Reflections on the SOAS-Oxford Graduate Student Conference (Part II)

Erin McAuliffe considers trends in new research on Burma/Myanmar.

The following is the second of two posts reflecting on the recent Oxford-SOAS Graduate Student Workshop, organized around the theme of “New Directions in Research on Myanmar.” Please see Part I here.


Political liberalization in Myanmar has had significant positive impact on research opportunities in the country and young scholars are bringing new perspectives to long studied histories, situations, and curiosities. As the country liberalizes and technology advances, so do opportunities for collecting and openly sharing diverse data media. The research presented and the personal experiences exchanged by participants at the recent graduate workshop hosted by SOAS and Oxford at the end of May in 2017 highlighted the richness of opportunity and interest in this time of excitement and anxiety for Myanmar. Young scholars these days are no longer confined to the archives or the urban landscapes deemed ‘safe’ and ‘visible’ spaces by former regimes. The work of graduate students who attended the workshop exemplified that niches for field research reach from the borderlands of Rakhine State to the edges of the Golden Triangle in the Wa hills and from the farmlands of Kachin State to the urban spaces of Mon State. New perspectives on state-society relations in Myanmar are also emerging from all sides of modern state boundaries. Participants brought not only research outcomes from within Myanmar’s modern state boundaries but from India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, and even a small city in the U.S. state of Colorado. The discussions that occurred during panels and informally over the three-day event showed how new research on Myanmar is reaching all corners of the globe and altering the former binaries of colonial/decolonial, state/non-state, governed/autonomous, and majority/minority. My fellow participants at this conference are emphasizing the relative, situational, and overlapping narratives of change, power, boundaries, and belonging. Positionality, conceptualization of the state, and the production of localized histories were major themes that emerged from the work, experiences, and interests of participants.

The various ways we, as young researchers, position ourselves in our research and our interest in the country was a recurring topic during the workshop. Positionality is an important consideration, particularly as we navigate new avenues for research as the various populations within and among Myanmar’s borders navigate transition. Those who attended the workshop shared their research and experiences from various positions. One positioned herself among Karen Buddhists as a means of understanding the complexity of religion, wealth, and morality in the choice-making and negotiations behind interpretations of ‘good’ in Buddhist society. Another panel on the experiences of relocated communities in Yangon’s urban environment discussed how to communicate and reflect on the emotion interviewees showed during conversations with the researcher. A Burmese student studying the origins of xenophobia during the colonial period from popular perceptions of amyo shared that the hardest thing for them in their research was to understand their research not only from the inside out but from the outside in. For them, positionality is entangled between the forces of translation and the historical ideologies of the ‘Western’ academe. Between panels, we also discussed the experiences in the country that influenced our research interests and field research locations. For one participant in particular, past positive experiences in Rakhine as a black American influenced their decision to situate their fieldwork among those communities. Whereas being black is often met with discomfort across Southeast Asia, the participant was surprised and thrilled by the positive and near ‘celebrity-like’ reception they received by populations in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Associations with Beyoncé and hip-hop allowed this participant to engage with those in Rakhine State in ways not experienced in other corners of Southeast Asia.

Who is, what is, or where is “the state” was another theme that emerged within the diverse research of participants. As is evident from the research being done by graduate students studying Myanmar today, “the state” does not exclusively refer to the modern sovereign boundaries of Myanmar or the central government; the notion of “the state” shifts across various local, regional, and national authorities and spatial landscapes. For one participant, farmland in Kachin State is at the crossroads of power struggles and negotiations between multiple centers of authority. For another, the transactions of property within the transitions of different “state” apparatuses from pre-colonial to post-authoritarian times changes the notion of belonging for those entangled with the politics of property ownership. For some communities in Myanmar, “the state” is a physical entity that refers to local, regional, and nation individuals and institutions acting on their affairs and at other times it is a field of power that transcends the physical world, resulting in everyday fear, skepticism, determinism, and desire. Two participants have situated their research in Wa State, a region of Myanmar snug in the corners of the Golden Triangle known for its autonomy. Although they both bring different perspectives on the entangled web of power centers that govern the Wa, it is clear that political authority in Wa state is a dynamic process of overlapping geographies and state-making practices. The complex governance network that formulates the political space in the borderlands of Wa State challenge traditional notions of who is, what should be, and how to define “the state.” Other narratives of “the state” from participants include how the state defines itself within the emerging tourism environment, portraying the homogeneity of a Buddhist culture while embracing the “exoticism” and cultural heterogeneity of ethnicity intriguing many tourists about Southeast Asia, and the strategic choices of Anglo-Burman communities in embracing their European identity or Burmese identity during the transition from colonial to independent rule. Others shared how they analyze the forces that create narratives of “the state” from outside Myanmar’s borders. One participant is starting field research on kinship relations across borders from both Rakhine State and Ramu, Bangladesh, and another analyzes the multi-relational circuits of loyalty that emerge with state practices from Northeast India.

As opportunity to stay and study for academics and practitioners increases and the space for communities to express opinions and personal thoughts improves, new local histories of being, belonging, and becoming come to the forefront of studies of Myanmar’s historical and ongoing state-making processes. One participant, as mentioned previously, situated their fieldwork among farming communities in Kachin State, collecting information on their shifting interactions with different authorities and land classifications. For another, Myanmar’s new environment presented an opportunity to study forms of backlash on government repression through collecting the opinions of student activists in various urban centers across Myanmar as well as in Thailand. A third participant described the changing environment as a door to research opportunities in places previously only romanticized by the government and journalists. The opening up of the country is allowing us as young graduate students to study, understand, and narrate the social, political, and environmental situations of various community organizations across Myanmar’s diverse landscape.

The conference was a positive experience for everyone. For many of us, it was an opportunity to reconnect, exchange stories and new experiences from fieldwork, and discuss research ideas; however, it was also an excellent opportunity to connect with several new faces and expand our personal networks. The closing remarks of the conference reflected many of the positive features of the graduate workshop. Most participants shared that the size of the conference (approximately 28 participants) and the time allotted to workshop each student’s paper (approximately 45 minutes) was excellent. All agreed that this was an event that should be repeated every year for the professional and personal benefit of all young scholars working in Myanmar.

Erin L. McAuliffe is graduating from the University of Washington with an M.A. in International Studies and will be beginning a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Michigan in the Fall of 2017. She has lived in both Thailand and Myanmar over the past seven years and her personal research focuses on the processes of ethnic classifications in both colonial and contemporary Myanmar.