Surviving the State: Struggles for Land and Democracy in Myanmar - Transcript

New Books Jingle [00:00:01]

Welcome to the New Books Network.

NIAS Jingle [00:00:05]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Mai Van Tran [00:00:13]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise in Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Mai Van Tran and I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. And today I have the really great pleasure of hosting Dr. Hilary Faxon, who is a Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen. She's also a very prolific scholar on environment, development and technology in the global South, with a focus on Southeast Asia. Admire, As we just had the honor of hosting Hillary for a lunch talk on her upcoming book on grassroots struggles over land based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork on Myanmar. And we're very fortunate to have Hillary here with us to share more about her insights on past agrarian struggles, especially in the shadow of the recent military coup that has upended the daily life of the Myanmar population, the majority of whom live in rural areas. So I hope that her insights today will provide us with essential knowledge to envision Myanmar politics for the months and years to come. So welcome, Hillary.

Hilary Faxon [00:01:21]

Thanks, man. Thanks for having me.

Mai Van Tran [00:01:23]

Great. So first of all, for the audience members that were not able to attend your brilliant talk, can you provide a brief overview of what your book is about and what motivated you to start this book project?

Hilary Faxon [00:01:36]

Yeah. Thanks. So my book is about struggles for land and democracy in the 2010's during Myanmar's attempted transition towards democracy. So I should say I'm in really good company in thinking about land and democracy in Myanmar. We have a number of fantastic Burma studies scholars working on related topics. But my book is an ethnographic approach. It's based in Calais Valley in northwestern Myanmar. I worked there for three years with Burman and Chin farmers to try to understand their life on the land under the turn towards democracy and the ways in which new land policies were actually impacting them on the ground. And the key sort of idea of the book is this notion of surviving the state. A lot of scholarship and political ecology and Southeast Asian studies thought about land and state formation. They tend to do it in two different ways. On one hand, there's the idea of making the state and land is being critical for state formation. We can think about Nancy Peluso and Peter Vandergeest's idea of political forests and territorialization in this category. On the other hand, there is the notion of land as a conduit for state escape. People like Jim Scott thinking about or popularizing the notion of Zomia, for example. So this idea of surviving the state gets to a space in the middle for people who draw on land in their everyday practices to survive, endure and sometimes even flourish within evolving regimes of authoritarianism and state violence.

Speaker 5 [00:02:55]


Mai Van Tran [00:02:56]

Can you share more about what motivated you to start this book project?

Hilary Faxon [00:02:00]

I worked in Myanmar in 2013 and 2014. I had the privilege of working with the Gender Equality Network as well as a number of different local land and women's rights groups in Myanmar. So that's sort of how I came into working in Myanmar when it came time to do my PhD, I wanted to think about land and democracy and these relationships between resources and justice. I wanted to think about the gender dimensions of that project and I wanted to go hang out with small farmers, get out of Yangon, where I've been living and working, and try to understand how the type of policies, advocacy that I had been doing as an activist, what that might actually look like or mean on the ground.

Mai Van Tran [00:03:36]

That's really fascinating to hear. So zeroing in on this research project, I have seen that you conducted impressive amount of original work for your book, including over two years of participant observation, 150 interviews and three participatory action research projects. So can you share more about why you decide to carry out such an ambitious agenda?

Hilary Faxon [00:03:57]

I spent a lot of time sleeping on floors and traveling around the countryside and also, of course, learning Burmese, which I did with Van at Cornell. In part. I think that that type of time and those types of relationships are really essential to the insights that I've been able to have in my work. I owe a huge amount to my friends, interlocutors, research assistants, collaborators, activists for teaching me. I think that the key and central method of the work is ethnography. It is an ethnographic book and I say it's a feminist. Ethnography comes out of time spent with people in their everyday life, and it has a particular attention to women's work and sort of marginalized people smallholders. It's set in a place that no one ever goes. It's not began or inlay. That's sort of the ethos of the work. Yeah, the participatory projects came about often because of collaborators who asked me to work with them, and I'm really indebted also to those collaborators, but I think they've given a number of different insights, most notably the participatory photography work just as a way to allow rural women to tell their story of land and land, justice and life on the land through visual means and in vocabulary that I think is really hard to access in interviews, which when you show up in the village looking like me, very white, western presenting woman, and you say you want to do an. You. You're always introduced to the village head. We can either spend a lot of time that's ethnography. We can collaborate with other activists. That's participatory work. Or we can do something visual like photo voice.

