Transcript: The Politics of Protest in Myanmar

NAP  0:02 
This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Duncan McCargo  0:10 
Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic Region. I'm Duncan McCargo, Director of NIAS and professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. And for this episode we are delighted to be joined by Van Tran, who is out newly appointed Post-doctoral researcher here at NIAS. Van, it's great to have you on the podcast.

Van Tran  0:30 
Well, thank you very much for having me on this podcast episode. My pleasure.

Duncan McCargo  0:35 
So van recently finished her PhD in government at Cornell University, which is a legendary institution in the field of Southeast Asian Studies. Her thesis is on the resilience of contentious movements under repression, the role of bystander protection and disruption. And the focus of her research has been on Myanmar. So Van let me start off by asking you, you're from Vietnam originally, but you ended up studying Burmese and writing a PhD about Myanmar? Can you tell us something about that journey? Most of my Southeast Asian PhD students only really wants to work on their own country. But you're a rare example of someone going off to a different part of the region.

Van Tran  1:14 
Yeah, sure. So I started out with an interest in studying politics. During my time in college, when I was an undergraduate in a liberal arts college in the US, I was very fascinated by you know, the subjects regarding with politics, as well as history that I was able to access in US higher education. And later on, during the time when I was about to graduate from university, it was the year of 2012, which is arguably, and remarkable and memorable year for Burmese politics, as it was the first time in a long time that Myanmar had its free and fair, general election to elect civilian governments. And at that same time, I also got a chance to work with Carnegie Endowment to monitor that election, and also to examine the implications that that election would have on the future of Burmese politics going forward. And that was the starting point of when I began to learn more about the history of the pro democracy movement in Myanmar. And the long term resilience of that movement inspired me to scrutinise further the factors that enabled this durability, and how these factors might also be applicable for other contexts of illiberal authoritarianism around the world beyond Myanmar.

Duncan McCargo  2:46 
Right. Now, it's a very, very interesting and international journey that you've obviously made. If we look at the title of your PhD, there's quite a barrage of big nouns there. We've got resilience and movements, repression, bystander protection, disruption, can you give us a quick overview of what your thesis argues?

Van Tran  3:09 
Sure. So in my dissertation, I want to highlight the role of bystanders, especially just the average observers of public contentious activism under authoritarianism that has been neglected in most of the scholarship on social movements. So in my dissertation, I provide a theoretical framework on how various reactions and responses by these bystanders, beside protests participation, affected the dynamics as well as the resilience of contentious mobilisation using the case of Myanmar under military rule between 1988 and 2010. So among the various different types of actions and reactions that bystanders and observers of contentious protests might have and my exhibit toward protest participants, I find that protective support as well as disruption play the most significant role in terms of mediating the survival as well as the long term commitment of participants of these movements, as well, as of you know, the grassroots activists that are part of these movements.

Duncan McCargo  4:29 
Right, yeah. So the bystanders is probably the most important of those big nouns and maybe we can come back to two bystanders in a minute, but I guess for many people and by the way, I went back to Myanmar in 2012 for the first time since 1985. Having been boycotting the country for many years. That was a big year for many people. That was also the year that Obama showed up and David Cameron and many other less alights. What a turning point. Why is it though, that there are so many of these massive protests In Myanmar, we've got, obviously that original movement in 8888. You've got the saffron protests of 2007. I know those are the two main case studies in your thesis. And then we have had huge resistance from large elements of the public since military coup or the first of February is just fascinating to me, certain countries like France, India, Thailand, they've got this propensity for rally politics that other countries lack. So why are street protests so big in Myanmar?

Van Tran  5:28 
Yeah, I think that the first thing that most people would turn to, in terms of trying to explain I like the abundance, as well as the durability of protests in Myanmar, would be the level of brutality as well as abuses by various military led governments toward the general public. So if we look at a wide range of authoritarian regimes that exists nowadays, right, that there are authoritarian regimes that are quite responsive, in terms of addressing the needs and the grievances of certain parts of the public, right. However, the case in Myanmar is that we see these leaders in the military who are running the country. And at the same time, we're also subjecting the general population towards not only unsuccessful economic policies, but also physical abuses in various forms as well. And that, to me, made the Myanmar case really stand out, among other cases of authoritarianism. And I think that that is one of the most important factors that gave rise to dissidents and contentious mobilizations within the country against the regime.

Duncan McCargo  6:46 
Yeah, I mean, it's one of these really interesting questions about why this stuff happens. And obviously, a large part of it is, as you say, people's lack of other avenues for participation or lack of other opportunities because of the level of repression that's taken place at so many different junctures in recent history. What about these bystanders then? So I know in your thesis, you talk about different notions of the roles that bystanders perform in relation to these movements? Can you talk to us about these ideas mean, you've got two big concepts, as I understand this bystander protection, and bystander disruption, so what, what, what's protection and what's disruption in this particular context?

