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Metamorphosis (Review)

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Renaud Egreteau & François Robinne (eds.) 2016.
Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar
Singapore: NUS Press
ISBN 9789971698669

In their latest edited volume – Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar (2016) – Renaud Egreteau and François Robinne bring into conversation thirteen scholars on Myanmar/Burma[i] whose work elucidates some recent transformations that carry the potential of effecting long-awaited changes in the country as it embarks on the road to democracy. Combining rigorous analysis and rich empirical accounts from within the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, politics and history, this volume represents the first attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the ongoing socio-cultural and political transformations in Burma since the beginning of the 21st century and their implications for the nation’s destiny. In their Introduction, Egreteau and Robinne highlight the main focus of their volume: to explore the multi-dimensional aspects of these transformations through the analytical trope of metamorphosis which, for them, embodies notions of ‘mutation’/transformation rather than rupture/change, and as such is more useful in trying to explain the various forms of developments in the social, political, economic and religious domains that Burmese society is currently experiencing.

The volume is structured in four thematic sections, each dealing with a particular aspect of this metamorphosis: (1) Evolving political ecologies, (2) Continuing struggles for identity and nation-building, (3) Trajectories of social change, and (4) A transitional “Buddhic” landscape.

Egreteau (Chapter 1) opens the volume with his historically- and empirically-informed analysis of the ostensible presence of unelected army representatives in Burmese parliament, which is often seen as a strong impediment to democratic changes. Adopting a different stand, Egreteau demonstrates that army representatives “have so far not been the blunt obstructive force many observers thought they would be” (p. 18). Rather, they continue to act in their traditional role of arbitrators and guardians of law-making and have only had a limited impact on directing the legislative process. De Mersan (Chapter 2) continues the discussion by providing an ethnographic account of the unfolding of electoral politics in the transitionary period since 2011 when a civilian government took over the military regime and the political arena was opened to democratisation processes. Through the case study of a local political leader’s involvement in party politics in Arakan, de Mersan traces the formation of an Arakanese political class which draws on traditional Buddhist values, cultural practices and models of social organisation in order to promote itself and Arakanese identity and mobilise local resources against a perceived Muslim threat. The topic of mobilising collective social action is further developed in Prasse-Freeman’s contribution (Chapter 3), which explains how various grassroots initiatives and organised protests have started saturating political space across Burma and have advanced claims for democracy, decentralisation, social justice, freedom of speech, and so forth, through the imagery of restoring order in the world. By comparing two such protest movements, their political messages and tactics, Prasse-Freeman draws some general conclusions on the nature of political protests in Burma but remains sceptical of their impact within the context of political opportunism and contestation in Burma.

Part 2 starts with Boutry’s discussion (Chapter 4) of how Burmese national identity has been historically constructed predominantly as Burman, focusing on the values associated with ‘Burman-ness’ (e.g., Buddhism and Burmese language); this has not only overlooked the immense ethnic diversity of the country, but has also resulted in the conceptualisation of ethnic diversity as a threat to national unity. While inter-ethnic relations are thus often portrayed as exclusively antagonistic, Boutry sets out to demonstrate that this is not always the case as fluid localised identities challenge prevalent identity politics discourses. Ferguson (Chapter 5) develops the topic of identity politics by providing an ethnographic account of identity construction and ethno-nationalist action in the borderland region of Shan State. Ferguson argues that perceptions of the state as hostile and predatory and competition for limited resources, especially in the context of urban development, mass communications and modernisation, have profoundly shaped the experiences of ethnic Shan people, whether they live in Burma or across the border in Thailand where many Shan reside as labour migrants or exiles. Leider (Chapter 6), in turn, argues that recent political transformations in Burma have released ethnic tensions suppressed for years and have resulted in the construction of exclusive (and new) group identities and competing narratives. Leider explores the processes through which a distinct ‘Rohingya’ ethnic identity is sought to be created in Northern Arakan/Rakhine State through a conscious and politically-driven attempt to rewrite Muslim histories based on Buddhist historical records, thus seeking to embed Arakanese Muslims firmly and monolithically as ‘Rohingya’ in local histories and imaginaries, even though self-identifications might vary. In the last chapter of Part 2, Jacquet (Chapter 7) analyses different narrativisations of the armed conflict between the Kachin and the Burmese government, which seek to explain the root causes of the conflict and legitimise its perpetuation, especially after the abrogation of 17 years of ceasefire in 2011. Jacquet focuses particularly on the public relations campaign of Kachin political leaders, which is based on the construction of various interrelated narratives through which Kachin leaders attempt to restore their compromised authority, regain popular support for their cause and accentuate the distinctiveness of the ethnic Kachin identity by intertwining it firmly with Christianity.

