Matt Venker, Nicole, and Ma Ei Ei consider the role that foreign researchers can play in the critical time after the coup.
On February 1st, 2021, the military (Tatmadaw) of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar detained members of the civilian government alongside numerous activists, writers, and others who have spoken out against the military. Watching the situation unfold through Facebook posts, Viber messages, and Twitter threads of friends, family, and colleagues in Myanmar, digital communication gave a glimmer of hope that this time, the people of Myanmar would have tools to coordinate resistance and have their voices heard. Yet as the coup unfolded, with telecommunications cuts in Myanmar and talks of sanctions abroad, we began to worry about the role the international community might play in a Burma once again under military rule—in particular the role of scholars, researchers, and those who are held up as “experts” on the country.
Academics outside of Myanmar—and especially those of us who are not ourselves from Burma—occupy a position that is both privileged and fraught. We have access to institutional affiliations and resources that amplify our voices, make us visible, and endow our opinions and scholarship with an authority, that may not be warranted vis-a-vis those within Myanmar. White academics, in particular, carry an assumed competence both in Myanmar—where colonial legacies value foreign educations over local experience—and back in their home countries—where orientalist imaginations elevate the choice to conduct research in a formerly-forbidden country as an act of bravery and self-sacrifice. This privilege and distance from events unfolding in Myanmar should make scholars wary of that all-too-common academic impulse to center conversations around our own experiences, insights, and speculations. This is an impulse that both perpetuates an imperial legacy of knowledge production and draws attention away from the voices of those in Myanmar.
For those of us that recognize the ways in which the neo-imperialist possibilities of foreign academic production conflict with our commitment to ‘doing good’ in Myanmar, however defined, the question of what to do in a time of crisis can feel paralyzing. We can—and should—amplify the voices of people in Myanmar, tap our networks when there’s a need for emergency funding, and otherwise just be there to support those leading the response in Myanmar. And while sitting passive and awaiting instructions from afar never feels like enough, the strength of the civil disobedience movement, thunderous pot-banging, and inspired protest art should remind us that the people of Myanmar know what they need better than anyone else, whether that be military authorities or foreign scholars.
One problem that we, as foreign scholars, do need to take direct responsibility for, however, is the ignorance of Myanmar’s context that we’ve let foster within our own communities. A poorly informed public tends to prefer simplistic solutions, rather than seeking to understand how responses to the crisis must be nuanced, in order to maximise their benefits and attenuate their ill-effects. Historically, the international approach to military oppression in Myanmar has been sanctions, disengagement, and distant condemnation. While this may cultivate an imagined moral superiority abroad, practically, we believe that past, broad-based sanctions only further empowered military despots. We should be seriously concerned about the possibility of repeating these past failures. In the days after the coup, recently inaugurated US President Joe Biden issued a statement indicating that the country is considering renewing sanctions lifted under over the past decade, an idea that seems to have rare bipartisan support. While so far these statements have all included crucial, if ambiguous, indications that sanctions would be targeted and aid channels would remain open, there is no shortage of historical precedent for concern that such subtleties may be lost as time goes on.
While many of us are rightfully critical of the idea that Western leaders should–or even can–“save” Burmese democracy by acting as the vanguard of the opposition, we must also recognize that foreign governments are already working out political responses to the coup and that there is peril in allowing them to formulate those responses without academic input. In Western democracies, structures of electoral representation incentivize deference to constituent opinion, over expert understanding coming from abroad. If we believe that the insights of those in Myanmar should take precedence over foreign analysis, we must use what power we have to make sure that those voices are heard within our communities and visible to those making the decisions that will affect people in Myanmar over the coming days.
In the interest of developing resources for cultivating public engagement, we have created a working document that charts what an informed international response to the military coup may involve. This document is intended to provide social and historical context to the situation, track changes as they develop, and centralize recommendations that emerge from people in Burma for what foreign support should look like. As we recognize that a centralized document recording organized opposition to the coup could put individuals at risk, this document only makes use of publicly available reports, statements, and resources. We encourage those who use or contribute to this document to take seriously the duty to mitigate risks for those in Myanmar. Rather than an analysis of the situation in Myanmar, this document urges policymakers in the US to maintain communication with civilians in Myanmar and let their voices be central to the international response.
We believe that public engagement at this time may take a variety of forms, from conversations with friends and calls to representatives, to raising funds for the civil disobedience movement. This document is meant to support any and all efforts that readers can undertake. It is important to note, however, that while this document was created in collaboration with many other contributors who have asked to not be named, it was primarily written by academics in the US, and thus represents an American perspective on possible modes of political engagement. We encourage readers to freely adopt and adapt this document to their own national contexts by translating, revising, or rewriting it wherever doing so best serves the needs of their own communities. Moreover, as we intend to continuously both improve and update this document, we invite individuals reach out to us to offer comments, suggestions, or insights that we have overlooked.
Matt Venker is a Ph.D Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on legal practice and citizenship in Yangon. He also freelances in photography and writing in Myanmar and the United States. (Twitter: @mvvenker)
Nicole is an independent researcher and educator focusing on environment and society in Myanmar.
Ma Ei Ei is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on nationalisms and their manifestations in education policies in Burma.