On the uses of (neo)liberalism in Myanmar and the promise of radical feminism

Shae A. Frydenlund uses a different lens to analyse the Rakhine State crisis.

“I sometimes wonder why I should bother to read one after another extended scholarly analysis only to reach, again and again, such an unsurprising conclusion.” – James Ferguson

Critiques of (neo)liberalism broadly aim to reveal the insidious ways that dispossession is depoliticized and justified qua economies and arts of government. Yet the recent scramble among scholars and journalists to understand the role of state power and (neo)liberal ideology in shaping Rohingya displacement has revealed few surprising insights about the mechanisms underpinning violence in Myanmar, nor has it revealed any new possibilities for undermining the structures and discourses that frame this violence as inevitable. Of course, this is not to say that (neo)liberal ideology does not harm minorities and the poor. It most certainly does.

Drawing on James Ferguson, I argue that a myopic focus on (neo)liberal ideology belies its polyvalence and overlooks its uses for radical and subversive ends. Here neoliberalism is understood as the particularly insidious refusal to see liberalism as a political rather than economic project (Brown, 2010). This piece engages with current debates over analyses of Rohingya displacement and the controversial positioning of well-known Burma studies scholar, Dr. Jacques Leider. The aim is to identify a productive politics of scholarly engagement with Rohingyas and violence in Myanmar. I argue that radical feminisms and feminist methods decenter (neo)liberalism as an organizing principle of intellectual life, enable the (co)production of knowledge that resists co-optation, and subvert narratives that render vulnerable people less than human.

An unexpected conversation with Jacques Leider

By now most scholars of Myanmar are well-acquainted with the work of Luxembourger historian Dr. Jacques Leider, whose scholarship is frequently cited (or shared in the form of social media memes) to support claims of Rohingya fraudulence, nonexistence, foreignness, or deviance. Several Burma studies scholars have highlighted instances where his work has been taken up to serve anti-Rohingya or chauvinist interests (see, for example, recent pieces by Tim Frewer, Soe Lin Aung in Tea Circle). Although I strongly agree with Soe Lin Aung’s political economy analyses and Tim Frewer’s critiques, the authors include no more than a cursory citation of Jacques Leider’s research on Rakhine history and Rohingya ethnicity as an example of problematic (neo)liberal scholarship. Viewing problems exclusively through the lens of (neo)liberalism does not do much to innovate new ways of understanding the causes and conditions of Rohingya displacement, nor does it open space for radical alliances that achieve social and political change. Rather, these analyses work to reinforce the centrality of (neo)liberalism as an organizing principle of intellectual and material life while falling short of recognizing its potentially subversive uses.

I do find aspects of Dr. Leider’s work problematic: specifically, I disagree with his emphasis on colonial recordkeeping and his representations of time and place in narratives of Rohingya ethnic identity, which don’t prioritize Rohingyas’ own views of their history and their experiences of ‘awakening.’ I also disagree with his views of the role of scholars in politics. My intention is not to defend Dr. Leider’s positioning in the academy, but to consider how an engagement with his work, and the histories it has created, can inform subversive activisms and scholarship. It is no coincidence that Rohingya politician and historian U Kyaw Min and Jacques Leider are close friends and respected peers.

Jacques Leider has written extensively on the early history of the kingdom of Mrauk-U, and has documented detailed historical evidence of Muslim settlement and influence in Arakan. His methods include analysis of religious texts and inscriptions, colonial documents, historical records, and political publications. Dr. Leider is also known for his research on the genesis of Rohingya ethnic identity during Myanmar’s postcolonial era. This work broadly argues that contemporary Rohingya ethnicity was constructed as part of a movement to distinguish Rohingyas from other Myanmar Muslims in order to access greater political rights in a new Myanmar state. Many of us have become preoccupied with Dr. Leider’s work and the ease with which it has been co-opted, but few (myself included) have taken the time to engage more deeply with the multiple ways his work has been taken up.

In my own haste to condemn Dr. Leider as a neocolonialist and Rakhine sycophant, I set up a strawman that contributed nothing meaningful to public conversations or scholarship on violence against Rohingyas. While I take issue with multiple aspects of Leider’s work, I find that taking passing potshots at Leider is not useful; rather, it betrays a lack of deeper consideration of his work and its meanings and uses for Rohingya activism while centering liberalism, and its masculinism, as the primary terrain of engagement and analysis.

