6 Minutes To Read

Identity, Politics, and Conflict: Insights from the 2023 IHDRG Seminar

6 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Sayedul Karim shares insights from leading national & international scholars focusing on Myanmar Studies.

    Credit: IHRDG

    Since its founding in 2022, the Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Governance (IHRDG) – an interdisciplinary faculty under Spring University Myanmar (SUM) – has hosted an annual speaker series aimed at promoting research and awareness about Myanmar. In 2023, the seminar series ran monthly from August to December and featured a diverse speaker line-up from scholars around the world. Although the presentations spoke on a wide variety of issues – ranging from the historical marginalization of the Rohingya to digital oppression tactics of the SAC – what they shared was an emphasis on contemporaneous political trends and real-world policy implications. In this report, I will briefly summarize each event and reflect on some overarching lessons.

    The first lecture of the year, titled “Revisiting the Polity: The Making and Remaking of the Rohingya Identity in Myanmar” (3rd August 2023) was presented by Dr. Kazi Fahmida Farzana, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Sharjah (UAE). Demonstrating how the Rohingya ethnic identity has been continuously constructed and reconstructed by consecutive military regimes in Myanmar, Dr. Farzana emphasized that the imposition of a “fixed” identity against various ethnic minorities has been a recurring strategy of successive military regimes since the 1960s. Ideologically, the Myanmar state has effectively subscribed to Buddhist and Burmese nationalism against minority ethnicities to marginalize, exclude, and – in the case of the Rohingya – expel entire ethno-linguistic groups. For example, state policies are often constructed against the backdrop of one unchanging tactic: to (re)define and control ethnic boundaries, as evidenced by the classification of 135 national ethnicities that excluded minority groups like the Rohingya. The exclusion of the Rohingya (amongst others) from this official list is self-contradictory. As Dr. Farzana notes, some Rohingya scholars say the Rohingya ethnicity was excluded on the basis of their Islamic faith, not ethnicity per se. It is worth noting that Rohingya were recognized as part of a British-promised “Muslim National Area” before 1948, promises that never materialized after independence despite the British conscription of Rohingya and other Arakanese Muslims to fight the Burmese.

    After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the military government excluded Rohingya from the ethnic integration of the new Myanmar by stating Rohingya were not qualified to be an integral part of Myanmar because they supported Britain, defining their military involvement as a betrayal to the Burmese people. The resulting power imbalance is still visible in the post-2021 political dynamics, including in the Rohingya repatriation project from Bangladesh.

    The second event of the series – on 7 September 2023 – was a panel discussion on labor politics in post-coup Myanmar, featuring two Myanmar researcher-activists (Khin Thazin Oo and Ko Maung) and chaired by Stephen Campbell, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Both speakers employed class analysis in their discussion of labor politics and have published extensively on labor rights issues in Myanmar and abroad. Their research shed light on Myanmar’s political dynamics since the 2021 military coup, with a practical focus on labor rights, protest mobilization, and everyday workers’ struggles. Indeed, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) was started by labor unions in the industrial zones in Yangon after the February 1 coup . By focusing on the experience and agency of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the research challenges elitist accounts that privilege high-profile political and military figures in favor of a “history from below” of present-day Myanmar in the Spring Revolution. This recognizes and spotlights the impact of ordinary people in challenging and transforming post-coup conditions. The purpose of this panel is to employ the concept of labor politics more broadly, expanding it beyond the limited Burmese term that can be translated as “affairs of the state” (နိုင်ငံရေး). However, the presenters emphasized the personal experiences of ordinary people. Such accounts include Myanmar’s domestic migrant workers in Singapore supporting the People’s Defense Force (PDF), the unwaged and largely, unacknowledged, social reproductive labor of women who sustained the Spring Revolution, and the workers’ role in organizing CDM in the industrial zones of Yangon, Mandalay and other major cities since the coup. The labor force has been driving the Spring Revolution and wholeheartedly supporting People’s Defense Forces (PDF) since day one, even though many struggles to support their own family.

