Histories for the Burmese Revolution

I delivered this as a talk to a public history event run by the History Department at the University of Durham and the Gala Theatre on 15 June 2021. It is tentative, unfinished, and I post it here, not as a definitive statement, but to share my current reflections.

There are some events that are of such magnitude that they revocably alter the position from which one views the past. Myanmar has recently experienced two such events—first, the wave of violence with genocidal intent unleashed in 2017 against the Rohingya (a long-persecuted minority Muslim ethnic group indigenous to the Rakhine state that borders Bangladesh), and then, the military coup on the 1 February 2021 that has both augured a dark return to the repressive, isolationist state that dominated the country’s postcolonial history and has also inspired an effervescence of liberatory resistance politics. Both these events are unfinished and unfolding as I speak to you all today. What will come is still unclear, and what narratives future historians may understand these events within is equally obscure. Myanmar’s present sits at a point at which many potential futures remain possible. Some of these futures—perhaps the most radical and transformative prospects for the country in generations—hang precariously in the balance.

I am not going to give you my assessment of what might happen in Myanmar over the coming weeks, months, and years. It is beyond my expertise. But also, more than this, it would negate the fact that the future of the country is now mostly in the hands of those brave activists fighting this brutal regime, as well, of course, regrettably in the bloodied hands of the generals, whose depths of cruelty I fear have not yet been reached. Instead, I want to sketch out a research agenda for histories for the Burmese revolution.

At first hearing, this might sound dangerously like a dereliction of one of the core duties of the historian: to tell us about the past as it was. Worse still, it might sound as if I am advocating for a propagandist role for history, tethering the discipline to a particular political agenda—something uncomfortably instrumental for a historian irrespective of the righteousness of the cause. Let me be clear: this is not what I mean when I advocate for histories for the Burmese revolution. Instead, I want to suggest something more subtle.

Historians are, and have long been, aware that theirs is a pursuit as much a part of the present as it is the past. This is not least because reflective engagement with our own time is critical for engaging the past on its own terms. Without this, historians run the risk of what I would call “anachronistic reification”—that is, the unthinking projection of norms prevalent today onto a past when those norms were not dominant. It is in mitigating against anachronistic reification that I understand the commitment of many radical historians to writing “histories of the present”. The phrase comes from the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, although such an approach to the past in a radical tradition certainly does not begin with him. This approach attempts to identify norms in the present that go unnoticed because they are commonly perceived to be universal and ahistorical, and then explores the history of how those norms emerged through contested and contingent processes.

The sharp-eyed among you may have already noted the differing prepositions: I am advocated for a history for the revolution, not a history of it. This difference—between “for” and “of”—is (hopefully) a straightforward one. Instead of uncovering the past of things that have become norms in a society, I am making the case for a history of things that could be; the ideas, practices and ways of being that have not yet become accepted or acceptable norms. In other words, a history of paths not taken, marginalized pasts.

This is potentially an impossibly open-ended task. The past of every society and culture includes identities and ideologies that were fleeting or denied, that left but scant evidence of their existence in the archival record. To orient historians in identifying these unrealised futures in the past—or perhaps, put better, as yet unrealised futures—the nascent social revolution in Myanmar should, I contend, be our guide. It is in this sense that I am arguing for histories for the revolution; not as a romantic mobilisation of the past to act as window-dressing for furthering the revolution, but as a research agenda that is oriented toward the past by the liberatory potentialities made legible by the revolution.

There are three facets of the Civil Disobedience Movement (the broad-based umbrella term deployed to unify the resistance to the military) that I want to draw attention to today that could form the premises of a new research agenda. These facets of the revolution are not necessarily predominant in the movement, and are certainly not ascendant as majoritarian social mores, but they each denote potentially radical departures in the country’s history. These three facets are cross-communal solidarity, subaltern women’s militancy, and the expression of queer sexual and gender identities.

Firstly, cross-communal solidarity. This has been perhaps the most publicly celebrated aspect of the resistance to the military coup. In the mass demonstrations that broke out in the weeks following the announcement of the suspension of the country’s limited, military-dominated pseudo-representative democratic constitution, expressions of solidarity with ethnic minority peoples—including the Rohingya—were prominent. And Myanmar’s many different communities, both religious and ethnic, were visible on the streets. The demand for a federal democracy, one that recognised ethnic minority people’s right to self-determination, was a radical proposition that emerged from these activists on the ground – a proposition that cut to the heart of the military’s pathological obsession with unity that has fuelled decades of civil war against ethnic groups living in the country’s borderlands. It was then swiftly adopted by the emergent formal organs of opposition.

The National Unity Government, formed out of the committee of elected members of parliament that initially operated as an interim shadow government, has issued commitments on this front that go far beyond those of the National League for Democracy, the political party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that has been the principle vessel for democratic activism in the country since the 1990s. They have also committed to repealing the discriminatory citizenship act and recognising the citizenship rights of Rohingya populations. The depth of the National Unity Government’s commitment to cross-community solidarity have, rightly, been probed. The ambiguities in the wording of these documents has, rightly, been interrogated. The racist past statements of members of the National Unity Government have, rightly, been highlighted. Moreover, the voices and needs of ethnic armed organisations, such as the Kachin Independence Army, Chinland Defence Force and the Karen National Union, who are engaged in fighting the military, offering refugee to fleeing activists, and providing combat training to those young people who seek it, must be at the centre of these discussions. Nevertheless, circumspect though many remain about this depth of this solidarity, there has most definitely been a shift.