I recently reached out to Dr. Leider to discuss his scholarship and ask for his perspective on a searing critique, not dissimilar to Tim Frewer’s, that I had written several months ago. He responded by patiently pointing out that his reputation among both scholars and activists has shifted over the years:

“Looking back, it’s quite ironic how things have changed. Today I am often characterized as someone whose scholarship apparently serves the Rakhine better, and insinuating that Rohingya for me are just ‘only’ a political construct.”

Dr. Leider emphasized that he has not always been popular with Rakhine and Buddhist nationalists: “Before 2012, many Rakhine wondered why I put into evidence so much of the Muslim heritage and supposedly essentializing Muslim roles.” Following the events of 2012, Dr. Leider has been sharply criticized among Rohingya advocates for producing scholarship that is easily co-opted by anti-Rohingya activists and chauvinists. He is also critiqued for failing to strongly condemn this co-optation.

Yet for many years, Jacques Leider’s scholarship provided one of the few comprehensive historical accounts of Muslim presence and influence in ancient Arakan. His work has featured prominently in Rohingyas’ own activist publications, including U Kyaw Min’s own books about Rohingya history. Every young Rohingya activist I know has read work informed by Dr. Leider and U Kyaw Min. U Kyaw Min maintains frequent correspondence with Jacques Leider – on any given day I arrive at my office to find U Kyaw Min writing an email to Dr. Leider about recent transcripts, publications, or other findings related to Rohingya history. When I asked Dr. Leider about the ways that his work has influenced Rakhine and Buddhist nationalist texts, he responded that he regrets the ways that “racists” take up his work. He then reflected on his relationship with Rohingya history and political activism:

“My article on ‘These Buddhist kings with Muslim names…’ has been probably the most popular piece I ever wrote. I take some pride in having brought to attention a 15th-century Persian inscription in Mrauk U, now edited by Thibaut d’Hubert of the University of Chicago. The now famous Buchanan-Hamilton use of the term ‘Rooinga’ in 1799 is something I had been discussing with people in Rakhine long before it was taken up by Rohingya activists”

It would be incorrect to assume that Dr. Leider is not interested in improving the situation for Rohingyas and Rakhines. Yet we disagree on our respective roles as scholars in the debate over who Rohingyas are, what caused their displacement, and where they belong in Myanmar. For one, Dr. Leider is genuinely optimistic about the benefits of engaging with the army as an intellectual and researcher. He sees benefits in talking to government and military officials, and was encouraged by their willingness to invite him to a recent panel discussion about the ‘Rakhine’ issue.

Jacques Leider also made the point that virtually no one from the West is engaging with Tatmadaw officials in the diplomatic or scholarly realms, and that his participation created an opportunity to learn something about the human beings who make (murderous) decisions in Myanmar. As Alison Mountz (2010) shows in her institutional ethnography of Canada’s border and immigration police, the state is embodied through the everyday actions of bureaucrats with their own complex views, narratives, and feelings. Dr. Leider attended the panel in part because he was interested in observing military officials. I can’t help but think that being photographed alongside Tatmadaw officials is bad enough. I would prefer to go the way of Lenin and require actual mummification before my likeness was used to normalize and depoliticize despots.

Gentlemanly engagement with the Tatmadaw is problematic for multiple reasons. Few trust that the leaders of the Tatmadaw are actually concerned about their legitimacy, given their tireless efforts to gaslight anyone who accuses them of committing atrocities today or in the past. Although the panel discussion went largely unnoticed, Dr. Leider’s presence could easily be used in the future alongside unhinged quotes from other participants to shore up racist, nationalist claims about Rohingya criminality and foreignness.

I respect Jacques Leider’s work and its role in shaping Rohingya political struggles, yet I reject gentlemanly academic engagement with despots. Broadly, the notion that ‘rationality’ and ‘rational’ conversations can solve political problems is based on masculinist, colonial, and (neo)liberal ideologies that neglect the power dynamics that allow some voices to be heard and others to be silenced. This same ideology allows some knowledge to be recognized as legitimate and scientific, and other forms of knowledge to be dismissed as un-scientific or illegitimate.

Dr. Leider and I agree that the concept of Rohingya ethnicity is evolving and changing, just as all ethnic identities do. Scholars of ethnicity and identity argue that all ethnic identities are constructed in one form or another, and that all identities are political (Haraway, 1988; Treitler, 2013; Wimmer, 2008). The political nature of identity does not preclude its existence, meaning, or legitimacy. Jacques Leider does not disagree with this statement; rather, he eschews the active participation of scholars in politics and aims to produce scholarship that recognizes the taken-for-granted sentiments shared by many Rakhines. However, Pyu Pyu Thi and her colleagues managed to accomplish this aim in their 2017 article without providing fodder for anti-Rohingya netizens.