    The third event, featuring Dr. Shona Loong from the University of Zurich, was titled “A Country with Many Histories: Myanmar’s Diverse Geographies of War and Everyday Life” (5 October 2023). Contrary to dominant strands in conflict studies which demonstrate theories and underlying factors about how armed conflict shapes social processes, Dr. Loong’s long-term ethnographic research in Myanmar demonstrates that the opposite is equally true. Drawing on both pre- and post-coup research, especially in Karen State and the Salween Peace Park, the talk highlighted how the impacts of conflict are geographically diverse, thus challenging dominant (and often Bamar-centric) historical narratives. Another important theme was that of community resilience amidst the violence of military junta. Three years on since the coup began, it continues to negatively affect livelihoods and living conditions, giving rise to increased human rights violations against civilians across Myanmar. However, people continue to fight to put an end to impunity. The session concluded with reflections on the limitations facing Myanmar studies researchers, recognizing the need for a nuanced insight into Myanmar’s complex socio-historical landscape from different community perspectives. The presentation offered new perspectives on approaches for how ethnic armed groups could potentially evolve toward restoring federal democracy in Myanmar.

    The fourth event, presented by Professor Ardeth Thawnghmung on 2nd November 2023, was titled “Challenges in Researching Local Governance Structures in Post-Coup Myanmar.” This ongoing research highlights the complexity and heterogeneity of how local government officials – all the way down to the village and ward levels – and their mechanisms for coping with rising post-coup violence. Driven by the nature of localized interpersonal relations, these coping strategies have continued to flexibly evolve in tandem with on-the-ground changes, as many local administrations were partially or completely taken over by pro-democracy armed groups like Rathedaung township of Arakan State, Myanmar. Dr. Thawnghmung’s original research methodologies underscored a need for research in contemporary Myanmar to become more innovative and localized. As a result, new research projects in Myanmar would become ever more subjective (i.e. based on relations of trust) but also more reliant on local researchers, thus shifting the epistemic power balance from the people’s government to the military junta. Similarly, her project’s findings demonstrate that conflicts in Myanmar have become increasingly localized due to the collapse of central authority, which necessitates a re-thinking in strategy by national and international policymakers in how local administrators can play a role in preventing violence – both now and in the future.

    The final event of the series, titled “Scrutinizing Digital Repression: Policing Mobile Money in Myanmar,” by Vox, Bradley, and Gar explored the significance of mobile money, banking systems, and digital freedom for daily life in post-pandemic Myanmar. Facing increased regulation and surveillance under a repressive military regime, many people in Myanmar have had their digital rights curtailed. The three speakers presented preliminary results from their ongoing research, examining the role of online financial systems in state surveillance and their contribution to the rise of techno-authoritarianism in Myanmar. The speakers emphasized alternative methods, including decentralized critical infrastructures, as a way to enhance digital security and freedom. The research also revealed the institutionalization of the violation of digital rights and rights to privacy in Myanmar, calling for potential policy improvements once a roadmap to federal democracy is possible. This could mitigate the gap between oppressive legislation and democratic agencies, relieving the suffering of Myanmar civilians for decades.

    The 2023 IHRDG Seminar Series on Myanmar Studies yielded valuable lessons for students, scholars, activists, and pro-democracy movements. Firstly, it underscored the persistent use of identity manipulation by successful military regimes to marginalize ethnic groups, as evidenced by the Rohingya Genocide. Furthermore, the focus on labor politics in the post-coup period highlighted the pivotal role of grassroots movement and ordinary people, challenging elitist narratives. Dr. Shona Loong’s insights emphasized the geographical diversity of conflict impacts and the resilience of communities in their heterogeneous and creative responses to ongoing crises. Prof. Thawnghmung’s research showcased the evolving coping strategies of local governance structures in response to post-coup violence, emphasizing the need for innovative, localized research approaches. Finally, the examination of digital repression highlighted the importance of safeguarding digital rights and proposed policy improvements for a future federal democratic union of Myanmar. These lessons reaffirm the significance of a nuanced, grassroots-oriented approach in addressing Myanmar’s complex socio-political landscape.

    Note: The 2023 IHRDG Seminar Series was generously funded by the IDRCs Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) initiative. All views expressed in this post and by the various speakers are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDRC or Spring University Myanmar.

    Sayedul Karim is a human rights defender, co-founder, and president of the Rohingya Justice Initiative-RJI. As the Founder and Chief Executive Director of the Rohingya Union for Women Education & Development, he actively champions and empowerment of women. Sayedul is a dedicated advocate for policy changes, higher education, striving to mitigate barriers and create pathways for Rohingya community. His multifaceted roles reflect an unwavering commitment to Justice, Human Rights, Education, and Community Development.

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