Mai Van Tran [00:05:23]

That's really interesting. And I also noticed that you conducted certain forms of co-creation of cartoon images and cartoon presentations of these people's experiences on the ground. So can you share more about why you decided to take on that approach and how it has benefited your project? Yeah, I've used these sort of visual collaborative methods in a few different points in my research. They've all really helped me understand the problem and express the insights of the work. So with the earlier Photo voice project that I did in 2017 and then again with a new project that I'm conducting now, it's really trying to understand places and perspectives that aren't covered in mainstream media or mainstream scholarship. With this post-revolutionary work, it's literally just very hard to go to rural Myanmar now. It's hard for journalists to go. It's hard for scholars. It's dangerous to conduct research. So at a really most basic level, those visual methods, those collaborative methods are about bringing to light these experiences that are hard to see or capture. Some of the cartoons that I was showing in the talk play a bit of a different role in that. The research was finished and I had an opportunity to collaborate with a Burmese cartoon artist, Sally Swampy. I have always loved Burmese political cartoons and I just think it's such a academics are terrible and talk a lot and don't say much. But Burmese political cartoons express so much. And that type of satirical irony and maybe a chair is like a sentiment with the notion of surviving the state. It's how one expresses oneself in limited means. Anyway. I think this tradition is great and I wanted to work on it for the book. I think there's a sort of tradition of translating one's book, and I just thought like, how many people are going to read this book in English? Like, Oh my God, it's gonna be four times as long as Burmese. It's gonna be horrible. So like, I'm not going to translate this book. What could be the public output of this work? I thought cartoons would be interesting. And I will say I learned a lot.

Hilary Faxon [00:07:14]

Yeah, just seeing some of the ideas reflected back as images was actually useful for gaining a clearer sense of what the key ideas actually were or what was the funny or ironic part of the finding or the politically salient piece of the research.

Mai Van Tran [00:07:28]

That's really useful to hear. And I think that we could all learn from your experience to see how we could maybe apply similar methodologies on research as well. And to zero in on this particular section where we discuss your methodology. One very important and also difficult question that many researchers, especially people who conduct field work, have to face, is to decide on a stopping point for their fieldwork. So how did you arrive at the stopping point?

Hilary Faxon [00:07:55]

That's a great question. I think I was ready to finish my PhD, but I did have trouble leaving the field. I started writing my dissertation from Myanmar and I was living in Myanmar up until beginning of 2020 even. Actually, I was reading some of my field notes this morning from my last trip up to Calais, and I clearly thought I was going to be back in a few weeks. I even love my motorcycle and my mountain bike there. So anyway, I did a very bad job stopping and of course I was decisively stopped because of Covid, which happened a few months later. And then the military coup. I think that the book answers the question that I set out to answer, which is how our smallholders and farmers experiencing this so-called decade of democracy. By the time I left, I had a lot of data. I have things I wish I had done differently, but I felt like I had an answer to those questions and I had an idea of what the shape of the chapters might be.

Mai Van Tran [00:08:48]

That's really great to know. And you also mentioned earlier that you incorporated intentionally a feminist lens in your research on land and democracy in Myanmar. Can you share more about why that is important to you and to the field? And maybe can you also walk us through how that actually looks like in your research process?

Hilary Faxon [00:09:08]

When I think about this, I think about Feminist Lens is having a few different dimensions. On one level, there is just attention to women as subjects and as agents in this evolving story of agrarian change and land politics in Myanmar and a lot of what's been written not just in Myanmar, but everywhere, tends to center male voices. So this sort of feminist move of her story or telling a story of women farmers, for example, I think just gets at that fundamental motivation. I knew that there were women's stories that weren't being told. Some of my really early research showed that the word farmer let the Mekong do in Burmese is already gendered as male. Even women I was interviewing didn't identify as farmers, or they saw only their husbands as farmers. Women lens is the first. The second is gender as a set of relationships. Along with generation, I think has been a really important theme in my work. How do older people and younger people experience agrarian change and navigate that? This is a huge issue in a high migration country like Myanmar. One of the papers I'd like to write in the future is a bunch of interviews with women in villages who had come back from working as maids in Singapore. So how do they experience the village returning to farmer families after this experience? One of the findings is that their role as economic breadwinners in the household really shifted the dominance of male farmer fathers and the value that's placed on the male farmer. So gender is a set of relationships along with generation, and we could add maybe ethnicity in the Myanmar context in my book. And finally, there is feminist theory or feminism is a politics and a set of literature. I just find that really useful. I find some of the ideas, like classic notions of social reproduction, are really important building blocks to my work and also comrades and collaborators to keep me energized throughout the project.

Mai Van Tran [00:10:47]

I thank you so much for sharing about that process. So you already mentioned some of the interesting findings from your research, but I also wanted to hear more in terms of how your innovative incorporation of different ethnographic methods and of this hives of feminist inquiry have paid off in terms of leading to surprising findings. So can you share a bit about that?

Hilary Faxon [00:11:09]

I think one of the great pleasures of ethnography is surprise. I'm grateful to have been surprised in some of my findings. Yeah, maybe the best example is the one that didn't really make it into the book, but has been the seed of my work on tech, which is just that I didn't set out to study internet connection in the village, but when I was living there and SIM cards went from $1,000 to a dollar in a number of months, this had a major impact on the villagers and it was what people wanted to talk about. So farmers wanted to talk with me about farmland registration, which I was really interested in. But they always want to talk about tractors and cell phones. I ended up writing a lot about that and I think those moments of surprise in which this particular empirical finding can lead actually to a seed of a whole nother project. The other example maybe I'd draw on is in the participatory photography, just understanding some of the stakes of the issue. I think as a researcher, even if we come in with a strong motivation for a research, it can be easy to get tied up in the weeds of the methods and the analysis and the analytics and the theory. And doing participatory photography always reminded me of what's really at stake, which is people's capacity to make a life that's worth living in these places.