My conversation with Dr. Leider challenged me to think critically about the multiple ways that scholarly knowledge has both harmed and benefited vulnerable people in the specific context of Myanmar. It also challenged me to think back to a crucial piece of scholarship: James Ferguson’s ‘The Uses of Neolbieralism,’ which argues that neoliberalism doesn’t always serve neoliberal interests. Jacques Leider’s ‘liberal’ tendencies have not and do not serve only (neo)liberal ends. As I write, his writings circulate to create new space for Rohingya resistance. People are gathering to discuss, critique, and take up his work. If we dismiss Jacques Leider, we also dismiss these possibilities.

The final section turns towards a discussion of radical feminism and feminist methods to identify methods for producing knowledge about Rohingyas that is not easily appropriated for purposes of enacting violence, dispossession, or abandonment.

The promise of radical feminism

For over the last couple of decades, what we call ‘the Left’ has come to be organized, in large part, around a project of resisting and refusing harmful new developments in the world. But it has left us with a politics largely defined by negation and disdain, and centered on what I will call ‘the antis.’ Anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism, anti-privatization, anti-imperialism, anti-Bush, perhaps even anti-capitalism—but always ‘anti’, not ‘pro’. This is good enough, perhaps, if one’s political goal is simply to denounce ‘the system’ and to decry its current tendencies.” – James Ferguson (2010), p. 1

In ‘The uses of neoliberalism,’ James Ferguson warns that in providing a coherent idea of neoliberalism, one has created a counter-ideology that discursively functions to anchor neoliberalism as the primary point for theoretical and political engagement. Operating within ‘anti’ critiques of (neo)liberalism only gets us so far, as there is never space for being ‘pro’. Furthermore, critical scholars often fail to realize that critiques of (neo)liberalism often work to reinforce masculinist methodologies by prioritizing some forms of knowledge, and specific forms of critique, over others. More specifically, Tim Frewer’s recent polemic against liberalism reproduces the same ways of knowing about Rohingyas that he critiques – namely, a linear progression of points and counterpoints that prioritize elite academic knowledge and genderless analysis without considering the vast body of feminist and subaltern literature and methods that have innovated new approaches to the dilemma of critiquing power structures without reproducing them. By remaining within the terrain of (masculine) liberalism, Frewer does not move beyond a politics of the ‘anti’. This is not to say that I disagree with his critiques of liberalism. On the contrary. Yet operating within masculinist terrains of critique and knowledge production is not useful for building alliances that subvert, rather than shore up, capitalism and the capillary workings of power in Myanmar.

There are limitless possibilities in the radical politics of feminism and feminist methods, which address broader questions of gender, race, class, and power as they relate to knowledge production (see Nagar, 2006).

Where traditional (masculinist) Western science pursues ‘objective’ knowledge about the world, feminist scholars emphasize the fact that the production of knowledge itself is not neutral, but deeply political (Haraway, 1988). As Tim Fresner correctly observes, knowledge about Rohingyas has material consequences as it shapes the understandings of journalists, diplomats, analysts, and state actors.

Feminist scholars have innovated several methods and approaches that resist co-optation by the state, chauvinist political groups, and neo-nazi activists, to name a few.  For example, Elizabeth Povinelli (2012) developed the method of austere ethnography in response to Australian state policymakers’ misuse of a report on aboriginal communities, which mentioned instances of child sex abuse but included no evidence or claims that it was a ‘rampant’ problem. State representatives cited the report to justify draconian restrictions on the finances, movements, and childrearing practices of indigenous Australians. Galvanized by this co-optation, Elizabeth Povinelli’s writings highlight her everyday interactions with aboriginal peoples, but reveal no details about the cultural, economic, or political lives of aboriginal peoples themselves. Instead, her research combines theory with mundane accounts of institutional violence and abandonment. For example, one passage examines ‘economies of abandonment’ through a recollection of the ubiquity of painful staph infections on the skin. Povinelli reflects on inequitable access to resources like clean water, washing machines, or bacterial-resistant wool clothing, which became more difficult after welfare payments were cut and money became accessible only through prepaid debit cards. Povinelli prioritizes her role as a provider of everyday acts of care in a vulnerable community, while considering whether or not she should write about the details of this care and the people she has cared for.

