Ethnicity and Nation-Building in Myanmar - Transcript

Duncan McCargo [00:00:15]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. I'm Duncan McCargo, director of the Nordic Institute of Asia Studies and a political science professor here at the University of Copenhagen. Today I'm going to be talking to Cecile Médaile, who recently took up a postdoctoral post here at NIAS. Cecile, welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast.

Cecile Médaile [00:00:38]

Hi, Duncan.

Duncan McCargo [00:00:40]

So, Cecile, you gained your PhD from the University of New South Wales in 2021 with a thesis about ethnic perceptions and nation building in Myanmar. Any listeners who are familiar with recent developments in Myanmar are going to be well aware that the extremely repressive military coup of February 2021 has put a halt to any progress the country may have been making towards a more representative and democratic political order. But these issues that you're researching continue to be really, really salient in this changing landscape. Perhaps you could start off by telling us how you got involved in studying the politics of Myanmar.

Cecile Médaile [00:01:16]

Yes, sure. It started with some work in the development sector actually. I was in Thailand for seven years and in Myanmar about two years prior to starting my PhD. So, I was doing a lot of capacity building work with ethnic people from different backgrounds, in exile and then inside the country. And we worked on issues such as women's rights or democracy activism and environmental issues. And after working maybe over this period of seven years, I just felt like I wanted to contribute in a different way and take some time to reflect on the political situation in the country and have more perspective on the kind of institutional solution that could promote democracy in the country and include ethnic voices. So that's how I decided to do my PhD.

Duncan McCargo [00:02:14]

So, you moved over from, as it were, working as a kind of development practitioner involved in projects to to being an academic, studying the same sort of issues that you've been working on. I know that, like me, you're very interested in using these methods of political ethnography to study Southeast Asia. So when you came to do your PhD, how did the political ethnography approach work out for you in practice?

Cecile Médaile [00:02:37]

So, I decided to use an ethnographic political ethnographic methods because I wanted to use ethnographic data to question theories on state building and suggest ways to shape institutions in Myanmar. And because I had like extended network of informants across the country as a result of my interactions with people who participated in the program, I was managing, it was really feasible to use this approach. And I was lucky that I had informants that were emerging from previous work relationships and who were really willing to help me with the research and really wanting me to grasp very broad understanding of the situation in their areas. So I chose my fieldwork sites based on these connections. And I was very lucky that these people were also like aware of political dynamics and they were able to really connect me with lots of different people from different backgrounds.

Duncan McCargo [00:03:46]

I can ask you a follow up question. So I know that with political ethnography, there's a kind of I'm not sure whether we'd call it a debate, the purists, as it were, that they're sort of doing this ethnographic hanging out and they're rather self-consciously not deliberately kind of interviewing people or organizing them into focus groups. But I know that you did quite a bit of interviewing and focus group work. So, how did you end up picking that approach for your fieldwork?

Cecile Médaile [00:04:13]

I ended up picking that approach because, as I just said, I wanted to use an ethnographic data to question theories on state building and suggest ways to shape institutions in Myanmar. And to do that, I had to select different ethnic sites to be able to compare and analyze variations due to local situation. And even within each ethnic site, there are lots of differences between people living in urban areas, rural areas or under government control or under ethnic armed control. So because of all these differences, it wasn't possible to do normal participant observation. So in order to answer my research question and look at ways that ethnic perceptions could suggest how institutions should be shaped in Myanmar, it was more relevant to have this approach where I go to many different sites. So, that's one aspect. And also chose an extrinsic value ethnographic approach, rather than intrinsic value approach, where I deliberately use that ethnographic data to question broader theories.

Duncan McCargo [00:05:31]

Great. So, in relation to that, I know that your thesis focuses quite a lot on questions of national identity. Why do you believe that this issue is central to both state building and democratization in Myanmar?