Part 3 opens with Metro’s contribution (Chapter 8), which argues for a greater focus on students and teachers as agents of change in the ongoing process of Burma’s slow democratisation. Metro draws attention to some limitations of the Burmese educational system: it fosters corruption, stifles critical thinking and is grossly mismanaged. And while it is common practice to seek top-down solutions to these problems through educational reforms, Metro argues that schools can become spaces where democratisation and national reconciliation are effected through a series of practical approaches – e.g., zero-tolerance to ethnic discrimination in the classroom, inclusive linguistic practices, appropriate teaching methods, teacher retraining, etc. Banki (Chapter 9) explores the dimensions of another vehicle of change – ‘homeland political activism’ – which is driven by perceptions of precarity and vulnerability, but embodies enormous transformative potential. Banki argues that this potential is inherent in the way homeland activism is organised: it operates transnationally (from within Burma, from neighbouring countries and from the international space) and has the ability to mobilise various types of resources (funds, personal and diaspora networks, mass and social media, etc.) in order to achieve its goals and raise awareness. While homeland activists remain precarious and vulnerable in multiple ways, they draw on these strengths in order to continue their work. Part 3 of the volume closes with Coderey’s contribution (Chapter 10) in which the author explores the availability of biomedicine in the remote areas of Rakhine State and argues that it represents only one component of a “larger pluralistic therapeutic field” (p. 261) that is not always resorted to as it ignores a number of cosmological factors (e.g., spirits), which are important for local aetiologies. As she analyses the various forms of healthcare provision in Rakhine, Coderey argues that a more coordinated approach between all actors in the healthcare sector will provide better service that is more relevant to local conditions.

In the first contribution to Part 4, Kawanami (Chapter 11) explores the position of Buddhist nuns within the sangha (religious community) by juxtaposing it with the position of Buddhist monks. While monks have been traditionally well-respected and revered, nuns have always occupied a more ambiguous religious position and are often perceived in negative terms by the laity. However, nunneries are thriving, especially in some regions, and Kawanami argues that as nuns become firmly associated with the provision of quality education, they also become more influential within their local communities and more involved in social work, which has been previously the undisputed domain of monks. Recent changes within the monastic community are also elucidated in the work of Brac de la Perrière (Chapter 12), which traces the emergence of a new generation of monks in post-2011 Burmese society. These monks, as the author describes them, reverse the traditional image of the Buddhist monk as a renouncer, by being very politically active, introducing new forms of religiosity and forging new power relations with traditional Buddhist authorities and political elites. They justify their involvement in the world by insisting that they act from a high moral ground – that is, to protect Buddhism against perceived dangerous ‘Others’ – and in a situation of worsening moral decline. In the last chapter of this edited volume, Robinne suggests that in order to understand the persistence of communal tensions and sectarian violence in Burma, one needs to look beyond the simple dualism ‘Burmese/Buddhist–non-Burmese/non-Buddhist’ and analyse processes of identity construction and ‘Othering’ within different ethnic and religious communities in a historical and comparative perspective. Robinne provides an account of these processes among two minority communities – Christian Kachin and Christian Chin, and Muslims – and points out that while Christians have generally not been targeted by Buddhist animosity, Muslims have not been spared this fate.

The volume Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change is the first book-length study of the contemporary socio-cultural and political transformations that Burma is currently experiencing, and as such is of interest to anyone who wishes to understand these issues better. Although a non-specialist might occasionally get confused by the intricate details of Burmese party politics and parliamentary dynamics, the rich ethnographic accounts guide the reader through the myriad of party abbreviations, political games and personal stories in a most compelling way. The authors are unanimous in their conclusions that despite some promising changes, Burma is still facing a number of challenges that it needs to tackle on its ongoing journey to democracy (e.g., relations with minority groups, corruption, freedom of speech, equal representation, etc.). A particularly valuable feature of most chapters is that their authors also provide empirically-informed recommendations on how this journey might be facilitated and accelerated, thus offering a potential link between their work as social scientists and the fields of policy planning and implementation. As such, their work has the potential to have some practical impact that might extend beyond the field of academic enquiry. Even though the editors acknowledge in their Introduction that the volume could have benefitted from the engagement of Burmese scholars, all current contributions have been contextualised and analysed so well that the reader is not left with the feeling that something is missing. Rather, the volume, in its current form, not only enhances our understanding of how Burma is being transformed, but also entices the reader to keep the conversation going by reading more.

[i] For the sake of uniformity, I will retain the term ‘Burma’ in preference to ‘Myanmar’ throughout my review.

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