This offers a new vista for historians. What precedents and parallels are there for this fragile and tentative cross-communal solidarity? Over the last ten years, during which the field of Burmese history has been dramatically revived, historians have uncovered the opposite of this history – the emergence of an exclusivist, xenophobic Bamar-Buddhist majoritarian nationalism. This is, of course, an important past to acknowledge and engage, but in retelling it we must wary of anachronistic reification and granting it a power and ascendency that it may not have held. Historians and anthropologists have already been exploring the limits to this nationalism, identifying preceding non-nationalist modes of self-identification. But there is more to do, firstly in recovering the political ideologies that ran counter to this mode of nationalism—much in the way that the anthropologists Stephen Campbell and Geoffrey Aung have done in their very recent articles on leftist political thought in colonial and early-postcolonial Myanmar. And secondly, by going beyond political nationalism to reengage peasant and workers’ worldviews and resistance as sites of cross-communal solidarity as well as sites of the better documented history of intercommunal violence. The dynamic between these poles needs to be better understood.

This call for a renewed focus on an inter-communal history from below brings me to my second facet of the Civil Disobedience Movement, the prominent place of working-class women. The recently unionised garment factories in the industrial zones of Yangon were the vanguard of urban opposition to the coup. Active, indeed resistive, during the years of constrained National League for Democracy-led government from 2016, the independent trade unions representing garment workers—the majority of whom are women who had migrated to the city from rural Myanmar for work—were quick to recognise the threat to their hard-won gains that military rule posed. They led the way in organising the general strike, launched on 8 March that in some sections of the economy continues to today, and that has materially limited the capacity of the military regime. They have mobilised international networks to push themselves into becoming a cause célèbre for workers’ movements internationally, particularly in the Global North.

Gender history and women’s history have been two of the main beneficiaries of renewed academic research on Myanmar since around 2010. A key text in this regard is Chie Ikeya’s compelling book on the gendered dynamics of colonial modernity in the country in which she tracks how norms of femininity and masculinity were refigured as an animating dynamic within emergent exclusivist understandings of nationhood. Taking longer views, Tharaphi Than and Jessica Harriden’s work also excavates women’s political, societal and cultural histories, carefully uncovering women’s agency alongside documenting their marginalization and oppression. Writing histories for the revolution means building on this work and embedding gender analysis into historical research on Myanmar to the point that it becomes a reflexive instinct for scholars. This means not only working on subjects where women’s voices can be heard in the archives, it means engaging the implicit, undocumented but necessary presence of women in Burmese history, particularly in relation to work—not a topic much addressed thus far—whether it be agricultural, waged or reproductive labour.

The final facet of the revolution that I want to highlight today is the prominence of LGBTQ+ activists in urban protests. In a context in which homosexuality is illegal and punitively punished by the state, and in which cultural prejudice and condemnation, manifesting in ostracization and outright violence, is commonplace, the visible presence of pride flags and queer activists on the streets signifies an important opening up of space. At the same time, the violence meted out on gender nonconforming activists in the military’s brutal crackdown has brought the lives of some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable communities greater recognition, garnering broad mainstream support for greater freedom for queer folk. As with cross-communal solidarity, this should not be taken for granted as an embedded or integrated step-change in how democratic society is imagined by the majority in Myanmar, but it offers a glimpse of a more liberated future.

Legal scholars and anthropologists have in recent years been uncovering the everyday lives of gay and lesbian people in Myanmar as they have struggled for recognition and dignity, particularly through the pioneering work of Lynette Chua who shows how human rights discourses were vernacularised and localised by activists. In addition, the changing cultural roles played by transwomen, from spirit mediums to beauticians, have been studied. The historical depth of research, however, has remained shallow, in spite of a well-developed field on the history of homosexuality and gender pluralism for the region of Southeast Asia as a whole. Rather than going into the historical archive to find queer historical actors—a problematic task that uncomfortably replicates a colonial mode of enquiry—historians might be inspired by the revolution to queer the historical record itself. By this I mean reading the evidence of Myanmar’s past with an eye to the ways that the presence of queer figures troubled and unsettled norms, even while that presence was ignored, erased, or sublimated. We might read the archive as formed, in part, as a refusal to acknowledge queer presences and as an attempt to police them; something that could perhaps be traced through a in depth study of the historical deployment of the notorious section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, now the Myanmar Penal Code.

I have not had the space today to proffer examples of what this three-pronged research agenda might look like as an integrated study of my particular period, the era of British colonialism—and I hope to sketch this out in my own work in the months and years to come. In addition, there are other histories that might also be pursued, instigated by the historical conjunctions of the Burmese revolution. For instance, histories of Myanmar’s military and its civil wars from the perspective of rank-and-file soldiers and their families on all sides. There is plenty of scope for discussion around how the revolution might reorientate historians in their research on the past. This is an unfinished revolution, after all. New fronts of the struggle, and thus new vistas on the past, are bound to emerge.

I want to end with a poem called “Portrait of a Historical Record at Dawn”, written by Zayar Lynn three days before the coup, after he witnessed a tank in his ward, which I will play for you now.

“elusive fragments / Particles of a million minds / join in a trembling yet resolute thread”

Fragments, particles, threads. These are forms that futures past take. They become visible in the changing light of a dawn, or in the setting sun, and it is the role of historians to attend to them.  

**Military Coup**

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