonesia, for example, is now in its third or greater generation, meaning that much of the earliest scholarship produced—during the colonial period or contact with the west—has been reexamined, built upon, rethought or discarded. Next door in India, generations of local and international scholars have engaged in lively debates to rethink much of the received wisdom on the Subcontinent. These efforts have included projects of intellectual decolonization.
In Burma Studies, however, the earliest classical scholarship of the colonial era (and just after) is still highly important, simply because there have been so few scholars to revisit it. In many fields, vast amounts of primary sources have yet to be properly processed. In history, for example, primary sources in Burmese, Pāli, and local languages have yet to be read and catalogued, much less annotated or analyzed. Within Burma itself, early colonial work has come to define how Burmese understand themselves, not to mention how they practice academia.
From an institutional perspective, universities throughout the world offer some support to Burma Studies, most importantly the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University, which opened in the 1980s. While the Center is a huge boon for Burma Studies, throughout the rest of North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, faculty working on Burma-related topics, not to mention actually offering instruction in the Burmese language, have been all too few and far between, especially in comparison with Indonesian, Thai, or Vietnamese. Now, however, Burma Studies are finally moving forward, with new researchers working on Burma-related topics. Within Burma itself, opportunities impossible even just a few years ago are slowly emerging, such as working with local universities and faculty. In 2015, a foreign student studying anthropology was allowed to spend time in a Burmese village, something which, as far as I know, has not happened since the 1950s.
Research and intellectual life in Burma
I have focussed largely on international scholars coming to Burma to do research or working on Burma-related topics. What of Burmese scholars themselves? What of the universities, academics, and the state of intellectual discourse in the country itself?
It would be hard to exaggerate the effects of decades of underfunding and tight control on the universities, institutions which have been associated with protest and unrest since their founding during the colonial era. Most of the bilateral, internationally-funded programmes at places like Mandalay and Yangon Universities provide foreign guest lecturers and funding to improve infrastructure, or trains faculty to improve their skills. Because of the state of the universities, little research has come from there.
Other factors have also served to check the universities and perhaps the intellectual environment in the country more widely.
Burmese generally view the Ministry of Education as the most conservative ministry of all. Administrators have little autonomy or decision-making power—indeed, they may not even want it or see it as part of their role as educators.[i] Educational matters, including school curricula, are the purview of the central government, so that university rectors have little power to make changes. It is possible, however, that the new government headed by the National League for Democracy might try to encourage greater devolution of power.
Another difficulty is the role of the English language in national life. The university is a colonial institution, so for most Burmese today, being educated means being able to speak English, even if there is nothing like the facility in English that there is in, for example, India. Because of Burma’s economic and political realities, the purpose of education is to be able to work abroad. Intellectual production at the universities is oriented towards the outside, not towards domestic consumption. Although the medium of instruction can be either English or Burmese, there is a strong tendency to teach in English, despite the lack of skills among both teachers and students. Depending on the department and subject, PhD theses must be written in English and only English-language textbooks are used, even in subjects like Burmese history. A lecturer at the University of Mandalay has shown that the majority of students and instructors would like to use English as the medium of instruction.[ii] Nevertheless, it may be difficult to make the switch; re-examining the position of English in education and more widely in society will mean rethinking the colonial experience. The legacy of colonial defeat, of having gone from a pre-colonial empire to small appendage of British India, was the first reason for the Burmese society to lose confidence in itself. After independence, a succession of isolationist and nativist regimes kept the country isolated and poor. Today lingers a deep, if unacknowledged, sense of inadequacy, and perhaps distrust of the Burmese language and institutions to be able to provide for a ‘modern’ and ‘developed’ education, much less society.
Perhaps relatedly, much scholarly production in the universities is cut off from the larger intellectual world inside the country. If PhD students write only in English using English-language sources, but cannot produce scholarship of interest to foreign audiences, who will read their work? What conversations—and with whom—will they take part in? Questions of language and medium of instruction, not just the question of English vs. Burmese in the universities, but of Burmese vs. other local languages at lower levels, are thorny and fraught.
Towards the future
The most recent change of government may allow many positive changes. Over the next several decades, the economic and political situation may foster much greater prosperity. The brain drain may reverse, or at least be stemmed, and educated people may start to see the possibility of having the kind of life they want inside the country. As has happened in India with the rise of the middleclass, there may be a greater demand for the use of local languages, even in higher education.