Cecile Médaile [00:05:46]

So nation building and state building in Myanmar is facing a central challenge because Myanmar is a multi-ethnic country, lots of different groups and ethnic groups and religions. And there's a dominance of the majority group over the minority groups, and they have been implementing like policies of Burma domination, structural inequalities against ethnic minorities, which resulted in a divided division of identity. So in order to build multinational, inclusive democracy, I argue that it is really important to support the development of an inclusive national identity, where ethnic group can both identify as their own ethnic groups, but also like to the broader political community. So basically argue that building, developing, supporting the development of an inclusive national identity is going to help avoid conflict intensification and possibly lower the intensity of ethnic identification.

Duncan McCargo [00:06:59]

Right. And I know that you make good use of my late Columbia colleague, Al Stephan's influential notion of the state nation. And what are the advantages of talking about state nations in the context of Myanmar rather than just nations or states or nation states?

Cecile Médaile [00:07:14]

Because the nation state is about building a state around one dominant national identity. Whereas the state nation model is about policies that aim to protect ethnic identities while also promoting these national membership. So it's kind of like turning the concept of nation state around. And in Myanmar it is very relevant because I found in my doctoral research that attitudes indicate a tendency towards rigid ethnic identification, which is a result of the insecurities they have been experiencing due to domination of the political, cultural, economic and social scene. But at the same time, I also found that there's a high number of participants who are open to the idea of multiple belonging, both as member of the ethnic group and as part of the larger nation. So, argued that it indicates that there's room for policies promoting a shared identity and think that the state nation model is the model in the literature on institutional arrangements for managing divided society that is the most suitable for Myanmar because it kind of cater to these different intensities of ethnic identification, strong for some, but also like more moderate for others.

Duncan McCargo [00:08:40]

So your work points to a kind of normative preference for invoking this idea of of a state nation rather than a nation state or other competing concepts.

Cecile Médaile [00:08:50]

Yeah, because I also look at other institutional models that look at institutional arrangements for divided societies, for example, Aron E. Scwartz and a consultational model or Donald Horovitz' centripetal model. And basically I find that they have some assumptions about the nature of ethnic identit, that means that in the case of the consultation model, ethnic identities are rigid and that's why they should be accommodated by this kind of like power sharing mechanism. But it doesn't really create incentive for moderation or as Harvard's centripetal model only council moderation as an institutional building strategies. But it doesn't include elements of societies who can have this very rigid identification. So found that the state nation model was kind of like middle ground.

Duncan McCargo [00:09:45]

Right? And as you just mentioned, you focused especially on them Mon and Pa'O areas of Myanmar. Why did you select these particular regions and ethnic groups?

Cecile Médaile [00:09:55]

So I wanted to select ethnic groups who have different situations. And the first difference between the Mon and the Pa'O is that the Mon represent the majority group in a state that have their ethno name, the Mon state, whereas the Pa'O represent what I call a second minority group, second order minority group in Shan State. But they have an administrative area that is a special administrative zone. So because these two differences I thought are really interesting within a minority situation. And also there's another main difference between the Mon and the Pa'O. The Mon has an armed group, the new Mon National Party, who is very popular, at least was very popular at the time of the fieldwork among the Mon population, whereas the Pa'O have. Dominant armed group, the Pa'O National Army and National Organization, who signed a ceasefire with the three governors back in 1991. But as a result of this ceasefire, they have become a militia, whereas the new Mon state party also signed a ceasefire, but they haven't formed the militia. And so they have very different politics and they're perceived very differently in their areas. So these are two main differences. And also fieldwork considerations such as access to informants were also part of my decision. So through my work relationship had worked a lot. I had done a lot of work with the Mon activists and with a Pa'O colleague, and they were really keen to support my research and really asked me when and how they could help me back because we've been supporting each other, having a close relationship. So that's also what helped me make this choice.

Duncan McCargo [00:11:45]

Now that makes total sense to have the contrasting case studies there, and this is always a challenging question, but if you were to reduce your PhD thesis to a couple of main findings, what would be the most important takeaways that you'd like listeners to be aware of from your PhD thesis?

