Talking Back to white “Burma Experts” by Chu May Paing and Than Toe Aung

In December 2018, Than Toe Aung attended a talk hosted by Parami Institute (now Parami University), self-proclaimed as “Myanmar’s first private, not-for-profit liberal arts and sciences university” in Yangon. The talk featured the well-known journalist Bertil Lintner covering Burma since the era of the former military regime (1962-2010). In the talk, Lintner discussed what “national unity” looks like in Burma, particularly touching on the topic of federalism in Burma as well as issues relating to ethnic minorities and the Rohingya. During the Q&A session following the talk, one Burmese lady raised a question. Introducing herself as recently educated in the US in a perfect American accent, she questioned why the international community focused so much on the Rohingya crisis, but not on other important issues such as the upcoming 2020 election in Burma. She continued how the military had more power than Aung San Suu Kyi—echoing the general sentiment in Burma that Aung San Suu Kyi did not commit the human rights abuses against the Rohingya and therefore, was not complicit in the genocide. She then stated how she was contemplating if she should leave Burma if something goes wrong in Burmese politics.1

Lintner responded agreeing with her that the international community put too much emphasis on the Rohingya crisis. He also added that the international community does not have sufficient focus on other important issues concerning ethnic minoritized populations. He replied that he thought other ethnic minority2 issues were more important than the Rohingya issue.3 He then urged the lady not to leave Burma and told her, “Myanmar needs people like you.” People in the room smiled, some nodded, agreeing with what Lintner had just said.

Disagreeing with the anti-Rohingya sentiments in the lady’s question and recognizing the colonial undertones of a white4 male journalist from the North telling brown people who were more/less important for their country, Than Toe Aung spoke up about how jarring it was to listen to a white man telling Muslim minorities that their oppression is not as “important” of an issue for Burma. Than Toe Aung continued to explain that the oppression of the Rohingya is just as important as the oppression of the ethnic minoritized populations if not more. Unlike the Burmese lady, Rohingya could not leave their camps just because things went wrong in Burma. Nor did the Rohingya have a clue when they could safely return to their homes. Lintner simply responded that he didn’t have anything to say to this. He yelled back, “What do you want me to say? It’s just your opinion! I don’t agree with it.”5

Question of “post-coloniality” in Burma
What are the intentions and repercussions left behind by white people working and living in Burma? In this essay, we want to address the everlasting nature of coloniality in both everyday life and within the circles of scholars studying Burma as a “post-colonial” place. It is important to note that coloniality, although it stems from colonialism, is different from the colonization of a territory by directly governing, controlling, and administering it. To reiterate Nigerian sociologist Peter Ekeh’s explanation of the difference between the two: “colonization is an event or a period whereas colonialism is a process or a movement, a total social movement whose perpetuation is explained by the persistence of social formations resulting from this order” (cited by Vergès 2020: 15).6 Coloniality is then a mindset, attitude, and practices that continue to uphold the power divisions between the former colonial empires (Global North) and the former colonized territories (Global South) even in so-called “post-colonial” chronotopes.7

From the colonial period to this day, the knowledge production about Burma has been dominated by white researchers, writers, and journalists, ranging from George Orwell to contemporary writers, journalists, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others. By identifying six specific neocolonial tropes in mainstream Burma Studies circles, we highlight the ongoing coloniality in the knowledge production about Burma and call for the decolonization of Burma Studies–to center the voices of local Burmese (anyone who was born and grew up in Burma with lived experiences, including those whose voices have been marginalized by the ethnoreligious majority bama).8 We advocate to uplift the lived experiences of local peoples who were born in Burma, who are currently residing in Burma, or have lived significant portions of their lives in Burma as either citizens or stateless people (in the case of the Rohingya and other minoritized communities). We write this essay with anger, frustration, and disappointment in the hypocrisy and unethical research practices we encounter in academic spaces, but also with hope for co-creating new futures with our fellow people of Burma in the midst of ongoing militarized violence in the country. This is our first attempt to begin a conversation about colonial research culture within Burma Studies circles.9

The narrative of Burma as a “post-colonial” state is highly problematic because it deems invisible the ongoing colonial practices–either material or epistemological–committed both by the researchers from the Global North and the ethnoreligious majority bama people. In this essay, we address the epistemological form of ongoing neocolonial practices within the intellectual circles of Burma. As part of the British colonial legacy, Burma Studies circles are still unfortunately populated with mostly white westerners with agendas to study Burma as an object of inquiry and to report those inquiries back to their universities located outside of Burma. As local and Native scholars with different social positionalities from Burma, it is within this context that we speak of epistemological decolonization and address the different layers of coloniality within Burma studies.