Van Tran  7:28 
Sure, sure. So in my dissertation, I showcase the wide range of different types of responses and reactions that ordinary observers might have toward contentious activist. And these forms of reactions and responses also vary. So for example, if we talk about protest periods, right, so periods, where we would see rallies, and demonstrations on the street, we can also witness various different types of protective acts, including for examples, informing protests, participants about the movements of the security forces in order to help these protesters run away, right, or to to avoid crackdown ahead of time. But beyond that, based on the qualitative interviews and various primary accounts that I have collected during my fieldwork in Myanmar, the bystanders themselves, they also directly engage in either attacking the security forces in order to provide some kind of buffer for the protesters who escaped arrest and to run away. And on top of that, many of them out of their sympathy toward these protesters who they consider to be innocent victims, also would engage in providing medical treatments toward these protesters, and some of them have also contributed to successful escape plan of these protesters, by assisting them on the way by providing them with food with clothes, right or or helping them to disguise to get through the different checkpoints by the governments as well. So that has been like quite a long answer. But that's like in terms of the protection,

Duncan McCargo  9:20 
a lot of different kinds of protection we get that covers a wide range of activities. Yeah,

Van Tran  9:25 
yeah. And we talk about disruptive acts by bystanders actually, in here, I divide them into two different types. So either passive or active disruption. Passive disruption would include avoiding protest sites as well as guarding the neighbourhoods in order to prevent protesters from going through their neighbourhoods and their communities.

Duncan McCargo  9:50 
Yeah, can I just get this clear? So the disruption that you're talking about is not on behalf of the bystanders, but this is disruption of The protests that are taking place by people who are bystanders. So they're essentially, if you think of the protesters as, for example, anti government, then these are effectively kind of pro government bystanders, is that right?

Van Tran  10:12 
Right. So they're not pro government. So the population that I have interviewed, and I highlight in my dissertation, these people, they hold grievances toward the government. And they are very outspoken about these grievances. But at the same time, they do not directly engage in support for the opposition or for dissidents. And by the same token, they themselves are also not actively cooperating with the government. Right. So what motivated these forms of disruption and hostility toward protesters from the general public actually comes from their threat perception. So due to various factors, such as violence that the protesters perpetrated, or also violence that the government would frame protesters for, bystanders and the general public would form various levels of threat perception towards these protesters, and as a result, in order to shield their own family or their own communities against destruction or perceived destruction by protesters, they themselves would either stop protesters from going through their area, or worse, they might actively attack these protesters.

Duncan McCargo  11:30 
Right? So it turns out to be quite a complicated thing to unpack what these kinds of disruptive bystanders are doing. They have their own agendas, which can't be simply reduced to one explanation or

Van Tran  11:41 
Exactly, yeah, so in my dissertation, I emphasise the fact that non politicised motivations for the bystander actions. Yes, right. So most of these actions are either geared toward rescuing people who they consider to be innocent victims of excessive violence, or towards defending their communities and their families against potential violence and destruction from strangers. But at the same time, while these are non politicised acts, they do have politically meaningful implications to work, the dynamics and the durability of protest movements.

Duncan McCargo  12:26 
I see. Now, these are absolutely fascinating topics. There also was, again, there's in the title, they're contentious. And they're tricky, and they're messy, and they're complicated. How do you go about doing research about these kinds of movements, especially when you're doing your field work long after these movements have taken place? So you're asking people about their memories about things that have happened as long ago as 1988? I know there's a huge number of interviews in your PhD, I couldn't find the the total number, but I saw there was at least up to an interview 133 there somewhere. So you talked to very large numbers of people, how did you manage to find them and build up a picture of the movements that have taken place quite a while ago that you could fit into your framework?

Van Tran  13:11 
So first of all, I think that I was also fortunate that I conducted my fieldwork during the time of political liberalisation in Myanmar. And that allowed me to start collaborating with independent research institutes as well as independent laboratories within the country in order to reach out to potential interviewees people who either witnessed or took part in the 1988 or 2007 protest events in Yangon, as well as outside of Yangon. And at the same time, across most of the bookshops that I visited in Yangon, during those years of my fieldwork, the memoirs and personal accounts and reports by former political activist during this time, were also popular items on the shelves, and I was just able to just go and purchase these books, really good price. So in a way, it was a very conducive environment for data collection. And furthermore, I also wanted to share that at that time, I was actually surprised by how open people were to sharing their personal experiences during these contentious episodes. Especially, you know, my research participants were quite happy to have a chance to share with me about the stories that they themselves might not have had opportunities to share with other people before. And the interviews that I conducted, therefore became very relaxing and easygoing, despite the fact that this is a difficult topic. It appears that both political activist as well as people without any kind of political background, or they both enjoy they conversation. And they both appreciated this time that they could take advantage of in order to share about what these protest events and what these contentious episodes meant to them personally.