Thongchai Winichakul has written of ‘home scholars’ to talk of Thais educated abroad, but who write or produce in Thai, with local audiences in mind.[iii] While home scholars may now be a common feature of the Thai intellectual landscape, they have only recently begun to appear in Burma. One such appearance is in the burgeoning Burmese-language print media, which is thriving after censorship restrictions were eased. The numbers of such home scholars may continue to grow and acquire a greater voice. The possibilities for genuine collaboration and collegiality between foreign and local researchers may also grow. In the Philippines and Singapore, such academic collaboration between colleagues has been possible. These two advances have obvious links with language: the possibility of a genuine Burmese-language intellectual milieu developing, while at the same time, having the self-confidence and English-language skills to engage with international scholars. Or, as in Japan and increasingly in Thailand and elsewhere, providing foreigners with opportunities and incentives for learning the local language.
I would like to end on a final note of caution with regard to what may be a form of narcissism: assuming that once Burma improves its educational system its intellectual ideas will be similar to those of the West. Today, many Burmese speak of education in the country as having fallen behind or having been cut off from the rest of the world, and as needing to catch up. Outsiders voice similar sentiments, speaking for example of how old-fashioned ideas have lingered in the country, or how academia is in a ‘time warp’. It would be dangerous, however, to think that as more Burmese are educated in universities with better resources and teaching methods, that their research interests or perspectives will become ‘just like ours’.
To illustrate, we can return to the example of Thailand. Even though Thais have been exposed to western-style education and ideas for decades, many Thai research agendas reflect local perspectives and interests. Research in history, for example, is very much informed by the royalist-nationalist school of historiography taught in schools. History is a good example of differences in what is at stake depending on whether one is embedded in local, national intellectual worlds, or writing as an international scholar. For local scholars, history is deeply imbricated in ideas about the self and identity, which are taught early on. Many are reluctant to allow the interpretation of ‘our’ past to fall into the hands of outsiders. International scholars, however, tend to see questions of history in abstract ways and engage in conversation more with each other than with local audiences. More importantly, the way they deal with the topic—supposedly in ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’ ways—may ride rough over cherished local interpretations and ideologies.
Language does not always equal Ethnicity
Ethnic names and categories have such a solidity in Burma, and indeed ethnicity and difference have long been both a cause and consequence of conflict and violence. In discussing their research topics, each author teases out strands going into the solid-seeming categories of ethnicity and language. Tug on Palaung scripts and language, and we find Shan models and vocabulary. Pull at Kachin, and we find that not all of the groups under the label necessarily think of themselves as belonging there. Yet we find that linguistically some of the core Kachin groups share features among each other, but not with either their neighbours or with their closest linguistic relatives. Aspects of Shan reflect contact with Burmese, while the names for the Burmese dialects have changed and shifted over time. The sounds of some of the Burmese dialects reflect contact with speakers of surrounding languages, as over time they have shifted their own language and identities.
As someone who has worked both as a linguist and as a historian, I believe some nuance need to be brought to conversations about language, ethnicity, and identity through disciplinary border crossing. I have seen how historians struggle to understand linguistic concepts, and linguists often use historical writing uncritically to interpret linguistic data. When talking about language contact or multilingualism, non-specialists often think this results in a language melt-down, with people speaking ‘pidgins’ and ‘creoles’. However, there are many concrete examples of what actually does happen—how speakers of one language replicate the words and grammar of another—while describing the context of hierarchy in which these replications occur.
Looking at how speech communities stand in relation to each other, how those positions can shift over time, and how the communities themselves change over time, all gives us some insight into how definitions of language and ethnicity are processes with a time depth. In revisiting and rethinking some of these ideas, or looking into the evolution of languages and scripts, we recognize that even if categories of language and identity are in some sense constructed, they still have a reality and a vital importance to the people to whom they belong.
Patrick McCormick, Researcher, Department of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zürich, and École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), Yangon (email@example.com)
Note to readers: this is a modified version of an essay that appeared in the Focus section of the IIAS Newsletter Number 75, “Does language equal ethnicity in Burma” with an expanded section on Burmese universities (for the full Focus section, including related contributions \several other authors at iias.asia
[i] Brooke Zobrist and Patrick McCormick, A Preliminary Assessment of Decentralization in Education: Experiences in Mon State and Yangon Region (Yangon: Asia Foundation, 2013).
[ii] Thant Sin Aye, “The role of the Myanmar language and English language as mediums of instruction to teach academic disciplines in higher education,” presented at the International Conference on Language Policy in Multicultural and Multilingual Settings, Mandalay University (Mandalay, Myanmar) 8-11 February 2016.
[iii] See Thongchai Winichakul, ‘Writing at the interstices: Southeast Asian historians and post-national histories in Southeast Asia,’ in Abu Talib Ahmad and Tan Liok Ee, New Terrains in Southeast Asian History, Singapore University Press, 2003, pp. 3-29.