Knowledge, Piracy and Academic Development in Myanmar (Part II)

Mandy Sadan discusses the piracy of her work and tensions between academic publishing and reaching local audiences.

[Editor’s Note: In this second part of a two piece series, Dr Mandy Sadan, Reader in the History of South East Asia at SOAS University of London, discusses recent experiences of the piracy of her work in Myanmar and reflects on the difficult and competing demands placed upon academics. She also ponders the unintended consequences of knowledge piracy upon Myanmar’s higher education sector in a so-called ‘digital age’. You can find Part I here.] 

A noble path of improving access to knowledge in Myanmar takes a wrong turn 

It is very sad that what may have begun as a noble effort to spread and improve access to knowledge in Myanmar has ended up being potentially so counter-productive to this aim. We academics involved in Myanmar also may need to rethink some of our assumptions about these practices and how we personally engage with them. In a time where digital reproduction and circulation changes the scene, we should perhaps reflect more on the distinctions we make between different practices and the damage they may cause within a broader context of trying to rebuild higher education and public learning in Myanmar.

Where do we put the boundary markers of our own academic integrity? Academic integrity is a crucial concept in rebuilding academic standards in Myanmar, but academic integrity is really no more than a set of practices that uphold each other – or conversely, a spectrum of activities that serve gradually to unravel the academic integrity of an individual, a project or research group, or an institution. The pressured nature of academic life also tends to embed tendencies towards making shortcuts, which can cumulatively undermine this vital ethical underpinning of academic life. Copying as piracy is perhaps the most obvious of a spectrum of activities with which foreign academics involved in Myanmar are sometimes complicit. Many of us unwittingly contribute to a climate in which this kind of activity proliferates. I include myself in this.

The first justification for copying is the price of books that have been published internationally. Yet I had fewer concerns about people accessing Being and Becoming Kachin in Myanmar than elsewhere, because of the local practice of piracy. The price of academic hardcopy books is contentious to many of us and doesn’t affect Myanmar uniquely. Realising that the purchase price of your own book is even beyond your own pocket is a very common experience for those of us working on books price-pitched by publishers for library/institutional sales that are expected to be small. To be honest, I even felt that if the publisher pitched it at a price where they expected limited sales, they could not really complain if people took action that reinforced that expectation – I would certainly not object to someone obtaining a cheaper copied version of the original if I knew that this was not a lost sale (they would never buy the original) but an extension of circulation. The publisher’s business model was the thing that needed revision, not the desire of the person to read the book! However, we also have to recognise as authors that this pricing model can also protect routes to publication for less ‘saleable’ topics, and so we should not see publishers always as oppressive of our interests. But when the routes to sales become limited by the price, a grey area opens up that can be uncomfortable.

As many academics do, I therefore purchased and distributed as many volumes with my author discount (40%) as I could. I also knew that it would find its way eventually to the copy market of its own accord, if people found it interesting and without any action or encouragement from me – if they did not, it would not be copied. We remain attached to the idea that the effort to bring wider learning into Burma/Myanmar, including the illicit copying and translation of key works in politics, economics, in literature, history and the arts, has an important place in the nationalist struggle for independence and in counteracting the constraints of colonial censorship. In the post-independence state, counteracting the constraints of the new state’s own censorship also meant that there was an important social and cultural place for the illegal copying and circulation, and translation, of a range of printed materials. This was a vital avenue for civil society to retain a capacity to critique and keep alive alternative understandings of the world – and of Myanmar – outside of what was officially permitted.

The main symbol of this vibrant civil intellectual life has long been the iconic street booksellers lined up along Pansodan Street in downtown Yangon. In the 1990s when I lived in Yangon, at the cusp of the internet revolution, hours could be spent unearthing gems from the street booksellers: rare gems that had an ongoing lustre in the streets of the city in which many of them had been written decades earlier. We foreign academics have also absorbed a sense of the historical significance embedded in these practices, often appreciating the subversive aspects of them, which have been so important in supporting a vibrant underbelly of civil society against seemingly impossible odds. Having our books ‘On Pansodan’ has long been considered a mark of having ‘arrived’ as an academic working on Burma/Myanmar. I recall a very senior academic telling me with delight that they had seen Being and Becoming Kachin  ‘On Pansodan’ – not translated, ‘just’ copied. And yes – truly – I was delighted. I have also had many conversations with people about the out-of-the-way places in which they have found copies of their own books. Here is an example from a conversation via email between two senior scholars of Myanmar:

I am very pleased you found [my book] readable. I bought two copies in Yangon when I was there in January.  One, on Pansodan, for K15,000, a rip off.  …  The other in a bookshop opposite what used to be the Grand Myeyata.  The price was K8000.  I told him I was the author and he knocked off K500 and took my picture.  Other books I bought from him later in the week were all discounted.