We write these perspectives from our positions as scholars born and raised in Burma and now pursuing careers in higher education, where the production of knowledge flows from the East to the West. Chu May Paing is a woman born and raised a bama Buddhist, an ethnoreligious majority in Burma and now pursuing her PhD in cultural anthropology in the US. Than Toe Aung belongs to a minoritized Burmese Muslim community. He is currently doing his Masters in Gender Studies in Europe. Our ethno-social upbringings and background in Burma shape our observations and suggestions to decolonize Burma Studies.

Our call to critique, if not to dismantle, the rampant whiteness in Burma Studies joins the current decolonial turn in mainstream academia. Our different positionalities signal that our call for decolonizing Burma Studies is not to be confused with an act of nationalism. Contemporary ethnoreligious politics in Myanmar and its status as “a young democratic nation in Southeast Asia” (and now “the failed democracy” due to the coup) has attracted white researchers as a testing ground for their political theories. When critiquing these researchers, we are also in danger of being viewed as nationalists. Just as the call for decolonization in settler colonial states such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Israel must necessarily center the voices of the Indigenous communities whose lands have been violently appropriated by the colonizers, we recognize that “decolonization is [also] not a metaphor” (Tuck & Yang, 2012) in the context of Burma.

It is, however, ironic to witness white researchers relentlessly critique the Burmese State’s dictatorial actions without reflecting on their own lineage and positionality as colonizers. For instance, most white researchers tend to be infatuated by the Burmese State’s genocide of Rohingya populations and other ethnic politics between the dominant ethnic group of bama and other ethnoreligious populations in Burma. We call upon them to also reflect on their justification for, or their colonial desire to fixate on such topics. We question these “research interests” especially when they lack reflexivity of researchers’ own positionalities before marching in and critiquing how we behave among ourselves. To us, these research projects and desires resemble nothing more than the product of colonial masters acting as a moral authority for Burma; they try to guide Burma towards “civilization” as if it were a “barbaric” society without being reflexive of their own complicities in the “post-colonial” spaces that that they occupy—either physically or epistemologically through their “intellectual works.”

If these white researchers were to call their research on ethnic minoritized populations of Burma “decolonial”, we would have to recite Dr. Meredith Alberta Palmer’s tweet, “Rarely does an academic trying to ‘decolonize’ stop and ask: but what if researching this doesn’t NEED to be done? What if the real work is just resource return? What if sometimes the real move forward is…less research?” (Feb 4, 2021; emphasis in original). To make clear, our effort to decolonize Burma Studies is to ask those white researchers who study Burma’s political turmoil to return resources back to us first before telling us what is morally right. This ask does not erase the need to call out the settler and exploitative colonialism that the bama State commits against the people of Indigenous lands and of ethnoreligiously minoritized populations. To remain current with the scope of this paper, we reserve our critiques of internal and settler colonization in Burma for another time.

To borrow bell hooks’ (1992) classic phrase, this is our “oppositional gaze,” which aims to subvert the white and masculine gaze that has for so long presumed and fixated on our existence as merely an object of study. In this essay, we identify the following neocolonial tropes in the practices of knowledge production. They extend beyond the Burma Studies circles, and are applicable to the hierarchized layers of discrimination within Burma; and our highlight of these tropes signal a sign of solidarity with the parallel struggles in the Studies of the Global South.

