This piece - which was originally published via Tea Circle - launches an online essay series aimed at illuminating the coup and its aftermath from a research perspective. It is driven by an intense desire to put knowledge to work in the interests of participatory democracy and justice with a focus on state formative processes and imprisonment. For information on how to contribute please scroll to the end. Photocredit: Benjamin Small
Andrew M. Jefferson, Tomas Max Martin, Hannah Russell, Ergun Cakal
The military coup that took place in Myanmar on February 1st, 2021 sent shockwaves throughout the world. It has affected many who do research in and about Myanmar in a deep, visceral way. In the weeks – now months – since the takeover, we have followed developments closely. We have been in touch with our research partners in Myanmar. We have perused news and social media sites, attended virtual webinars, and listened to statement after statement at the UN. We have published in the Danish national press, posted gestures of solidarity on social media and participated in demonstrations expressing solidarity and calling out the military regime.
Nevertheless, common to all these distant forms of witnessing – and occasionally acting – has been a sense of inadequacy as each day brings new horrors and tragedies.
We are based at DIGNITY – the Danish Institute Against Torture, an organisation committed to the eradication of torture and the rehabilitation of torture survivors. So, we are not unused to testimonies and images of struggle and suffering. In one sense it is our stock in trade. And yet the coup and its aftermath has left us reeling, unbalanced and rudderless. Why?
Is it because we were, fundamentally if unconsciously, invested in a fantasy of linear progress and democratic transition? Was our research attached to an underlying idea that the politics of Myanmar were in fact on a more hopeful trajectory than the stalled peace process, the Rohingya catastrophe, and the constitutional compromises implied? Does such a turn of events raise, once again, the haunting specter of the alleged irrelevance ff research? Or is it because of the personal and professional ties we have developed with places and people that were suddenly under attack?
For our research team, this sense of imbalance and inadequacy has been exacerbated by the fact that this crisis is what our research project is about: a state-in-the-making and the way imprisonment is implicated in (and reveals something about) that process and its meanings. Since 2016 we have been seeking, to understand aspects of state and society by looking at prisons, their histories, their structures and dynamics, their effects, and the politics around them.
The military coup, the arrests, torture and killings and the ensuing highly predictable crackdown on dissent that has involved the arrest, torture and killing of elected parliamentarians, activists, journalists, and civil society leaders have sent our team spinning. Inspired as we are to see friends, colleagues, and others fighting back, standing firm, and courageously confronting the repressive tactics of the police and the Tatmadaw, we are profoundly discomforted by the situation and what it means for the future of Myanmar. We realise that we are not alone in this, and the essay series we are launching is an invitation to share and put knowledge to work.
A series of simple but related questions drive this initiative: How can knowledge be put to work to illuminate events and to counter news-oriented oversimplifications and nuance the standard discourses of the international community and the human rights world? How does one respond acutely, using grounded knowledge and critical reflection even as times are changing and it seems impossible to keep up? How can the authority and expertise of research be put to work in the moment?
As a means through which to grapple with and respond to these questions the series of brief essays we will host aims to illuminate aspects of the present calamity through the application of an ethnographic sensibility. An ethnographic sensibility draws attention to meanings, to social practices, and to situated histories. It is both a form of observation, a form of analysis, and a form of writing. By encouraging an ethnographic sensibility, we aspire to produce and curate a form of reflection from below and from within that might inform, illuminate, and provoke further thought.
The series is in some senses a response to the call of Matt Venker, Nicole, and Ma Ei Ei, in a Tea Circle post of February 10th, to own our responsibility as foreign researchers to provide context, all the time conscious of the fraught position we occupy as privileged outsiders.
The focus of this series is narrow but nevertheless highly pertinent given the nature of the coup and its aftermath. Reflecting the scope of the Legacies of Detention in Myanmar research project, this series will center on four themes:
- Prisons, arrest and detention – how are detention and imprisonment being used repressively; who is being detained, and under what circumstances; what are the effects of detention; how are communities responding; to what extent are we seeing the resurrection of the former junta-era carceral state?
- Law and legitimacy – why is the Tatmadaw so obsessed with legitimacy; what form is ‘lawfare’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 2007) taking and why; how exactly has law been commandeered?
- State-in-the-making – what does the current situation mean for illusions about transition and for aspirations of democracy; how is the state metamorphosing currently; what kinds of sovereignties are at stake?
- Struggles of everyday life – what forms is resistance taking; how might current expressions of dissent be understood historically; how are people surviving; what traumas are reawakened?
Making sense of violence is implicit across each of these themes. Contributions may be provisional and experimental, authoritative only to the extent that the reader is persuaded. Contributors are welcome, indeed encouraged, to write reflexively. This is in recognition of the grip that the situation and people in Myanmar have on researchers and the various ways in which this turn of events continues to shock and disturb. To feel is, after all, part and parcel of the ethnographic venture to generate vulnerable knowledge.
An acute crisis insists on a response, especially when the crisis is an unfolding feature of a landscape that a research project is designed to address. We have few illusions about the difference writing can make in the current crisis here and now. But the compulsion to write is no less on that account. We aim to publish short (1000-1500 words), thought-filled, and thought-provoking pieces in an accessible style, though with a scholarly signature. We will not shy away from theory, but our source of sustenance and stimulation is everyday events. In this way we seek to put knowledge and experience to work.
Through this series we hope to contribute to a renewed and engaged scholarship on the socio-political situation and the everyday experiences of people in Myanmar, as called for by Cheesman (2019) echoing Wittekind and Rhoades (2018, see also Jefferson 2020) even at this time of acute crisis. First and foremost, we hope to illuminate what is going on and to ensure that Myanmar is not forgotten.
Contributions will be posted on a specially designed platform linked to the Legacies of Detention website and promoted via social media posts to ensure wide circulation. Depending on interest and uptake we expect to accept and publish contributions for a period of between three to six months.
If you are interested in submitting a contribution, please contact Andrew M. Jefferson who will curate the series at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Our aim will be to respond promptly with a rapid 48-hour turnaround between receipt of contributions, editorial work and posting.
Cheesman, N. (2019) ‘Understanding Myanmar Today: Liberalization and Crisis in an Era of Political Reform’, Keynote presentation, Wednesday 24th April 2019, Stockholm University.
Comaroff, J. and Comaroff J. (2007). Law and disorder in the postcolony. Social Anthropology 15, 2, pp. 133–152.
Jefferson, A.M. (2020) ‘Time Changing Hands in Myanmar: On Former Prisoners’ Journeys into Politics’, In Living with Myanmar edited by J. Chambers, C. Galloway, J. Liljeblad. ISEAS Publishing.
Wittekind, T. and Rhoades, E. (2018) “Rethinking Land and Property in a ‘Transitioning’ Myanmar: Representations of Isolation, Neglect, and Natural Decline”, Journal of Burma Studies 22(2): 171-213.