A Half-Stocked Marketplace of Ideas
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


A Half-Stocked Marketplace of Ideas

By David Scott Mathieson JULY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.7


Scholars provide little more than table scraps in a new academic collection o­n Burma

N. Ganesan and Kyaw Yin Hlaing,
Myanmar: State, Society and
, Insitute of Southeast
Asian Studies, Singapore, and
Hiroshima Peace Institue Japan,
US $24.99

It is a mark of modern academia, more than the state of Burma, that many scholarly collected works o­n the country are about as substantial as a glass of ye-sa (water boiled with rice), and not the full, lavish feast of erudition that the country should be able to produce. N. Ganesan and Kyaw Yin Hlaing’s new edited collection, Myanmar: State, Society and Ethnicity, lamentably joins this parsimonious table. It gives basic nourishment but fails to excite the intellectual senses,.

The product of workshops at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in 2005, these collected papers, with some notable and commendable exceptions, join a stack of edited volumes that promise insight but deliver the same tired arguments, borrowed research and bland summations. 

N. Ganesan’s “State-Society Relations in Southeast Asia” and Rachel Safman’s “Minorities and State-building in Mainland Southeast Asia” attempt to position Burma within broader academic debates o­n the center-periphery argument and the challenges of state building. Unfortunately they have nothing new to report and read like graduate student literature reviews from 1992 than serious modern scholarship.

David Steinberg’s chapter o­n “Legitimacy in Burma-Myanmar” is a plodding summation of his recent book o­n the same subject. Using Muttiah Allagapa’s four-step criteria for legitimacy (Part Three of which states “appropriate levels of performance in supplying goods and services to the population”), Steinberg contends that Burma’s military government fails in Western terms, but that achievements such as infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams) have “been remarkable, if not always efficacious.”

When Steinberg refers to reports of “corvee labor,” by which I assume he means civilians herded at gunpoint and with threats of violence to build roads and clear land for the military, he must realize other people call this “forced labor.” His meticulously neutral terminology fails to address contending legitimacies among the country’s embattled ethnic nationalities.

Robert H Taylor’s chapter o­n Burmese-British relations is a disappointing mixture of reprised research from what might be charitably called the microwave chef of Burma scholarship. Likewise, Kei Nemoto’s chapter o­n Burma-Japan relations is too general and insubstantial, and sloppily supported with few citations.

Traverse this insubstantial repast to get to the book’s strengths, starting with Kyaw Yin Hlaing’s “Associational Life in Burma/Myanmar,” a useful history of non-state civic associations that have challenged the state and preserved the real character of Burmese society in all its complexity. Kyaw Yin Hlaing draws from detailed historical sources and interviews to construct his chapter, and its subject matter should be the focus of more research by Burmese and foreign scholars.

Tin Maung Maung Than’s chapter o­n human security challenges is also comprehensive, highly detailed—with a rare balance of government, international organization and exiled opposition sources—and o­ne that at least attempts to bring the Burmese people and their myriad sufferings into academic debates. These two chapters are the main course of the book and make buying it worthwhile.

Later chapters, which provide long-marginalized ethnic voices o­n state and society, are compelling products of community management work. Alan Saw U gives a detailed version of peace-building initiatives from Karen people in Rangoon, as does Ja Nan Lahtaw from the Kachin “Shalom Foundation” and their role in contemporary peace negotiations and development in Kachin State. These are urgent perspectives, and both authors produce convincing arguments that, joined with opposition views from the borderlands and exile—as messy as such a mixture may be—should be the synthesis of future development solutions to Burma’s systemic poverty and mistrust.

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