Duncan McCargo  15:15 
Absolutely. It never ceases to amaze me. How many people in Southeast Asia are willing to tell me all kinds of things that you'd think they wouldn't really want to talk about? This is an extraordinary experience that many of us have doing field work that people are very, very happy to share all sorts of stuff. And it produces some extremely rich accounts and rich research, like the research that you've been doing. I'm sure though, a lot of our listeners are jumping ahead to the latest episode in the story, because of course, you you've got your PhD, I believe, in December 2020. And just over a month later, it all started again, because we had a military coup on the first of February 2021. And we hadn't had that many massive protests in the intervening years. And now suddenly, it was back to the very same kind of contentious movements that you have been studying previously. What do you think you can draw from your thesis in terms of well, maybe lessons learned as a dreadful concept, but comparisons or or or relevant points and arguments? How can you apply some of the things that you came across during the field work that you did about the 1988 and 2007 protests to what's been going on since February 2021.

Van Tran  16:28 
So personally, I wish that my research is obsolete and no longer applies to the case. However, as I have observed the development of contentious resistance within the country during the past year against the military administration, what I have realised is that there is this continuation in terms of the role that multiple veteran activist groups play in keeping anti military resistance alive. This is a topic that I also discuss within my dissertation. And that continues to be relevant in the present context as well. In particular, during the
post coup 2021. environment, the protests as well as various other types of more violent resistance acts that we have witnessed within the countries, they do not appear overnight, and a lot of them have also had influence as well as benefited from advice and experiences of activists that have led contentious events before 2010. I find that before 2010, the veteran activists played a crucial role in first in inspiring and passing down resistance, spirit and tactical knowledge to the next generation. Second in terms of directly organising or supporting public activism. And third, also very importantly, in terms of amplifying the claims of the movement, as well as amplifying the abuses by the military in order to mobilise public support and international advocacy. And in Post coup2021, we witness very similar types of dynamics of veteran activist that not only the ones that are based within Myanmar, but also the export networks, how they themselves have played a very significant role. And everybody could see the fact that so many different governments around the world in so many different communities around the world, how they become aware of the situation in Myanmar, and how they are the chance to engage with different communities in Myanmar, thanks to the first of all, independent reporting by veteran journalists, right. And second of all, thanks to advocacy campaigns, by these long standing activist groups based abroad, so also in Asia, as well as in Europe and in the US.

Duncan McCargo  19:03 
Yeah, that leads me into the next question I wanted to ask you, because if we look at the latest phase of protests, some people might say that the thing that really marks out these protests as being rather different from the earlier incarnations was the degree of transnationalism, if you like this sense in which certainly in the early wave of the protests, which we know was rather different. So if we go back to February and March of last year, where you could see what seemed like a lot of imitation or emulation of strategies used by say protest movement in Hong Kong or the youth protests in Thailand in 2020. And it's kind of milk tea Alliance idea of a shared online progressive identity linking Myanmar in with a new imagined young collectivists South East/ East Asian imaginary. Do you think that that was an important element in what was going on in the at least in the early phases of the Myanmar protests in 2021?

Van Tran  20:02 
Yeah, according to my observation, it was an important factor. So we could see are these protesters emulating the protest tactics like from both Hong Kong as well as Thai protesters, right, both in terms of how they are using the same three fingers salute, as well as how they are trying to stay safe from attacks from the security forces, right, the use of different kinds of protective gears. So there are definitely impact and cross border learning between an among these protesters. And I will say that it's not only just one way like from Hong Kong and Thai protesters toward Burmese protesters, but also the other way around. We have also seen Thai protesters adopting the pot and pan banging actions by the Burmese as well. So this is something that I think has been enabled thanks to various types of connections on social media platforms. And it's actually also a topic that I'm very interested in continue studying for a future research project as well.

Duncan McCargo  21:07 
Right, because that was really my next last question, what are you working on now? You're turning your thesis into some publications, or you're setting out on new adventures or both?

Van Tran  21:18 
Right, so multiple things. I was saying, I'm not sure if I'm too ambitious with the duration of the postdoc. But first of all, my priority is to turn my dissertation into journal articles, hopefully two journal articles, as well as a one book manuscript. And on top of that, I'm actually right now also working on two other projects, analysing social media content in Myanmar before and after the coup, in order to dissect the role that social media contributes towards the unconscious dynamics on the ground. And last but not least, I am also applying for funding in order to start a new project, as I have alluded to before, in order to investigate the emergence as well as impact of transnational pro democracy activism based on the case of the milk tea Alliance Network.

Duncan McCargo  22:15 
Right. So you've got a very busy year ahead of you here with all these fascinating intellectual agendas. We very much look forward to hearing more about that.

I'm Duncan McCargo. I'm the director of NIAS and I've been in conversation with Van Tran who's a postdoctoral researcher at NIAS about her research on the politics of protests in Myanmar. And more broadly, Van this has been a fascinating conversation and we look forward to hearing more about your work during your time here in Copenhagen.

Van Tran  22:44 
Thank you very much.

Duncan McCargo  22:45 
Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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