Burma Studies Conference Highlights Limits to Democratic Change

By Sally Kantar 11 October 2016

Burma’s challenges lie beyond the attainment of a civilian-led government, said researchers at the 12th International Burma Studies Conference at Northern Illinois University (NIU) over the weekend.

The event, held in coordination with NIU’s Center for Burma Studies in DeKalb, Illinois from Oct. 7-9, brought together academics, activists and students of Burmese art, history, politics and religion. Thirty-five panels over three days explored topics ranging from political participation to heritage preservation to religious identity.

Presenting information based on recent field work in the northern Shan State townships of Hsipaw, Kyaukme, Kutkai, Muse and Lashio, David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma with Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, spoke in a session dedicated to an assessment of Burma’s armed conflicts. Organizers said they formed the panel to further engage the scholarship of Burma Studies with the realities of the country’s civil war.

“Ongoing displacement in Burma is not getting the attention that it should [from the international community],” said Mathieson, highlighting evidence of abuses recently collected by community-based organizations working in conflict zones in Burma’s north, where military offensives continue against a number of ethnic armed groups.

Mathieson also described what he perceives as a “dearth” of “real empirical research on the ongoing conflict.”

Human Rights Watch’s David Mathieson speaks on rights violations in Burma’s civil war at Northern Illinois University on Oct. 8, 2016. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)
     Human Rights Watch’s David Mathieson speaks on rights violations in Burma’s civil war at Northern Illinois University on Oct. 8, 2016. (Photo: Sally Kantar / The Irrawaddy)

Dr. Jane Ferguson, a lecturer at Australian National University and one of the conference organizers, said that Burma Studies scholars from across the social sciences produce work incorporating different approaches that are “useful to understanding armed conflict.”

“This is the kind of conference that can bring these perspectives into conversation with each other,” she told The Irrawaddy on Monday.

John Buchanan—a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Washington who spoke on the panel on armed conflict—recommended further analysis of the country’s long-running civil war, grounded in political theory.

“Many ethnic resistance movements began in a period that could be considered democratic,” he pointed out, a reference to the 1950s, when Burma was newly independent and led by Prime Minister U Nu. Buchanan added that during this same period, Shan State was subjected to increased militarization, martial law, the suspension of civil liberties and forced conscription of soldiers.

The implications of this are great, he argued, and they require an acknowledgment of different political struggles and aspirations throughout the country.

“The challenges for Burma may be more than just having a democratic government,” he said.

Juan Luo, an anthropologist and University of Washington PhD candidate, suggested in her presentation on healthcare on the Kachin-China border that recognition of local non-state infrastructures has become more difficult in northern Kachin State since the political transition took place.

“[Aid groups] used to get in touch with Kachin authorities, but now they have to go through the central government,” she said. In order for the evolving political system to be considered democratic, she pointed out, it “has to enhance the status of the ethnic groups throughout the whole country.”

While acknowledging gains made—like the ability of organizations like Human Rights watch to carry out “careful” research within conflict zones—speakers also emphasized the limits to the political transition.

“You can criticize the government in a constructive way, but you can’t criticize the behavior of the Burmese army on the front line,” said Mathieson, citing recent restrictions placed on ethnic women’s organizations for documenting torture and extrajudicial killings by the Tatmadaw in Shan State.

An acknowledgement of continued challenges was also made by a panel speaking on the role of media in Burma’s democracy movement, which included three former political prisoners—writer and doctor Ma Thida, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition Kyaw Zwa Moe, and Rangoon regional parliamentarian Nay Phone Latt. The country, they said, “still has problems,” in a discussion that highlighted restrictions on press freedom alongside the continued presence of state-run news outlets as indicators of the limits to the country’s political shift.

“We don’t just want a civilian government out of a military government. We need real change,” said Ma Thida, emphasizing the need for stronger protection of collective rights and greater political participation from the grassroots.

Regarding post-conference outreach and future work within the Burma Studies discipline, attendees also made recommendations regarding inclusivity.

Nang Mao Hseng, a sophomore at Dickinson College originally from Lashio and Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy that after hearing researchers describe challenges ranging from outdated resources to a need for translators, she hoped that the Burma Studies international network would increase partnerships with local students in Burma when carrying out research, so as to maximize the value of the work to people in the country.

Jane Ferguson added that intellectual exchange within the region and with international scholars is an integral part of the discipline.

Aged 19, Nang Mao Hseng was “delighted” to see the handful of presentations by other youth from Burma, and to see a wide range of nationalities represented; there were over 260 people in attendance, representing 17 countries.

“We do our best with resources available and with outside support. […] It is our earnest desire to make the conference as inclusive as we can,” added Ferguson, pointing to a policy of discounted registration fees for students, in particular.

The International Burma Studies Conference takes place biannually, with NIU serving as the host every four years. The previous event was held in Singapore in 2014; the location for the 2018 conference is, as of yet, unconfirmed.