Transcript: Rethinking Communities in Myanmar

[00:02 - 00:05] Opening jingle:

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

[00:10 - 00:37] Mai Van Tran

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is my Mai Van Tran. I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen and today I have the pleasure of welcoming Professor Judith Beyer. She is a professor of social and political anthropology at the University of Konstanz. Welcome Judith.

[00:38 - 00:39] Judith Beyer

Thank you very much for having me.

[00:40 - 03:45] Mai Van Tran

Judith is an expert in legal and political anthropology and has long term ethnographic field experience in both Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Her latest book, published with NIAS Press, is titled Rethinking Community in Myanmar, where she offers the first anthropological monograph of Muslim and Hindu lives in contemporary Myanmar. The book introduces the concept of we-formation as a fundamental yet underexplored capacity of humans to relate to one another outside of and apart from demarcated ethno religious lines and corporate groups. Across Myanmar at the moment, the military that conducted the 2021 coup continues to intensify its atrocity towards civilians. In response, there is ongoing mass resistance against the coup. So I will also ask Judith about how her analysis of we-formation could help us better understand the dynamics of this unfolding revolution. But first of all, Judith, for the audience members that might not be so familiar with your work, can you provide a brief overview of what motivated you to start your book project?

Judith Beyer

Yeah, sure. I think there are two reasons. One is professional and the other one is a bit more private. But I will tell both reasons because it might be interesting for the audience who is not that familiar with the German academic system because there's something very peculiar about the German academic system in the sense that if you want to continue your career in anthropology, if you want to stay in academia, if you want to become a professor, it's still kind of expected to have two different field sites. That means two different regional expertises. And as you already mentioned, my first field work and my first expertise was in Central Asia. I did long term field research in Kyrgyzstan, which is a very rural, mountainous, landlocked part in Central Asia, where people are mostly mono ethnic Kyrgyz. And I lived in a mountain village for one and a half years and did long term fieldwork on legal pluralism. So on the interaction of different types of legal repertoires and this was the PhD research. So and then afterwards that was around year, 2009, 2010, when I had my PhD, I expanded into Southeast Asia to open up a second fieldwork expertise, you could say. And the more private reason was that my husband and I, we wanted to do field research together, but he is an expert on southern Ethiopia. And so we discussed whether I would join him in southern Ethiopia or he would join me in northern Kyrgyzstan. And then we decided it's not fair because one of us would always be the expert. And so we both started from scratch, which means we both learned Myanmar. We both went traveling throughout the country in 2009 for the first time, and we developed our research projects alongside one another and had to rewrite our project several times because that was exactly in the period where things changed so quickly in Myanmar that our initial ideas that were outdated before we could even start carrying out field research. And so it was more or less by accident, as it very often is the case in anthropology, that the topic I ended up with, namely studying ethnic religious minorities in urban Yangon, developed. So that is the answer to your question.

[04:00 - 04:34] Mai Van Tran

Yeah, I think that's such a fascinating story and I think many of us can relate to that story on many different levels. I also find that it's usually very helpful to have this type of comparative perspective, right, that could produce novel insights from academic research. With that said, now, I would like to ask you a bit more about your book. First of all, can you explain a bit more about who made up the Muslim and Hindu communities in your study and whether we might find similar types of communities elsewhere outside of Myanmar?

[04:34 - 06:08] Judith Beyer

Yeah, It's interesting that you mentioned the category of community now, which already leads to one of the main arguments I'm making in the book, namely that this term, which we use so often in order to talk about a certain kind of group of people, right? It has become so natural to talk about ethnic minorities as a certain community that usually, even in academia, we forget to think about where does this concept actually come from? What does it mean? And so part of the book is really about tracing the history of the category of community, which I refer to as a category of empire. It's a category of the British Empire of tracing this category from the 18th and 19th century England via India, where it has been used to separate the Muslims from the Hindus. Then across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, which was the last part of the British Empire. So the country that was added last to the British Empire and then investigate ethnographically the work of community in contemporary Myanmar in regard to how Muslims and Hindus conceive of themselves and how they are conceived by others. So one of the main arguments of the book is that community is not a neutral term. It's a political term. It's a highly complex term which has a long trajectory. And I'm paying attention to how it's being employed by the people who themselves are referred to or refer to themselves as members of these ethno religious groups.

[06:09 - 08:16] Mai Van Tran

Yeah, think that is a very thought provoking argument. So can you explain to our audience your concepts of work of community as well as we-formation?