Disclaimer
When we call out white researchers, we are calling out whiteness as a systemic dominant mechanism that is at play in knowledge production. We are not interested in engaging in a circular debate concerning questions like “What about this good white person?” or statements like “Not all white people do this.” If you are a white-identified, white-passing or -presenting, and a privileged person from the Global North; and you feel guilty, it is not our responsibility to coddle your feelings and make sure that it is not you whom we are writing about. It is solely your job to check on your own privilege and actions, and to unlearn them. Our call out also extends to any elite Burmese scholars who glorify such white people and attempt to coddle their feelings. It is also your job to reflect upon any adjacent privileges you aspire to earn by doing so. In our opinions, engaging with these sorts of questions are easy ways out for those who dare not to reflexively consider the points we make in this essay and as a result rather hinder the move towards decolonizing Burma Studies, our peoples, and lands.

A Note on Terminologies
“Global South”: It is worth noting that we approach the term “Global South” as indicating fluid and divergent social positionalities of people, lands, and seas affected by colonization, colonialism, and coloniality, and “Global North” as those perpetuating and inheriting such attitude, mindset, and practices. In this way, the South and the North may overlap or intersect at any point and ethnic majority bama State’s internal colonization of ethnic minoritized populations would be an example of such a case. Building on this conceptualization of coloniality as an attitude, to ask if Burma really is a “post-colonial” state is to ask what it means for white people to take interest in contemporary Burma, infiltrate local communities in the name of “research,” and call themselves “Burma experts.” Or in other words, it is to critically reflect the epistemological colonization that is still very much in place in the process of knowledge production about Burma.

“Local and Native”: We use “Native” to refer to those with indigenous ties to the lands in Burma since the precolonial times. In parallel, we use “local” to refer to all peoples of different ancestral and migration backgrounds who currently reside in a geographic location that we now know as Burma. For instance, ethnic bama majority employs indigeneity as a concept to divide and hierarchize the peoples who migrated to Burma and therefore non-indigenous to the lands like the Rohingya, and other populations like bama Muslims with ancestral ties to South Asia and ethnic Chinese populations in Burma as second-class citizens. Although indigenous themselves, ethnic bama majority perpetuates neocolonial practices upon other populations in the country. One of the most salient examples of this is burmanization, the process of forced assimilation to mainstream bama Buddhist way of life through language, culture, and schooling in the post-independence era. We see these hierarchization as very much a nationalist project in the name of anti-western colonization. In our call to decolonize Burma, it is not our intention to prioritize indigeneity over other migrant populations living in Burma.

“Burmese and bama”: We use the term “Burmese” to signify the national identity rather than an ethnic identity, that is, to refer to everyone born and living in Burma, and/or holding the citizenship of Burma. To refer to the dominant ethnic group, we use the term “bama” (often referred to as “Burman” by the western academics).

“Burma vs. Myanmar”: Our choice to use Burma, instead of “Myanmar,” parallels most western academics’ choice to call those circles of area studies as such, for example, “Burma Studies Group” constituted within the Association for Asian Studies. Among the peoples of Burma, one’s choice to refer to the country in either term is still very much debated due to the fact that “Burma” was the name given during the British colonial era and “Myanmar” was the name given by the previous military regime. The formation of area studies has been critiqued as inherently colonial, attempting to divide the world into groups of  arbitrary geographic regions such as Southeast Asia, South Asia, Latin America, etc (see Macharia, 2016). In efforts to decolonize area studies (or any disciplinarian studies) like “Burma Studies,” we must also rethink the nature of perceiving Burma and its peoples as only locating within a rigid and bounded unit.

Trope One: Stumbling upon Burma
When we ask white researchers why they became interested in Burma, we are tired of repetitively hearing seemingly neutral but insensitive answers:

  1. They used to study neighboring countries and at one point, they “discovered” Burma.
  2. They were intrigued by Burma’s “turbulent” political history and now “evolving political transition.”
  3. Burma used to be “closed” to the rest of the world, so when it “opened,” the scholarship on Burma is much needed.
  4. It was an encounter of chance, choice, or luck.
  5. The study of Burma is an academic niche, and more.

We are frustrated by these reasons because they stem from colonial desires to explore a part of the world that has not been “discovered” or written about in the English-language scholarship. For white academics, Burma is a land of “scholarly inquiry.” For white journalists, Burma is a land where they could live out their fantasies as war correspondents in danger. But Burma is home to us. Burmese scholar Tharaphi Than writes 10 that knowledge production is part and parcel to the process of colonization in “post-colonial” times. White academics’ initial interest in Burma tends to lack personal investment. It is then easier for them to leave when things get harder.