Or, to me, offering congratulations on having ‘made it’ to Pansodan:

Really Mandy? Your book is on the Pansodan pavements? Bravo, that is where it should be. Had I known I’d have bought ten copies on the spot and given it to those who should be reading it. I just pub’d a book with [publisher] and it is $145 US, which is ridiculous, so will never be on Pansodan.

But perhaps many of us have a rather outdated and romanticised view of this practice and its wider effects. We imagine pioneer street sellers with a desire to spread knowledge against severe constraints and at great personal risk but today, the business element is dominated by local presses and highly digitised office settings dominating the copy scene with mainly a profit-making intent.

The paradox in this is that it means that the rather good sales of the book that seem to have taken place in Myanmar of Being and Becoming Kachin are completely beyond my capacity to evidence, and I subsequently can’t use them as proof of sales to persuade the publisher that a paperback version may be justified, or an open access version. Piracy has been even more of an issue with War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar (NIAS Press, 2016) because it is a more accessible book. Gerald, the chief editor of NIAS (a not-for-profit press) and I have had many conversations about this, but he still struggles to contain his frustration at the extent of the illegal copying that has taken place. He describes this as being “on an industrial scale” of this book, reducing actual sales within Myanmar almost to zero, when we know that it is extensively circulated and read, especially within the NGO community. This volume is not price-pitched to library sales, and a route to open access has been built in from the start. Many of the buyers are working for foreign NGOs that have policies against piracy, and some purchases could be set against expenses. But instead, the allure of the pirated copy becomes too great. This is damaging to a press that makes genuine efforts to supply the Myanmar market and which is not a profit-focused enterprise; there are even concerns that this practice, made so much easier by digital technologies, is now creating an impediment to publishers who would like to engage more directly with Myanmar markets, but who are put off by rampant piracy. Perhaps we need to think through our attitudes to this afresh to take into account changed circumstances. A terrible unintended outcome of writing this piece would be a crackdown on the hard=pressed sellers on the streets of Pansodan; but the role of presses and offset businesses in feeding this market with so little regard for developing standards of academic integrity as they rather exploitatively build their own businesses without feeding back to authors and SEA-focused publishers like NIAS should be the bigger concern if we are to move forward on these issues. 

Pressures to publish and the pressure to reach a local audience 

The tension between getting published and ensuring that we meet our commitments to making our research widely available is a dilemma that many of us in academia face, at all levels of our careers, especially in a neo-liberal setting in which we are constantly required to ‘perform’ academically.  Performance in the humanities in most higher education institutions is at least in part assessed through the quantity of ‘outputs’ published through elite academic presses. There are various moves to counteract this tendency – this includes ‘impact’ in a UK academic assessment context, and moves towards Open Access in many contexts. Yet even this latter issue is not straightforward. There is a big difference between making something available freely and widely without peer review (blogging, which can be excellent, or— the worst form of OA for an academic— vanity press or self-publishing) and the challenge we all face of finding reputable publishers who will provide open access to peer reviewed books without a paywall. Many publishers charge a large processing fee, which typically runs into the thousands of dollars, or else we are compelled to rely on pre-publication drafts through institutional repositories and other sites. This is a really complex issue – and I am constantly surprised at how many people want Open Access of their outputs but refuse to consider that their research data may be more important for supporting the development of a subject or of institutions in settings such as Myanmar (requirements of anonymity is an issue with a range of solutions, not a complete impediment).

Open Access is also not a singular, all encompassing solution. There are many differences between books as physical objects and books as electronic objects, which needs to be factored into the kinds of development we hope to facilitate in emerging academic institutions, and the kinds of learning and learning support that students require. As I have written in Part I, it was important to me that my book was a physical object and the materiality of it was a part of the overarching intellectual agenda. E-books and online access are not killing off the traditional printed book, as some thought they might – but the evidence is that they are substantially changing academic practices of research and learning, and not necessarily for the better. Lateral reading through a digital object changes the way we read and learn. Writing increasingly must be short, and the abstract is often more critical than the text. I have actually had graduate researchers contact me saying that they “don’t have time” to read my book, “but could I …?” It should not surprise them that after spending 15 years researching and writing a book that is important to their subject but that they don’t make time to read because it is long, that I don’t have time to reply to their email.

