Journal of Burma Studies Volume 22.2


Rethinking Land and Property in a “Transitioning” Myanmar: Representations of Isolation, Neglect, and Natural Decline

Elizabeth L. Rhoads and Courtney T. Wittekind

 In this article, we assess ideas of “progress” in the evolution of Burma/Myanmar studies, asking whether shifting conditions might offer openings to reconsider narratives about the country. We question two recurring tropes consistent across the work of journalists, policy analysts and scholars: an alleged history of undifferentiated “isolation,” and the ensuing state of Burma/Myanmar following a seemingly “natural” decline. Such language reflects assumptions that otherwise go unspoken in accounts of Myanmar’s current transition. 

We consider descriptions of Yangon’s colonial architecture, asking what depictions of the city as having languished following the colonial era might tell us about assumptions in Burma/Myanmar studies. Such depictions are emblematic of a common trope in the literature, whereby historical narratives of isolation replace more dynamic accounts of interaction, particularly in regard to land and property. Drawing on work in Yangon and Shan State, we question common descriptive impulses related to the difficulty of accounting for history— including dependency on a conventional timeline broken into unquestioned periods, and recurring references to “isolation,” “nationalization” or “customary tenure” as glosses for the relations present in such periods. We ask how those analyzing Myanmar might progress beyond such impulses, cognizant that increased access to the country offers opportunities to trouble simplistic narratives, highlighting their political and intellectual perils. 

“Transition” as a Migratory Model in Myanmar

Felix Girke and Judith Beyer

‘Transition’ has been a staple concept in political science, law, economics, and development studies for several decades. Easily transposed from the analytic context into everyday parlance, it carries a teleological sense of progress and promise, a ritualistic shedding of a ‘before’ as part of a present journey into a brighter future. Even where it is not defined any further, it can serve as a rallying cry, or a delaying tactic in the face of those demanding more radical change. Today’s use of ‘transition’ in reference to Myanmar found in scholarly, journalistic, and general idiom, then, is nothing new: ‘transition’ as a paradigm has a long history in places like Spain after Franco, during the democratization of Latin America, and in the post-Soviet spaces of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. After reviewing the literature on ‘transitology’, we focus on the anthropological critique of the paradigm that was taken up by political scientists when ever more countries were declared to be ‘in transition’. We argue that Myanmar is only the last example of states that are assigned a transitory stage of development. This article addresses the political agendas and the pitfalls that travel along with the paradigm. 

Appraisal of Burma/Myanmar’s Roundabout Roadmaps

Khen Suan Khai

The peace process Burma/Myanmar has got a momentum since 2011, and both government and non-State actors including Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), political parties, and civil society groups put endeavor to make the process move on. This article is a comparative study of the seven-step Roadmap of National League for Democracy (NLD) and the seven-step Roadmap of previous military junta State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). While the military junta tactfully reached six out of its seven-step Roadmap and strictly holds on to the 2008 Constitution. It guaranteed the Tatmadaw (Army) a fixed position both in politics and defense. In contrast, the civilian government and ethnic groups are struggling to sign a union agreement— the 21st century Panglong Conference Agreement. This article argues that amending the constitution in accordance with the union agreement and the subsequent approval of the amended constitution may cause tension and pressure to be dealt with by the government, the Tatmadaw and ethnic groups. If the stakeholders are capable to get the union agreement to amend the constitution, there will be a wider chance to build a democratic federal union as planned in the NLD’s seven-step road map.

Road Plans and Planned Roads: Entangled Geographies, Spatiotemporal Frames, and Territorial Claims-making in Myanmar’s Southern Shan State

Courtney T. Wittekind

In this article, I investigate conflicting claims to land made in the peri-urban areas of Taunggyi, in Myanmar's Shan state, where decades of ethnic insurgency, the negotiation of ceasefire agreements, and resultant military-state development strategies have figured land as a primary site and object of struggle. Yet, as I argue in this paper, it is not only land that is at stake in ongoing conflicts, but also the incongruous conceptions of space and time that motivate such claims. By exploring case studies linked to proposed road construction in Pa-O majority regions, I develop an approach to "land grabs"- and the counter claims-making they impel- that foregrounds the spatiotemporal, showing how distinct senses of time are activated, embodied, and re-animated through encounters with particular spaces. In this, I specifically argue that the linear, historical timeline embraced by state authorities-a timeline tied to sequential notions of advancement, modernization, and democratization - cannot be taken as fact; instead, it must be considered alongside alternate conceptualizations, through which the notion of a single narrative of "progress" might be opened up to contain alternative notions of past and present, and with them, new political possibilities.

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