Monday, October 03, 2011

Weakness in traditional area studies approach and Burma Studies by Kyi May Kaung

I think the elephant must be a flower - two fake topiary men look at a decorated elephant - photo copyright Kyi May Kaung

from Burma Studies Conference, 2008,

paper abstract.

Burma Studies has been traditionally organized as a subject discipline as Area Studies. In this approach what happens within the national boundaries of a country (only) is implicitly treated as relevant to the study of the problems of that country. At least two decades to four decades of Burma Studies has shown that these parameters are too limited. It has resulted in scholars not talking or collaborating with each other as much as they should, and not paying enough attention to systemic and regional matters, not to mention the international setting in which Burma needs to operate and Burma studies needs to operate.

For instance academic articles and journalistic ones are event driven and have time only to speak about the most micro-economic of matters, whereas it is macro economics that we need to understand. The historians, some of whom hark back to an ultra-nationalistic model, have also failed us, as they are unable to handle the problems of the moment and apparently see nothing wrong with the SPDC's paradigm. Most of the Burma scholarship is focused on subject matter which is limited to Burma only without enough cross-system, cross-national, intra and inter-regional and international analysis. That this approach has failed is widely evident from how the junta has taken advantage of the misguided approach of Friends of Burma and the international community to "depoliticize" Burma strategy during Cyclone Nargis. As a result the aid has disappeared into the junta's pockets, Ban ki-Moon's visit did not succeed, nor did that of Mr. Gambari during the Saffron Revolution last year, nor have any of the UN Rapporteurs since 1988. At the same time Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest, NLD leadership and members and other dissidents have been under arrest or under severe oppression, and the junta is continuing with "business as usual" - in fact even has windfall profits from natural gas etc.

My 1994 dissertation and my article in Asian Survey that summarized this, mentioned that we need to look at systems which were then similar to Burma's such as the then Soviet Union and the PRC and economic and hopefully political reforms there. We also need to look at China and India now and their preferred position as economically strong neighbors of Burma, and China and India; the United States and the western world and China and India as strongly emerging powers in this world as we knew it. The dissident community is now highly conscious of this, but the academic is not.

I would like to propose that the Burma academic community reach out to other approaches, including the dissident community, and the artistic and writerly ones, which are now at the forefront. This would result in much more cogent advice, and much less waste of economic and human resources in the international responses to ongoing and recurrent major crises in Burma. That the crises will continue and also continue to escalate is beyond doubt.

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