Judith Beyer

Yeah. These two concepts go together, I would say. So the work of community basically investigates what the concept of community or the category of community still does in contemporary Myanmar, which means how do people who are members of ethno religious groups refer to themselves, especially when they're talking to a third person, to an outsider? This could be me, the anthropologist, but it could also be someone from the majority population, the Burma. It could be vis a vis the state. So any kind of other, right? So one aspect of my work is to trace historically, but then also in the way people introduce themselves to others, to thirds, to trace what role the category of community plays in the way people conceive of themselves and how they present themselves to others. So the argument is really that I found it very, very predominant that people who are Muslims, are Hindus in contemporary Myanmar would kind of present themselves, first of all, as members of these communities. So it took me a long time to really kind of get to know them as individuals, which was something I was really interested in. This is also a position within anthropology that we cherish. Yeah, we want to see eye to eye with our interlocutors. We really want to get to know them. We want to kind of establish relationships of trust and so on. And usually that takes a lot of time in any kind of fieldwork. But in Myanmar, I found it particularly striking how the categorization of being a member of a community was foregrounded. In any case, whenever I met someone new, so people would introduce themselves as saying we are Shia or we are Muslim or we are Tamil, or we are Gujarati. Very often using the plural formwe” - not talking about “I am”. So that got me interested in this very notion of community, especially because they would switch languages also. So even when they spoke Burma, they would switch into English and use the English word ‘community’ when they would talk about it. I delve a bit into the etymology of the word and argue that there is not one translation into Burmese language, but very different kinds of ways to kind of speak about groups. But when people talk about being a member of an ethno-religious community, they use the English word. And so that got me interested in where does this category come from? And this is why the book has a very long historical section where I trace the category, as I said, back to actually legal anthropologists and remain and other historians who worked as colonial officers in India and were responsible for setting up policies and laws that in the end would help separate people according to their ethno- religious identity or what the British thought that ethno religious identity was supposed to be. So whereas the work of community investigates the historical trajectory of this category and what it still does in contemporary Myanmar - so how people themselves use it, who are said to belong to these minorities and how it's being used in order to classify them as a minority - I develop another concept in the book, which I call we-formation in order to take into account that individuals are always more than members of corporate groups, including ethno religious minorities. And this is really because I could see the difference between how people talked about themselves and their own group, how they presented their group to the outside, for example, during processions throughout Yangon in the way they carried out religious services. So whenever they kind of presented or performed religion or minority towards others or in the public sphere, I could see the difference to what else was going on or what else they were trying to do in order to realize themselves as individuals. So nobody is ever only defined by their ethnic or religious identity, right? People are always more individuals are always more than just members of these groups. And that's something I thought really tends to be forgotten when talking about minorities in general. But in Myanmar, I thought this was particularly the case. It was so strong that even the people themselves would downplay their individuality and talk about them as members of groups mostly. And so I'm investigating where does this come from, as I say, and then pay attention to what else is going on. For example, how is an individual really trying to figure out who he or she or they is in addition to being a member of this group? And how do people interact with one another in public, but also in the mosque, in temples, but also in the private realm? How do they interact with one another apart from these demarcated ethno-religious lines? And this is what the concept of we-formation is trying to grasp.

[11:11 - 13:35] Mai Van Tran

That is actually very interesting. Can you maybe provide an example of how this tension might look like within one of your research subjects, like one of the people that you observed, how they themselves might try to break out of the common way of identifying themselves according to religious or ethnic lines?

Judith Beyer

Yeah, this is a very good question, and this is exactly what I'm trying to do in the individual chapters of the book. So, for example, in one chapter, which I calledMarrying Up’, I follow one of my key interlocutors who first of all identified himself as a Shia man and of whom I found out then after a little while that he belonged to a specific section within the Shia group, namely Hindustani Shia, as people put it in Yangon, and that there were actually two factions. One was the Hindustani Shia and one was the Iranian Shia. This is how people refer to these two groups. And according to local classifications, the Iranian Shia consider themselves of a higher class than the Hindustani Shia. This is very much related to skin color, to discourses of origin. So a lot of categorizations, emic categorizations or categorizations that come from the people themselves that we would consider very essentialising, right? So various stereotypifying and in some sense also hard to understand why would someone classify himself in a faction or within a class that is lower than another faction or lower than another class and then identify with that faction? But this is what this interlocutor of mine did. And so what I did is I really worked on the genealogy of this person where that his parents come from, who intermarried with whom, whom did he marry? So the topic of marrying up describes basically his trajectory from the Hindustani Shia faction into the Iranian Shia faction by out-marrying, namely by marrying a woman who is part of the Iranian Shia group and also by kind of his work for the community. And I'll call it like this because this is, of course, a concept which the people themselves use. And I try to kind of understand how he's making do with all of these classifications available to him and how he's still trying to kind of navigate through them. So he has this very strong opinion about being of lower class origin also because of the way he looks. But then he still tries to get around these classifications and not only make a living and create a family, but create himself. So a lot of what I'm writing in this book is really about trying to understand how do people develop a sense of self in a setting which is so strongly dominated by classifications which, from a modern anthropological perspective, would seem outdated but which still do a lot of work in terms of how people are allowed to relate to one another. So the category of class is really important. The category of race is really important and of religion as well. I would rather than taking these categorizations as facts - as something that simply is - I'm trying to understand how do people themselves relate to these and how do they constantly try to get around them? And many of what I'm describing is not conscious very often. So people will not be able to necessarily reflect on all of this because this is just something they do. So you need to observe very closely how people comport themselves. Of course, you can talk about all of these things, but very often asking questions doesn't help you a lot. So the way I carried out fieldwork was very much focused on participating and observing, not so much on asking questions and never doing interviews because the material I work with in the book is not possible to extract through asking questions, but it's more about really paying very close attention to how people relate to one another through, for example, the ways they carry out rituals, the way they participate in public life, the way they comport themselves in private life and so on.