Examples include a lot of white “expats”, including academics, leaving Burma when COVID-19 hit the country in late March 2020 or after the Burmese military has staged a coup on 1 February 2021; they are concerned about their “safety” while Burmese people do not have the privilege to flee to the Global North, but have to fight back and resist the military regime (or the pandemic). After they arrived back in their “safe” nations, we witness how they began to remove their last names from their personal Facebook profiles out of “fear” that they would be blacklisted by the military and banned from pursuing their “research” when they return to Burma.

While they are worried about their “academic freedom” from their safe and secure homes in the Global North, we have been worried about our lives and those of our loved ones in Burma during the ongoing military coup. Only after we have toppled the military regime and/or Burma becomes more “stable”, will they come back claiming to “love” Burma, exploiting the local communities in the name of “research,” and explaining about ourselves to us in colonial languages at Burma Studies conferences.11 Some have even offered media and academic “hot takes” on the current political crisis in Burma albeit from afar, in the comfort of their homes, telling us what should be done.

In addition, their racial and citizenship privileges allow them to easily flee the land without any political commitment and even move onto other “unexplored” parts of the world after they have stayed long enough to finish their official fieldwork in Burma. Hence, Burma remains merely a subject of study for white academics. Their research will always be tied to their accomplishments, not our liberation. On the flipside, we hardly see a Native Burmese scholar who is out there studying the western world. This is because most of us from the Global South are not entitled to the privileges that white westerners inherited from the colonial occupations and exploitation of their ancestors such as holding the passport of a first world nation and having the “developed” metropole as a point of return if things go wrong in the land of their “scholarly inquiry” (cf. Rodney, 2011). As Sheela Athreya (2019) says, we do not view Burma “as remote, exotic, or stagnant. But it is not the Other to [us]. It is Self.”

Recently, an online academic blog dedicated to Burma Studies named Oxford Tea Circle published a living bibliography of Burma Studies attempting to fill in the lack of representation of women researchers. However, the list still overrepresents the western eyes in the scholarship on Burma. Out of almost 500 listed publications in the bibliography, only 70 had local scholars as the sole author. Although an article by the Tea Circle mentions the need to highlight the women scholar’s voices within Burma Studies, some of the publications listed are by elite male bama and Buddhist scholars.12 This also hints at the unspoken racialized and gendered hierarchies in which white women scholars are still privileged alongside the bama or Buddhist male scholars. The question of gendered and ethnic underrepresentation among local scholars is still left unaddressed. Those who reside within Burma and have kinship ties to Burma are not monolithic and there needs to be an intersectional approach to highlight their voices and participation in knowledge production about Burma.13

It is time we begin to consider the intersections of identity and marginalization when trying to fill the representational gaps in Burma Studies circles. Highlighting white female researchers does not address the lack of representation in Burma studies. If anything, it only uplifts the voices of white scholars. It is important that our approach is intersectional and that it incorporates not just gender but also race, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Rachel Cargle’s contention that “white feminism is white supremacy in heels,” is especially true in the context of Burma studies.

For the Global South communities, white feminism is a rebranded colonialism. A book titled Mother India 14published in 1927 by white American female journalist Katherine Mayo is a classic example of white feminism critiquing on Hindu culture as “oppressive” and “backward” thereby glorifying the western feminism as a standard mode of liberation for Indian women (Sinha, 2000). In contemporary times, feminist scholars of Global South like Françoise Vergès (2020) has called this type of white feminism as “civilizational feminism,” only concerning with civilizing the brown and black women of Global South. In parallel to Lila Abu-Lughod’s (2002) question for white women who are obsessed with saving Muslim women, the disconnection between white feminist struggles and the lived experiences and struggles of women in Burma is salient in the 2018 staging of the English-language series of “Vagina Monologues”15 in Yangon. These transportations of white western feminism to the countries in the Global South like Burma is problematic because they assume that feminist struggles are simply monolithic and ignore those countries’ colonial histories and their current internal neocolonial practices16.