There are many complex issues around academic publishing that we all have to learn to manage – and which are frequently beyond our control. These also map onto supporting academic development in Myanmar in complex ways. However, these challenges are issues that are serious and compel us all to make careful choices in publishing. My take home lesson from my first experience of publishing a book is that I need to be more attuned to when, and whether, paperback copies may be produced. Or at what point a publisher will facilitate open access without a pay wall if they can be sure of recouping their investment. These are the challenges that we all have to face in trying to respond to very conflicting demands as we move from being independent researchers (PhD students) to being formally employed at an institution as pre-tenured faculty members seeking tenure or to pass ‘probation’ and who also have to be accountable to the peer review process of that institution. These are not simple issues and there are no single, straightforward solution that enable all these conflicts – between institutional ownership and commitments to local audiences – to be resolved. Instead the best that we can probably hope to do is to develop a holistic view of our published ‘output’ and make it work for multiple audiences, and to serve multiple audiences in well thought our ways: you cannot keep everyone happy all the time. Paper books, online books and articles, different journals, different presses ‘do’ different things. 

Returning to translation

The issue of translation is already a contentious debate in the academic uplift of Myanmar’s education sector, especially its universities as the language of higher education comes into question, or how academic uplift can be achieved through access to works that are not currently in Burmese (and not necessarily about Myanmar anyway). But the issue of translation has some critical distinctions within this broader spectrum of piracy and copying texts for an illicit market and what that does to disrupt the publishing industry or support access to knowledge. If there is a current trend towards taking texts and making poor quality, unauthorised translations of them, this has to be called out. I don’t know of any academic who doesn’t want people to read their work widely. But it is very hard to find good translators – and those that there are, are typically overburdened, not least with the endless need to translate reports and short documents for immediate policy consumption. Persuading anyone to take on a major project of this kind requires significant funding and finding the ‘right’ sort of person. All I can say is that, if anyone wishes to translate my work, I would be deeply grateful to them and would work closely to support that effort in whatever way I can. But they need to get in touch.

Yet this experience also shows how damaging some of these older assumptions about the right to copy, which blends seamlessly across this spectrum of practices into the right to translate someone else’s work without permission, needs to be addressed in Myanmar more directly if academic standards are to be improved. Publishers clearly need to work with universities and other institutions to support efforts to ensure that core text books can be provided in sufficient quantities to regenerate curricula, and to improve other access to resources. This is an educational development issue, not a business proposition, and needs to be supported financially by appropriate funding sectors. Externally also, more senior academics should focus less narrowly on helping junior academics reach the point of only seeing their work ‘in print’ (whether on paper or online). The most interesting part of any publication should be what happens when people start to engage with it. You cannot control this, but taking a more holistic view of the entire pre- and post-publication process is perhaps more important now than it ever was before in the face of new digital technologies that can so easily circulate, but also transform, your work. There are many things that you can do with your books after they are published that can be of significant help in this situation. However, it is also clear that ultimately there is very little that you can do to stop someone making an unauthorised translation of your work if they are committed to doing so. The creation of an academic (and media) culture in which it is considered completely unacceptable to do such things will only come about through a fuller and more open discussion and acknowledgement of the potentially damaging effects of such activities.

While mimicry is the greatest form of flattery, the longstanding assumption that to ‘Copy is Right’ in Myanmar may have reached a point in the present ‘knowledge economy’ where this is actually undermining the thing that it sets out to achieve – access to information and improving educational standards within the wider framework of academia and academic publishing. The experience of the illicit translation of my own work at an extreme end of this spectrum shows how damaging such activities can be when they are undertaken with a disregard for the hard work and endeavour of the author, and, in this case, the sensibilities of people who feel that once again, knowledge of their histories is being appropriated by a Burmese cultural hegemony. The publication of a review of an illicit ‘translation’ of such poor quality in a major online media outlet suggests that something is very wrong. The final sentence of my book states that there is a big need for those in the Bamar centre to listen to the experiences and worldviews of non-Bamar communities. Clearly that task is ongoing.

Mandy Sadan is Reader in the History of South East Asia at SOAS University of London. She has written extensively on the culture and history of the Kachin region of Myanmar but also has interests in issues relating to borderlands, conflict, identity and social memory, and war to peace transitions more broadly. She can be contacted at