[15:23 - 17:37] Mai Van Tran

Actually, one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was about the challenges that you encountered during your fieldwork and how you were able to overcome these challenges. And as you mentioned, like many of the insights in your work, being able to come up with these insights, you have to observe many of the activities and rituals closely instead of engaging in personal interviews. Was there any other challenges that you also came across during your field work that you would like to share with our audience?

Judith Beyer

I think the major challenge and what eventually brought me to the topic of the book was my own presence, because the process I've just described of people beingothered’ by being classified as members of ethno-religious minorities, just by the way they look, for example, the same principle applied to me as well. I mean, I was a white, Western woman, so of course I was an “other”. I could try as hard as I wanted in the beginning to kind of fit in and do the same things as people are doing. So the book opens up with, for me, a really eye opening moment when I participate in one of these nightly processions with hundreds of other Shia women and men. And I'm dressed exactly in the same way as the other women are. I wear black. I wear a scarf. I have learned to recite things in the same way as people are reciting. So I learn to walk in the way they walk. I basically mirror or mimicry my way throughout this night. And then the woman comes up to me and tells me that was the way she introduced herself to me. She tells me we are Shia. So what do you say in that situation? Because I could have said, Yes, I know. I mean, don't you see that I'm here and I'm trying to kind of fit in? I'm doing exactly what you are doing, I thought. So why is it necessary for her to say this and why is she using the plural form? So the major challenge for me was to realize that very often in academic research, we forget that our very presence leads to the fact that people “other” themselves. So it's not only that I amothered” as the odd one out, being Western and female and so on, but this is something that happens as soon as a third comes in, right? A third person, a third party, someone who doesn't belong. So it's a very human or common way of relating to others. But if you fall back on this, you're missing out on a lot of other things. So I had to really rethink the way I'm doing fieldwork or what is usually expected from us in anthropology also, because there was a limit of being able to fit in or being able to just do exactly the things people are doing and then assume you're integrated enough to really understand life or everyday life from the perspective of the people you're working with. So that was a challenge, but it was at the same time necessary because it pushed me into this direction to change my methodology and to really look at the way thisothering” is still working. So this work of community, as I call it, is actually functioning in Myanmar.

[18:28 - 19:12] Mai Van Tran

That is really helpful for us as listeners to also know about this type of challenge and to be more self-aware in terms of how our presence as academic researchers might also affect our surroundings. And in a way it might also lead to skewed analysis or findings, so we always need to make sure to be reflexive. So now I actually would like to zoom out of these neighborhoods in urban Yangon. And I want to ask you, in terms of these tensions between ethno-religious identities and other types of cosmopolitan identities, do you think that this type of tension might also manifest in other metropolitan centers in Myanmar or even beyond Myanmar?

[19:13 - 21:05] Judith Beyer

I would say the argument of the book is a truly anthropological argument. So the book is not a regional book only. It's an anthropological book which could be applied from the theoretical perspective I’m pursuing and also methodologically to any other area in this world. But the result might not be the same. So this work is focused on Myanmar because the work of community, as I call it, in Myanmar, is very specific. It comes from the British Empire and it has taken on a particular dimension because of the very extreme types of governance Myanmar has witnessed in the last century. So in that sense it's particular, but it's nothing special because what I'm describing is basically human ways of being able to relate to one another. So there's one which emphasizes categorizations and otherness and there's one which is pre-reflective and which might not be verbalized and which people might not talk about a lot, but which is something they nevertheless do all the time, namely to relate to one another, to interact with one another, to form groups with one another, without the concept of identity being present. We talk a lot about identity, personal identity, collective identity and so on, but we tend to forget that humans have the capacity to interact with one another to form intersubjective arrangements where identity does not necessarily play a role. And I think the reason for me to really foreground this in the Myanmar case was that this seemed to be lacking in the literature. So there's a lot of literature about ethnic groups or about these classifications because it's a multiethnic country, because it has a very complicated history and a complicated present. But for me, this other aspect of what it means to being human was was lacking. And this is what the book is also about.