Cecile Médaile [00:12:04]

So my first finding confirms that the dynamic of privilege is a fundamental grievance for Mon and Pa'O, and it functions as an institutional structure of inequality which benefit the majority and which Pa'O experience as a number of cultural, economic, social and political insecurities. So that's the first finding. And the second finding is that, as I mentioned earlier, Mon and Pa'O people tend to have rigid attitudes toward ethnic identification, which was created by feelings of insecurity and a sense of exclusion from the national identity. But at the same time, they still are open to belonging to the nation. So that's a second finding. And my third finding would be that in order to redress the institutional dominance of diploma and promote national belonging Mon and Pa'O suggest that reform should bring about equality of status and greater autonomy. So if you want me to go in just a tiny bit more detail about this, I found that there were three main social justice demands. First, the recognition and protection of ethnic and religious identities to reduce perceptions of privilege. Second, access to economic opportunities to ensure equal development of ethnic areas and the development of strategies to tackle the livelihood crisis. And third, political representation at all levels of government to ensure that their voices are represented. So that's for social justice demands and demands for autonomy actually revolved around cultural and territorial autonomy and were referred to as the only way to guarantee equality of status. So they're really demands for social justice. And demands for autonomy are really interlinked. And in a way, social justice demands actually represent an indicator of the qualities of autonomy and federalism.

Duncan McCargo [00:14:00]

Great. That's very clear and succinct. Now, obviously, this aforementioned 2021 coup is going to mean that researchers like yourself no longer have direct access to Myanmar. And what does this mean for the political ethnography, the kind of field work that you've been doing in recent years?

Cecile Médaile [00:14:18]

Yes. So it's going to be very different. But I find that what I heard at the time of my fieldwork is still very relevant to the post-coup context. So I'm actually trying to revisit my doctoral findings and write an article which is basically reinterpreting these results and framing my findings through the lens of postcolonial and critical race theory, which is something that I haven't broadened in my dissertation. So, in addition to this new framing, I'm seeking to consider the implication of Burman privilege for the political and social order in Myanmar in response to new demands for labour liberation in the wake of the coup. So that's one project and I have another project, another article that is under review which have been co-writing with Saw Chit Htet Tun, which is about solidarity building in revolutionary contexts. And for this article, for these projects, we've been raising our findings on data that was generated prior to the coup based on our respective experiences. But we've also conducted interviews online which were possible and which we felt were safe because it was through very close networks. So we conducted maybe 18 interviews for this project, but of course it's not the same. Having direct access and being able to talk to all the people we want to that we need. The snowball sampling is not really working as well because we don't really know people who are recommended, so we don't feel like it's safe for them. We don't want to take these risks. So it's only through very close network of informants, but at the same time think that the people we're talking to are really eager to express what they're feeling and talk about what's happening. So think we still get really informative data that can be used to support our argument. And for this project we basically looked at whether institutional and bottom up solidarity building processes can cut across the majority and ethnic minority divide in the wake of the coup because there's been shifting inter-ethnic dynamics with lots of manifestation of apologies or empathy from the majority towards the ethnic minorities. And that's what we're looking at. Whether this reflects societal change or if it's just a temporary moment, that's where perceptions will revert back to normal.

Duncan McCargo [00:16:59]

Yes, I think you gave this talk the other day, and I found it very interesting because many of us are curious about the idea of a sort of perverse coup dividend, that the very appalling repression that's been taking place since February 2021 has actually created a kind of solidarity amongst different ethnic groups as well as the lowland Burma people themselves, and alliances that you might previously not have imagined have started to emerge amongst those people because of their shared opposition to military rule. Could you elaborate a little bit on that? Is it an urban myth that this solidarity is emerging, or is this something that's a real phenomenon that we need to pay attention to?

Cecile Médaile [00:17:41]

