Matthew Walton considers the range of topics in recent work on Myanmar.
I’d like to use my first blog post to highlight some of the activities undertaken by our Oxford community of Myanmar scholars this past summer. We won’t only use the blog to draw attention to publications by Oxford students and scholars, but there were some important contributions during the last few months that I would like to mention.
Several scholars connected to Oxford contributed to a new series published by The Diplomat entitled “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis.” The entire series is excellent, and it should be noted, one of the co-editors is Fuadi Pitsuwan, a post-graduate student at Nuffield College at Oxford.
One of the most recent essays is by Dr Kirsten McConnachie, who has recently taken up a post as Assistant Professor in Law at the University of Warwick, but was formerly a research fellow at Oxford and whom we still consider part of our community. Kirsten’s article, “Myanmar’s Refugee Problem: It’s Not Just the Rohingya,” draws attention to the millions of others who have left Myanmar during years of repressive military rule, noting that, despite growing pressures for repatriation and sharply declining international support, many refugees still (understandably) feel that conditions are not right for their return and question whether there has been meaningful political change in Myanmar.
Earlier in the summer, my colleagues Matt Schissler, Phyu Phyu Thi, and I also contributed an essay to this series, entitled “The Roots of Religious Conflict in Myanmar.” In it, we looked at some of the narratives that have supported the demonization of Muslims in Myanmar and emphasized the importance of listening to these voices (even if we disagree with them) in order to better understand the factors that influence them.
Our piece for The Diplomat was in essence a shorter version of the first working paper from the Myanmar Media and Society (M.MAS) Project, founded in 2015 as a collaboration between the Programme in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and MIDO, the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. That working paper, entitled “Threat and virtuous defence: Listening to narratives of religious conflict in six Myanmar cities,” can be downloaded from the M.MAS project page here.
Richard Dolan, a postgraduate student at the Department of International Development at Oxford, contributed an essay to New Mandala entitled “Roots of Difference.” Drawing from his recent fieldwork in Southeast Myanmar, he considers political contestation and disagreement among Karen political parties and groups in light of attempts to bring Karens together through religious and cultural ceremonies and symbols, including the red and white cotton wristband, a “mark of Karen identity that unites all wearers regardless of language or religion.”
With a growing interdisciplinary community of Myanmar scholars at Oxford, we are finding more opportunities for collaboration. I co-authored an article with Melyn McKay, a postgraduate student in Social Anthropology at Oxford and Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Research Fellow in Gender and Burmese Studies at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. The full article is titled “Women and Myanmar’s ‘Religious Protection Laws’” and will be published in a special issue of The Review of Faith and International Affairs that focuses on religion in Myanmar and will come out at the end of 2015. We published a shorter version of our research on East Asia Forum as “Why Are Women Supporting Myanmar’s Religious Protection Laws?” Our argument is that opposition to the religious protection laws based on arguments about human rights norms fail to resonate with some parts of the population, that women’s support for the laws ought to be taken seriously as an expression of their agency, and that opposition to the laws needs to take into account the reasons some women give for supporting them.
Finally, I teamed up with my colleague Tamas Wells, a lecturer in development studies at Melbourne University, to write a rebuttal to Thomas Fuller’s New York Times article that implied that Burmese people didn’t understand notions such as “democracy” or “rule of law” because they didn’t have indigenous terminology for them. Our response, published in the Myanmar Times as “Is Democracy Really Lost in Translation?”, pushed back against this offensive idea, highlighting examples of creative Burmese political thinking that can be found, if only outside observers would take the time to engage with Burmese language discourse.
We’re looking forward to continued active participation in public discourse on Myanmar from our community of scholars here in Oxford. We’ll use this blog to highlight those contributions as well as many others in the field of Burma/Myanmar Studies and we welcome your input and suggestions.
Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and was a co-founder of Tea Circle. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Buddhism in Myanmar and Burmese Buddhist political thought. He also writes on ethnicity, conflict, and Burmese politics more generally.