In Yangon, Myanmar’s economic center and largest city, signs of “change” aren’t hard to spot. I was living in Yangon in 2013, the year after economic sanctions against the country’s military dictatorship were lifted, and was there to see new ATM cash machines installed in front of banks— a welcome change from previous trips when I had arrived with crisp hundred dollar bills tucked in my luggage, ready to be changed on Myanmar’s black market. It was in 2014 that I first saw brightly-colored, publically displayed posters of Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel prize laureate whose National League for Democracy recently swept the country’s first free election in six decades — splayed out atop the tabletops of street vendors or hanging in storefront windows. When I last visited Yangon, this past summer, there was one more change to note: I rounded the corner of one of the city’s major throughways only to find that the bustling corner apartment buildings I’d once called home had been replaced by a gleaming silver Kentucky Fried Chicken, the country’s first American fast food restaurant.
These are the moments I would describe to you if you ask me, offhand, to tell you about what has changed in Myanmar since 2011, when the country began its democratic transition following six decades of military dictatorship. “What’s changed?” is a question I’m asked regularly, especially in the current media landscape, where stories of a free election and nation-wide ceasefire agreements appear alongside those condemning the country’s internal conflicts or the plight of its Muslim Rohingya population. Amidst the complexity of a country where democratic governance has been imagined, but not yet realised, then, the hopes made real by ATM machines, political posters, and new construction are easy evidence of forward momentum— but they also lead to easy conclusions.
Ask me about my research, situated beyond Yangon’s urban fringes in Myanmar’s Shan State, however, and I’ll describe something different— not newfangled technologies, glitzy storefronts, or glossy posters, but wooden signs, barbed-wire fences, and seemingly ordinary swaths of forested land. These are the mundane, everyday forms around which claims of “progress,” “development,” “democracy,” and “transition” converge in places where the nature of Myanmar’s internationally-touted “opening up” remains uncertain.
Take, for example, the wooden signs posted throughout Shan State’s dense forests and along the winding roads that wrap around the region’s hills. They emerge in stark contrast to the graphic advertisements that hang from downtown Yangon’s ubiquitous apartment blocks. In Yangon, banners and billboards announce the arrival of new technologies and luxury goods with slogans promising health and good fortune: “Cola, incredibly refreshing!” or “Koh Pa Cure, for full happiness and health.” In Shan state, conversely, simple hand-painted placards suspended from the barbed-wire fences that line the road to Taunggyi, the state’s capital city, make demands and urge caution: “Keep out!” and “Do not cross.” Descending into the region’s fertile valleys, scattered signs are joined by posts, walls, and fences, all with numbers, acronyms, and messages scrawled across their surfaces. In all directions— along the road, at the foot of the distant hills outside Taunggyi, and everywhere in between— lay markers separating the otherwise undifferentiated land into plots of all shapes and sizes. Handwritten notes, often sealed inside transparent page protectors or laminated with shiny plastic, list owners, lay out rules for entry and, most significantly, warn trespassers: “This land has an owner. If you are not the owner, you have no right to enter here.”
Following almost six decades of violence between ethnic minority populations and Myanmar’s central government, the region of the country I describe above— where I am currently pursuing my ongoing research— is now at the center of complex localised contests over claims to land and authority, as the region is implicated in broader reconfigurations of state-making and the ongoing democratic transition. As ceasefire agreements have been established between ethnically-affiliated armed groups and Myanmar’s military, areas that have existed, historically, under the authority of local communities and largely beyond the reach of state apparatuses, are increasingly positioned under the control of state institutions, and re-imagined within national logics of economic productivity, international investment, and rural development. What this means in practice is that land is, at present, being sold off in large parcels, and confiscation of fertile or resource-rich land and, particularly, of community land used for shifting cultivation, is at a feverish peak. As foreign buyers purchase formal deeds to unclaimed land, local communities rush to demarcate what has been historically, if informally, farmed by their ancestors. The chessboard of ownership, signposted along Shan State’s roads, then, is the material expression of a set of abstract claims to ownership, authority, and political power within the country’s transition.
Yet, the landscape of Shan state does not speak only to conflicting claims sustained at present, but also those established historically. Claims over land have been key to the governance of Shan State, from the colonial era onward, and the ongoing tensions between local communities and larger forces— whether tied to international business, national reforms, or regional politics— can be understood as simply the most recent formulation of a long-held concern over who controls resources, people, and property in the periphery. This isn’t just an academic argument, but, rather, is evident in the landscape itself. Colonial-era projects— from now derelict roads and abandoned railroad stations to regional divisions and state boundaries— are the material remains of British occupation and related, often-racialised, divide-and-rule strategies. Successive military regimes in the decades following independence, too, left their marks on the landscape; military barracks, army training grounds, and former battlefields speak to a history of violent conflict.
This point brings me to a series of questions: What are significant about the material forms I describe here, and those I explore elsewhere at length—wooden signs, impenetrable walls, recently-cleared farmlands? And what might be the impact of the anthropological study of such forms— or, to put it in the terms of the Rhodes Scholarship, how might such an endeavor “fight the world’s fight?”
In the most straightforward terms, the study of specific, localised conflicts around tangible objects and spaces is a useful corrective to an often-abstract set of arguments related to whether Myanmar’s ongoing transition may, or may not, be proceeding as international observers and, more importantly, the country’s citizens, may have hoped at the outset. It alerts us to the more complex realities that are often elided in sweeping claims related to “progress” or “development,” and asks us to identify longer trajectories of violence— of colonialism, civil unrest, and political oppression— where they might, at first glance, be hard to trace. As one farmer I interviewed in Shan State explained: “Change has come, but it isn’t really a change. Before it was violence that took our land, now it is ‘progress.’”
Myanmar’s post-2011 government has often conceived of the nation’s political transition as a road stretching into the future, its route comprised of seven steps as defined by a “Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy,” proposed in 2003. To extend this now often-quoted roadmap metaphor, I believe that a description of the condition of the road such a policy describes is perhaps what anthropological research can best offer. In studying the mundane and the everyday, ethnography works to define the terrain that must be crossed if visions of Myanmar as a “new nation” are to be realised. Working alongside rural farmers— who live their lives at the center of negotiations around what “progress” toward democracy might look like in Myanmar’s ethnic states— it becomes clear that the terrain is uneven, full of chasms, sudden breaks, and treacherous routes where missteps are possible. Studying that terrain, then, does little to make it level, traversable, or safe, but makes known its cracks and contours, alerting those who intend to start on such a road of the character of the space that lies between the present and an imagined future.
Courtney T. Wittekind is currently a student at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology where she studies social anthropology as a member of St Antony’s Programme on Modern Burmese Studies and Rhodes Scholar (Ohio & St Antony’s 2014). She holds an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Her ongoing research centers on questions of transition, place, and the unseen in Myanmar’s Shan State.