Mai Van Tran [00:12:20]

Thank you so much for sharing about that. So I wanted to hear more in terms of the ability of your findings to travel to other contexts. What do you think these findings mean for our understanding of the changing landscape of development under authority and regimes in the global South?

Hilary Faxon [00:12:37]

I think that the world is increasingly authoritarian, polarised and violent, or if not increasingly, Those are words that have really entered the global vocabulary, not just in Southeast Asia, but in the US where I'm from, and the project of democracy. In some ways, Myanmar's story is sort of a lens onto the larger trajectory of global attitudes towards liberal democracy in the 20 tens, starting with Obama's visit to Myanmar. This incredible hype of the American brand of democracy and then moving towards a time in 2022 where we're really questioning some of the global models and how they work in Europe, in the US and in the global South. So I guess what we can learn from small farmers and their work to survive a state under authoritarianism is just how hard that work is, how all encompassing, how it's not just task of making a living, but also a task of making a life and how history of that work continues to bear on the present. So past patterns, not just of mobilization but of survival, are sticky and keep going.

Mai Van Tran [00:13:38]

So for the next part of the interview, I would like to focus our conversation more on the context of the recent military coup in Myanmar. And so I think a very obvious question and maybe a little bit of a difficult question for you is are the implications of your work when we observe the current unfolding of the coup and violence in rural Myanmar.

Hilary Faxon [00:13:59]

Is a hard question to answer. And it's especially hard because my level of knowledge is so much lower sitting here in Copenhagen and trying to understand what's happening on the ground. But I think there are maybe a couple of insights. I think one is that the Democratic project, even before the coup, had some fundamental flaws to it. I think there wasn't enough attention to what justice would look like for small farmers of different ethnic groups living on the land. And that plays out in a number of the chapters of the book or in the number of specific reforms. But I think it's a question that lingers when we think about what land might look like after the revolution, The question of justice and who deserves it should be the starting point of that conversation rather than something that brought up at the end. I think the other thing is that where I worked has become a major theater of armed conflict. It's a reminder, I guess, that these places that maybe look placid or where contestations around things like farmland registration, the drawing of the Sagi and Shin borderline seem fairly banal. They are embedded in this longer history of state violence. And when the coup happened and when things shift, all of a sudden these histories of surviving the state, which are just below the surface of democratic reform and people resistance becomes much more out. So on one hand, it's, I think, a story of historical continuity, that democratic decade was a sort of interest in evolving regimes of authoritarianism. And people's responses are also evolving and generational and responsive. And on the other hand, I think it's a real imperative to talk about what justice will look like in the future.

Mai Van Tran [00:15:28]

Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts with us. To continue with this discussion, I would like to ask in light of this recent coup and also in light of all of the findings in your book, what do you think would be important Future Research avenues?

Hilary Faxon [00:15:41]

That's a great question. I think that the most exciting research that I'm seeing in Myanmar and that I get to be involved with today is coming out of activists and students who are on the ground in the country. I think that that research is really fundamentally concerned with a question not just of what's happening, but of what comes next. And that's a really different hat to where I think for scholars or academic researchers, we're not very comfortable with future building. I think that is the imperative. Now work that's being done, for example, through students at the virtual Federal University that's really asking about what citizenship and statelessness looks like on the ground through empirical cases, but also to what it could look like in the future. Those types of inquiries, I think, are the most urgent politically and also the most interesting.

Mai Van Tran [00:16:27]

I'm also curious about your own plan. Can you share about what you're working on for the next book project?

Hilary Faxon [00:16:32]

Well, I don't have another book in mind, but I am doing some work now with Jenny Hedström at Swedish Defense. Nicole Tomong who's at Cornell and Zin Marceol, who's in Meisad. We've been working on feminist approach to understanding life on the land after the revolution, and that project has a few parts participatory photography component. I mentioned some critical GIS mapping of spatial transformations and violence across the countryside. I think we will see how that project develops. At the same time of the pleasure of working with you on some projects related to digital technology and rural use. Some of that work has become comparative. I have a paper comparing Myanmar and Indonesia and the use of technologies for land and resource governance, and that's a side of the work I'd love to develop in the future.

Mai Van Tran [00:17:16]

Awesome to hear. I would like to ask if you have any. Anything else you would like to share about your upcoming book as well as When can we see the book?

Hilary Faxon [00:17:25]

The book is going to be a little while because I have to finish writing it and send it off to the press so I wouldn't hold your breath, but hopefully 2024. I think what I would like to end on is just gratitude for my friends and interlocutors who are in Calais and Yangon and some who are abroad now, and also acknowledgement of incredibly hard work, of surviving the state, of resisting and participating in the Myanmar Spring revolution. I'm very grateful to the students, activists and artists and farmers who have let me into their home and also are doing that work right now.

Mai Van Tran [00:17:56]

Thank you so much, Hilary, for being here with us and sharing your thoughts with us today. I am Mai Van Tran. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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