So we have to distinguish between institutional solidarity, building and the development of coalition and alliances, which involve members of the majority and members of ethnic minority groups and people-led solidarity building, which is more like from the bottom up, so to say. So if we look at institutional solidarity building, we mainly think about the two revolutionary institutions, the National Unity government and the National Unity Consultative Council, which are much more sensitive to ethnic demands. And this can be seen in the Federal Democracy Charter, which is making this promise of moving towards a federal democratic system which ethnic minorities have been demanding for a very long time. So that's for the institutional Solidarity building. And then if we look at people led solidarity building, we can see that there's a lot of different groups who have been showing empathy towards the plight of ethnic struggle since when I'm in different groups because they have experienced the brutality of the military in mainland Burma, where they used to not have this kind of conflict in the past. So new expressions of solidarity by the people range from empathy to privilege, awareness or even vision of social justice. So we can see like we can see different groups like political leaders or social influencers as well as members of the youth or Kiefs so this these different groups have different views. So we can't really say that solidarity between the majority and ethnic minority group is emerging in uniform way across the country. It varies greatly. In our research, we found that ethnic perspectives on solidarity building are different depending on whether it's coming from institutions or people. So institutional solidarity building is really perceived as rather instrumental. For example, the National Unity government is praised for being inclusive and having half of its ministers from ethnic backgrounds. But when I talked to our informers, they were saying that basically the national unity government is still dominated by the Burma and by the NLD because ethnic ministers are often at the deputy level and they don't really have authority. Or for example, the national unity government adopted this policy, that knowledge, the need to recognize the citizenship rights of the Rohingya, which is something that was unthinkable during the previous administration, where Ann Sang Suu Kyi and her government refused to use ethno name Rohingya and called them Bengali to refer to them as if they were immigrants. So there's a clear shift. But again, our informants were emphasizing that within the national unity government, these are still like ministers in position who haven't apologized to the Rohingya and they're no calling them Rohingya. So this policy is perceived as rather instrumental to bring support from the international community. So this kind of institutional solidarity building is still very fragile because there's a lot of ethnic mistrust of Burma dominated political processes. By contrast, people-solidarity building is a bit more nuanced. Perspective on this kind of solidarity-Building is more nuanced. So if we look at S'ma political leaders or Burma social influences, again, there's still a sense that even though they express empathy and even privilege awareness, what I call privilege awareness is, realizing that there has been this differential treatment between the majority and the minorities, even though they are actually apologizing, sorry, they are criticized for changing their attitudes just after the coup and in a way maybe for only only responding to what their followers have initiated. So it was this kind of attitude change was criticized for being opportunistic. By contrast, attitude change among the youth and Burma progressive activists who were already denouncing minority oppression before the coup were seen a bit differently as more like promoting just vision, a vision for a just society that has potential to to question the foundation of inequalities in Myanmar, especially the young who are coming to be trained in ethnic areas and really experience firsthand what ethnic people have been through. And I think there's a sense that there is a revolution of thought, a real change that is coming from the bottom up, from the youth, from the PDFs. But this change is somehow limited because these people are not in power yet. But at least the conversation on racial privilege is now out in the open. Whereas before it wasn't so that's maybe the main positive change.

Duncan McCargo [00:22:49]

Yes, fascinating. Think what I came away with from the presentation that you gave was really the importance of nuance, that it's complicated, that there's a lot of complexity, a lot of ambiguity and ambivalence in the statements that you cited from your various respondents. So it really points to the importance of this kind of in-depth research rather than making easy and simplistic, sweeping generalizations, we need to drill down to really understand what's going on in a very, very complicated situation like this. Are there other projects that you're planning to work on during your time at Nia's?

Cecile Médaile [00:23:22]

So I would like to start working on turning my dissertation into a book once I have submitted this two projects I'm working on. And yeah, that will involve substantial rewriting of my recommendations since the situation has dramatically changed because I finished my PhD just before the coup. So that's what I'm going to aim at doing right now.

Duncan McCargo [00:23:49]

These are the challenges for those of us who work on contemporary Southeast Asian politics. Everything that we do becomes history almost the moment that we finished. And we're always struggling to try to keep on top of changing events and date ourselves as we go along. But thanks so much, Cecile, for giving us an overview of your research on ethnicity and political change in Myanmar. And we're looking forward very much to seeing the fruits of your work over the next few years.

Cecile Médaile [00:24:12]

Thank you. It was a pleasure to share my work and thank you for giving me a chance to talk about it.

Duncan McCargo [00:24:20]

I'm Duncan McHarg, director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. And I've been in conversation with our new postdoc, Cecile Medail, who's working on ethnicity, national identity and political development in Myanmar, both before and indeed after the February 2021 military coup. Thank you for listening to the Nordic Asian podcast. You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast