Sunday, June 04, 2006

Does Burma’s past exist independently of Burma’s present?

In an a editorial written last year in BurmaNet News Mr. David Scott Mathieson, a PhD student at the Australian National University, questions what "opposing academic views on Burma achieve." Quoting from the beginning of the article:

"Academic debates on Burma should be put in perspective. They have a role to play in both 'traditional' and 'engaged' ways. Traditionally, researchers produce detailed work for a predominantly scholarly audience: theoretically grounded, empirically rigorous, impartial, and defined within a discipline such as anthropology, history, economics or geography. In 'engaging' with social movements, academics can contribute through advice, training or teaching, and in writing reports, articles or books that have a normative relevance..."

"On both levels, academics should work with organizations, journalists, aid workers, activists, and grass-roots groups in exchanging ideas, sharing information and suggesting strategy to contribute to debates."

Possibly controversial extreme position: Academic views on Burma’s history need not have any relevance for contemporary issues in Burma, at all.

As Ranke would say, something actually did happen 1000, 500, 100 or 50 years ago and it is the historian's job to find out what that was.

What do contemporary political problems have to do with this? Historians have a responsibility to historical truth:

1. Even if historical truth is irretrievably split Rashomon-like between three or four irreconcilable ethnic perspectives.

2. Even if the historical record/truth has been rewritten so many times, filtered through so many mentalites of indigenous historians, so that the resulting "ethno-history" we have now has to best characterized as indigenous intellectual history, not a history of actual events at all, this intellectual history can still be recovered from texts.

3. To get at historical truth, the original primary source historical texts have to be published first.

Even if you have painstakingly collected all the relevant texts that Michael Aung-thwin refers to in his recent Mists of Ramanna, wading through the tortuously convoluted logical arguments is a human rights violation in-and-of-itself.

If you engage in a debate with Michael Aung-thwin using all the inaccessible texts that he cites, only you, him, and a handful of other people are going to be able to follow it, or even care. A friend of mine with a PhD in psychology who teaches as a nearby university in Bangkok, said he couldn't understand either the issues in Aung-thwin’s book or my criticism of them. This is exactly the point. I said I would provide him some background information on the pre-modern history of the Mons, but where do I begin? Am I singlehandedly going to provide the Burmese historical sources to the world while supporting myself as a full-time journalist and computer programmer? Believe me, I'm trying [Mon, Burmese, Tai] Burmese history has to be made more accessible and without ideological spin.

4. There seems to be an unwritten rule that everything published on the history of Burma has to be relevant to the present ongoing political problems (i.e. presentism).

This leads to grotesque distortions like somehow George Orwell got his idea for 1984 from his experience as a colonial era policeman in Burma. Only a scholar myopically focused on Burma's contemporary problems could come up with this one. Do you realise that Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, based on his participation in the fascist era Spanish Civil War was incorporated wholesale into the Nobel prize-winning French author Claude Simon’s "Georgics", a profound meditation on history that feeds off of Orwell’s work and has absolutely nothing to do with Burma [The Guardian (questions Orwell angle), REview: Hoover Institute, Salon]. There were more important influences in his life than his early experiences in Burma.

Controversial statement number two: The way that the history of Burma will ultimately gain relevance to the rest of the world is by comparison with the rest of the world, not just a myopic focus on the Southeast Asian world. Lieberman’s second volume of Strange Parallels is slated to address this.

History means factual accuracy, something which Mary Callahan's 20th century military history of Burma written by a political scientist, not a historian, often lacks, and the book on contemporary politics in Burma "Karaoke Fascism" by your own analysis clearly lacks. Scholarly publications on Burma often lack adequate editing, peer review, fact checking, and refereeing. Factual errors abound and the discipline circles round and round the same issues over and over again without ever advancing, with an occasional non-specialist poking their head in to this "academic discourse" and commenting, "Oh, how fascinating and exotic, or Burma's just like Russia under Stalin or everyone in Burma seems to be a crazed drug addict living in fear [Karaoke Fascism] let's help the poor Burmese by boycotting them, etc" The most shrewd move ever was to recently send a soldier (Phillipino Ramos) to talk with Burmese soldier-rulers.

Real World History

"For those academics who choose to adopt a certain stance in public debates, they must be prepared for contending views, and those responses should be more forthcoming on the merits of information and arguments themselves. Scoring points against the other side is petty, regardless of which side it is. Above all, academics should be aware that ideas resonate in the real world, and Burma is more important than their reputations."

When I was living in Burma the debate that friends and I used to have, friends both Burmese and foreign, that used to crystallize the issues for us, was focused on Burma's opening to the rest of the world, Burma’s long-term isolation, if you will, and all the consequences of it, and this is what we agreed was the real issue. Here's an example:

Would you be willing to die suddenly and early, much earlier than you would have otherwise, simply because the under-funded government hospital didn't even have a medical test to determine what was happening to you?

Perhaps your religious beliefs make this not such an odious burden. Perhaps I am being a cultural chauvinist by even suggesting that this matters, but...

To take an actual case, let's say that the tube from your kidney to your bladder was blocked. Surgically unblocking it is easy enough. The symptoms of kidney failure are a headache and nausea, not things that a layman would associate with kidney failure, even if he or she poured through medical encyclopedias.

The problem is that almost all Burmese hospitals, even in Yangon, cannot even do a simple chemical test for kidney failure. Why?

Because Burma has isolated itself from the rest of the world for over 40 years.

So you die, early, before you had to. And your family misses you.

Because of a long-term isolationist policy that you were never given a choice about.

Admittedly, this is not as dramatic as soldiers running through Karen villages burning them, which even Michael Aung-thwin would have to admit is morally reprehensible.

It seems to me that the Burmese people should be given a choice, but...

I'm not involved in Burmese politics, which brings me back to my original point, the distinction between historical research and presentism.

Does Burma’s past exist independently of Burma’s present?

1. In PhD level work, historical hypotheses should be assessed on their own merits as to how well they garner evidence to support them.

2. Many scholars involved with Burma seem incapable of drawing a line between the present and the past, presentism creeps into everything they do. I'd even go as far as saying that the politics corrupts it utterly and makes it laughable in the eyes of other disciplines, as if they were even looking.

3. Robert Taylor has been a focus of real scholarship in his own work and that of his students.

Michael Aung-thwin’s work seems to be tolerated with courtesy citations that reformulate and clarify some of his more reasonable hypotheses, and some people in Burma take his sham strawman arguments, like contra "Three Shan Brothers" as serious debating points. Lack of definitive historical sources and a high level of cultural mixing in Burma during the immediate post-Pagan era mean that they'll be able to debate about this point forever. Hint: It's not really a debate.

4. One day, I'm going to do a count of the people who followed Aung-thwin's orders and stopped referring to the "Three Shan brothers" in their work, all a myth created by the British colonial era bogeyman according to Aung-thwin. I doubt if there are even three.

The effect of Michael Aung-thwin's I-don't-need-to-write-real-history because-I-can-just parasitically-criticize-the-work-of-others school of history is, in the final analysis, nil, the dust bin. Even Luce referred to the "Three Shan Brothers" in parentheses. What does that mean professor Aung-thwin?

One thing Mr. Mathiesson, that you probably did not realize, is that Aung-thwin, perhaps mirroring contemporary (proto-fascist) information control policies within Burma itself, goes to great lengths to prevent any real criticism of his controversial little hypotheses. I could elaborate with examples, but just like the historical evidence for Pagan and the Mons itself, the historical record of academic politics, old-boy networking, academic dishonesty, etc, within "Burma Studies" is not completely available for our perusal. And then there's the good ole ethnic card, Aung-thwin implies that because he is Mon he can pretend that the Mons, a conquered people for hundreds of years, were never really oppressed, that it's all a myth created by the British colonial bogeyman.

[To sample some of professor Aung-thwin's confused ideas try his postmodernist pastiche-oxymoron "Democracy Jihad" or a simple Radio Singapore interview or risk exposure to all his ideas in one fell swoop with an interview]

The only reason that I can freely speak out like this and am not compelled to tiptoe politely around the truth, is that despite years of painstakingly reading Burmese language sources, I have no intention of ever getting involved in Burmese politics, the infighting, the egotism, getting your brains bashed out against the wall by the Burmese police when they are trying to find your communist schoolteacher friend [why my ex-father-in-law fled to Maesai], and then having that have professor Michael Aung-thwin explain to you that the Mons have never been exploited. Whatever you say professor!

I do, however, sincerely wish that the Burmese people one day enjoy a longer and prosperous life than they do now.