In addition to austere ethnography and everyday acts of care, Community Based Research methods provide a toolkit for creating research that resists co-optation through its attention to the role of communities in the design, implementation, and dissemination of research. These methods also decenter researcher ‘expertise’ and question researcher positioning vis-à-vis participants and the process of producing knowledge. For example, Richa Nagar’s conceptualization of ‘radical vulnerability’ encourages the researcher to make themselves vulnerable to participants in a similar way that participants are often asked to be vulnerable with researchers. This concept aims to address the vast differences in power and access to resources that often separate researchers and ‘the researched’ by cultivating emotional equity.

Feminist methods prioritize community and individual insights about best practices for engaging with researchers and the ways they may be able to achieve their goals through alliances with academics. In the context of my own research on Myanmar, a collaboration with Rohingya political activists and students has shed new light on the meanings and challenges associated with literature that represents Rohingyas as a ‘stateless’ mass of humanity. As one community partner explained to me, “we are not stateless. Our citizenship was taken away.” Prioritizing Rohingyas’ ideas about what ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’ research looks like and trusting their views of what an academic ally should write about, opens new avenues for undermining knowledge that reinforces the role of the state as the arbiter of rights while simultaneously representing Rohingyas as less-than-human.

Radical feminism also enables us to look beyond generic stories of Rohingya vulnerability to highlight the everyday ways that many displaced Rohingyas contribute to societies, economies and places. In her discussion of the production of knowledge about Black experiences in the United States, McKittrick (2011) challenges academic writers to engage an analytics of race and racism based on human life, not on human suffering. Bifurcated understandings of dispossession and possession miss the importance of human life in forming and mediating structural processes. To study dispossession from the perspective of inevitable killing and death is to consign racialized bodies to death without recognizing the lives that people make diagonal to geographies of racism and dispossession. Recent analyses of Rohingya displacement from the perspective of state power over ‘bare life’ only work to frame Rohingyas according to their deaths, not their lives. Academic research about Rohingyas, therefore, should be predicated on life and act as a space for cooperative action and human efforts (McKittrick, 2011: 960).

Crucially, analyses of suffering need not preclude necropolitics and the role of the state in wielding absolute power over death (Mbembe, 2006). However, I do not see a tension or contradiction between the recognition of oppressive state power and the production of scholarly knowledge that resists representations of people as ‘bare life’ and less-than-human.

Efforts to co-produce feminist, anti-capitalist, and antiracist knowledge about Rohingya experiences creates space for new alliances between rural Rohingyas, political activists, and Gramscian ‘organic’ intellectuals who aim to cultivate a broader class consciousness among Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities. The formation of alliances between diverse intellectuals and ethnic minority activists not only has the potential to alter party politics in Myanmar, these alliances have the potential to undermine and destroy the forms of knowledge that allow Rohingyas and other populations to be marked as deviant, abandoned, and to be killed with impunity.


Works Cited
Brown, Wendy. (2010). Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Boston: MIT Press.
Haraway, Donna. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies14(3), 575-599.
Ferguson, James. (2010). The uses of neoliberalism. Antipode, 41(1), 166-184.
Mbembe, Achille. (2006). Necropolitics. Raisons politiques, (1), 29-60.
Mountz, A. (2010). Seeking asylum: Human smuggling and bureaucracy at the border. University of Minnesota Press
Nagar, Richa and the Sangtin writers (2006). Playing with fire: Feminist thought and activism through seven lives in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Povinelli, E. A. (2011). Economies of abandonment: Social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rose, Hilary. (1994). Love, power, and knowledge: Towards a feminist transformation of the sciences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Treitler, Vilna. (2013). The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions. Stanford University Press.
Schissler, Matt, Matthew J. Walton, and Phyu Phyu Thi. (2017) “Reconciling Contradictions:
Buddhist-Muslim Violence, Narrative Making and Memory in Myanmar.” Journal of
Contemporary Asia, 4(73) 376-395.
Strand, Kerry, Nicholas Cutforth, Randy Stoecker, Sam Marullo, and Patrick Donohue. (2003). Community-based research and higher education: Principles and practices. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Wimmer, A. (2008). The making and unmaking of ethnic boundaries: A multilevel process theory. American Journal of Sociology113(4), 970-1022.


Shae A. Frydenlund is a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work examines race, gender, and labor in the Himalayas and Myanmar. She is the author of “Labor and Race in Nepal’s Indigenous Nationalities Discourse: Beyond ‘Tribal’ vs ‘Peasant’ Categories” in the journal Himalaya. She can be reached at shae.frydenlund@colorado.edu.

Photo: Carsten ten Brink