[21:06 - 23:45] Mai Van Tran

This actually also leads very nicely into my next question, which is about the current situation in Myanmar. So as many of our listeners might know, currently the majority of Myanmar population across a wide range of ethno-religious groups in urban, rural and border areas are engaging in the Myanmar Spring revolution, not only in opposed to the 2021 military coup, but also for a new political vision of a more just and inclusive society. So I find this to resonate with the main themes of your book. Can you share your thoughts on how your findings might help us better understand the dynamics of this revolution?

Judith Beyer

Yeah, I think it remains to be seen. I think we're all still shocked by what has happened on February 1st, 2021. We've all followed closely. We've tried to support our friends and colleagues and interlocutors as much as we can. And it's an open question, I think, what might happen. I really hope for the best. I'm usually not a very hopeful person, but there is something that does give me hope in Myanmar and that is really the individual dedication I see across age groups, across ethnic identity, across previous professions, independent of where people live. So I've rarely really seen such a determination in terms of wanting to be free, freeing themselves from this military rule. And of course, there's there's always people who will take the opportunity and turn this into a profit or who kind of might go on as if things are normal. But I think for the most part, people in Myanmar are really resisting in very different ways. And in the conclusion of the book, I'm trying to make an argument about that resistance does not necessarily have to mean that one has to pick up arms, but it might also be the very way you comport yourself in the sense that you refuse to go back to normal, to refuse that you want to live like this. You might be going about your everyday life because you have a family and you have children and you need to go on. But very often people mistake, especially outsiders who look at Myanmar, they mistake this for, okay, things are going back to normal. They're not. It's not a normal situation at all. But I find the individual capacity to resist and refuse what has happened to be very strong in people and also the resistance in terms of group formation or we-formation. That again, is not relying exclusively on ethno-religious identification. I mean, of course you have ethnic armed groups, you have these in the past. And you had, especially in the beginning of the spring revolution, as you called it, you had groups according to community boundaries, you could say appear in public when it was still safe to demonstrate on the streets. There was something that was very visible. People would appear in groups, they were dressed alike or they would belong to the same profession. So they would perform their resistance as groups. But the more dangerous this has gotten, the more people really have to rely on themselves. So there has to be a strength in each individual to resist and survive this. And I see that happening in Myanmar. So here again, I think that people will be able to withstand this and succeed in the end, not because they have a common enemy. This is also the case. The military is the common enemy, but that is not the decisive thing. For me, the decisive thing is that I can see in all of the interlocutors of mine and the other people I have been working with my previous colleagues at the universities and so on, I can see an individual determination to not give in, to not let them win. And this is something I personally really admire in the people of Myanmar, and that is something that gives me hope.

[24:59 - 25:18] Mai Van Tran

 Yeah, agree. Think that the level of resilience among broad part of the Myanmar population is something that I'm really impressed about as well. To close our podcast episode, I'm also curious about your upcoming projects and publications. Can you share more about these other projects?

[25:19 - 27:17] Judith Beyer

Yeah, there's another project of mine, which I've been pursuing for a couple of years now. It developed out of the work in Myanmar, so I've been doing so calledCountry of Origin” reports for asylum cases in Europe for almost ten years now. And most of these cases concern stateless individuals. Most of these are Rohingya people. So I'm basically following those people who've left in various ways Myanmar, Bangladesh or other countries because of being persecuted in their country of origin or in the place they grew up in. I followed these people and have tried to kind of support asylum claims by writing anthropologically informed reports, trying to assess the plausibility that a person is a stateless Rohingya. And this is a very interesting genre. It's a very interesting work of trying to reason within an increasingly claustrophobic legal immigration system. So I do work in the UK but also in other European countries. And I'm using the material I receive and the way I see the states are kind of failing to grapple with the issue of statelessness, to work on something that I call an anthropology of statelessness, which doesn't exist as such, which is strange because historically anthropology was very much interested in stateless societies. So in societies where there was no hierarchical political system in place, let alone a nation state, and again, we tend to forget that the nation state is a very recent concept, which stems from the 19th century in the end. So it's not that old and that there were ways of social organization that preceded this where the state did not matter or where there was no state, but people still organize themselves. So I'm interested in the topic of statelessness and the range up one particular group or one particular case study I've been working on for the last years. So this is the new project I'm interested in.

[27:18 - 27:29] Mai Van Tran

Thank you so much, Judith, for sharing about your important work with us. Once again, it is such a pleasure to learn from your research and thank you for being here for our podcast episode today.

[27:30 - 27:31] Judith Beyer

Thank you for having me.

[27:32 - 27:38] Mai Van Tran

I am Mai Van Tran. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in study in Asia.

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