Courtney Wittekind asks whether land claims might be calls for a re-orientation of time.
Arriving in Myanmar’s Shan State on a night bus from Yangon, after hours hurtling along the recently-constructed Yangon-Mandalay highway, our bus turns east, and the road begins to change from the smooth, hard concrete of the expressway to the rocky, uneven paths that twist around the Shan Hills. Approaching Taunggyi, the road levels out again, with new blacktop and cement throughways stretching out from the city’s center. Almost all the trees along the new roads have disappeared, fence posts taking their place. A checkerboard of crisscrossing barbed wire, intersecting cement walls, and lengths of bamboo stretch between the fence posts, marking out plots of land claimed by city residents, local farmers, and international investors alike.
This is the landscape that surrounds a village I refer to as Thayet Taw, lying kilometers outside Taunggyi’s city limits, where, upon first glance, it would seem that Myanmar’s internationally-touted “transition”—and the processes of modernisation, development, and democratisation it entails — has taken hold. A newly constructed factory lies just down the road, an internationally-funded rural development center is situated in a neighboring village, and a soaring cell phone tower, erected just last year on the outer boundary of Taunggyi, rises overhead, providing phone service and internet in an area where coverage was spotty just years before. A proposal to resurface a poorly laid road between Taunggyi and Kayah State’s capital of Loikaw offers further openings for transformed futures, with rumors that increased connection between the two cities might bring further investment to the scattered rural districts where villages like Thayet Taw are situated.
Yet, as evening draws near and Thayet Taw’s villagers meet over cups of tea and late-night meals, it’s not speculations of what the future holds that circulate, but rather descriptions of the past— a detailed accounting of who owned what land, what was farmed where, and for how long. The factory, rural development center, cell phone tower, and road project, as local villagers contend, were all situated on land formerly cultivated by rural, agricultural communities— communities for whom Myanmar’s “opening up” and Taunggyi’s recent growth represent not the emergence of a “new nation,” but rather a return to a past state of affairs.
For those living on the outskirts of Taunggyi, land conflicts represent just one of the paradoxes initiated by Myanmar’s recent transition. Future-oriented language of modernisation, economic development, and democratic transition reverberates from Yangon, Naypyitaw, and the region’s economic centers. But within peripheral, “in-between” locales, recent political shifts are instead seen as a return, en-masse, to the waves of land confiscation and dispossession as found most recently in the post-ceasefire period of the 1990s, as well as under regimes of an even further distant past— from the colonial-era claims to land made under British logics of “waste,” to rent-seeking by the Ne Win era Tatmadaw.
What might a consideration of transition and its contradictory temporalities, illuminated by land struggles of Myanmar’s Southern Shan state, offer accounts of Myanmar’s ongoing political transformation? In this post, I discuss one possibility: that a focus on land conflicts of the type faced by Thayet Taw reorients conversations around political futures. This focus challenges the assumption that there is a single, shared understanding of the kinds of modern ideologies of time underpinning political claims to a “new Myanmar” and the forms of development, progress, and modernisation central to the transition first outlined in Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt’s “seven-step roadmap to democracy” (New Light of Myanmar 2003). These modern ideologies of time—ideologies that comprehend time as linear and tied to inevitable progression toward modernity—are contested not only in terms of their efficacy or impact “on-the-ground,” but also in terms of their fundamental relevance to Myanmar’s peripheries, crucially shifts the conversation around the country’s political transition. Instead of simply seeking evidence of concrete change, we are compelled to ask whether “what’s changed” is in fact representative of the kind of transformed political progression that is heralded in the country’s center.
A description of Thayet Taw is useful to debates around this question given that the village is representative of two contrasting interpretations of Myanmar’s ongoing land conflicts. The first, as referenced above, is rooted in a sense of forward-oriented momentum, one that has propelled Myanmar to Khin Nyunt’s seventh step: the building of a “modern, developed, and democratic nation.” In this view, the arrival of cell phone towers, factories, and internationally-funded business and development initiatives are associated with a political consensus wherein the future of the country would be oriented around the introduction of new, ultra-modern technology, infrastructural improvements, and a turn from agriculture to industry. In this view, claims of the kind sustained by Thayet Taw’s villagers—demands for the return of farmland for local agriculture, in particular—represent “backwardness,” a pre-modern population oscillating between polarities of either ignorance borne of poverty, or stubbornness borne of an obstinate aversion toward the Burman majority. Put simply, ethnic minority populations are either viewed as too uneducated or too uncompromising to accept a new place in a modern Myanmar and broader neoliberal world system.
Thayet Taw’s villagers maintain a second interpretation, in contrast to the dominant perspective sketched above. Their interpretation reorients commonplace assumptions around temporality insomuch as villagers’ skepticism about their “new place” in a future-oriented Myanmar is, in large part, a direct rejection of the adjective “new.” In their view, not only is their position in a “new nation” one that places them at a disproportionate risk of dispossession when it comes to the allocation of land, but such a position cannot be understood as “new” at all. This, then, presents a broader challenge to received political narratives: rather than being seen as sustaining themselves in a zone external to processes of modernisation, development, and political change over past decades, villagers seem to be demanding that those in power reckon with their sense of continued and recurring dispossession. A dispossession that speaks not to their externality, but rather to their very embedded-ness in the historical processes of change that produced them as marginal subjects in a transitioning nation-state. While perhaps not leading the charge toward modernisation, development, and political change, but rather surviving in the margins from which such processes extracted their fuel, peripheral populations were and continue to be no less integral to forms of modernisation and development than those in the country’s center.
What might the existence of these two conflicting political narratives— and their inherent temporalities— have to say about the way we think about Myanmar’s ongoing political transition? In concluding, I offer three possibilities:
First, recognizing that time, as a concept, is more complex than we might initially perceive it to be demands that we take seriously the fact that the anticipatory, forward-looking temporality at the core of a country’s transition narrative cannot be considered a taken-for-granted reality. Rather than assume that future-oriented accounts resonate throughout the country, it’s crucial to consider that, for some, this narrative might miss the mark, with time and “progress,” instead, experienced as slowing, as fluctuating in cycles, or, as is the case for many villagers in Thayet Taw, returning to that which has come before.
Second, this contradictory sense of time— as recurring rather than advancing— and the claims to land it impels, must not be seen as evidence that those in the periphery are somehow “outside” or “out of step” with the processes of development, modernisation, and political change wrapped up in modern ideologies of time. As introduced here, for many, a sense of dispossession, and therefore, time, as recurring represents not their estrangement from broader political processes, but instead their embedded-ness within them. This requires a particularly significant reorientation of commonsensical national narratives in Myanmar, where political demands, particularly when voiced by ethnic minority groups, are often contextualized in a history that places them outside the reach of the state or as operating in defiant independence. This context is important, but must be balanced with recognition of interdependence and integration, alongside autonomy and resistance.
Finally, at the most practical level, when it comes to thinking about land conflicts of the type occurring across Myanmar, it’s crucial that we, whether as journalists, scholars, or citizens, consider such struggles as attempts to access more than economic or political resources. As I’ve tried to outline here, struggles over land are often sustained through particular worldviews that diverge from what is found at the country’s center, with notions such as time as much up for grabs as land itself. Particularly in Myanmar, where such claims are often sustained with an eye towards broader issues of representation, political authority, and self-determination, it’s key we ask what more, beyond plots of land, is at stake. As I have argued here, in the case of Thayet Taw, a recognition of local notions of recurring, interlinked land dispossessions, in this way, is crucial not only to the description of a locally-constituted worldview, but also to the accounting of an emerging political project that re-envisions the history of the periphery as central to what many are calling a “new nation.”