The residual (colonial and unequal) power structure between white researchers and locals is very much present in Burma Studies circles. Just like their male counterparts, white female researchers embody coloniality and are enablers of colonial practices in their “studies” of Burma and its societies. However, white academics rarely engage in this reflexive conversation about the politics of knowledge production when it threatens their professional security.

Trope Two: Falling in love with Burma
When confronted with Trope One, white academics act defensive and cite their stories of falling in love with Burma. We want to emphasize that just because they have spent all their lives living in Burma, researching Burma, learning the language(s), loving the food, and taking Burmese names, it does not mean they share our pain. They can never know our pain, memories, and histories and ongoing struggles of being terrorized, abused, and oppressed. These experiences are racialized, gendered, and embodied, not simply transferable through shared sociality. At the most, those excuses stand on the verge of appropriating our cultures without having to endure our sufferings.

Cultural appropriation is often denounced by white people (at least in Burma Studies circles) as if the world should now be moving onto a celebration of global cultures and their intermingling. These critiques of cultural appropriation in fact ignore the inherently unequal “frictions” of power dynamics in the rise of globalization (Tsing, 2005). We are aware of the fact that the locals themselves can take advantage of globalized forces of cultural appropriation and join in commodification of cultural practices and materials. However, the actions of cultural appropriation and cultural commodification must be understood in relation to the colonial desires and fetishization of those cultures. Academics are not above such commodification and fetishization.

Love does not erase the colonialist nature of affection; it is an imperialist fantasy. Even looking back at the colonial histories in Southeast Asia, colonization was not always done in the name of violence but with signs of love and sympathy to the Natives. These tropes legitimize their self-assumed responsibilities to civilize, educate, and care for the Natives (Rafael, 2000). That’s why “white love,” even in this “post-colonial” time and current political turmoil in Burma, is inherently delusional and ignores the unequal nature of sociality between people of Burma and white people.

white academics who feel love for Burma (and the Global South) need to question how their currency of love functions in their everyday actions. For white academics who did/do not personally have to embody the pain of the local people, pain is something to be desired, dissected, and studied. In this way, the colonial desire to “study” racial and religious discrimination, political dissent, and genocide of the Rohingyas in Burma is conveniently disguised under the rhetoric of “love”. white love is a fetish and we want no part of it.

We want to conclude Trope Two with a powerful poem by Burmese poet Khin Chan Myae Maung titled “Neocolonial Love Story”:

I have a thing for expats.
It’s weird but I’m so attracted to the way they walk into a room,
demanding things people don’t readily have
it’s so entitled I love it.
Like, I love it when they wear traditional wear, it makes me feel so— post colonial.
And sometimes when they write political articles that might put native people under fire like that’s so reckless, it’s hot.
So I met this one guy,
I was enchanted by his cultural disregard—
entranced by his khaki shorts and backpack.
He showed me a selfie he took with a kid from Ghana when he was in the peace corps
like, he really changed that kid’s life.
And so I told him— I want to know all your exciting stories
about how you’re a radical and that’s dangerous—
and you’re totally cool with hanging out with brown people
when you’re the only white guy in the room
cause white saviorism is a monotheistic religion.
I want you to whisper in my ear about how you want to teach underprivileged kids to read
that’s what really turns me on—
that you want to re-educate us.
Tell me you want to open a non-profit cafe
Right beside the States office to flip off the regime and call it the gentrification tea shack.
We’ll go antique shopping for Buddha heads to sell on your Etsy store
cause its vintage not heritage
I’ll show you poetry and the vein on my arm
so you can syphon some material for the book you’re going to write titled
“My White Savior’s Journey: An ethnocentric tale of neocolonial gentrification and self pity”
Ask me if I’m in danger of being captured by the military,
so you can say the enigmatic love interest in your bohemian plot has at least one interesting thing to offer—
One night I’ll strip for you
show you the third world scar on my arm
and what exoticism looks like without clothes on
so you can fuck me like a porn category with the lights on
while you moan in my ear
that the most dangerous thing
I could tell you right now is no.

Trope Three: Theorizing Burma
We are also tired of hearing the excuse from white academics that their actions, even when oppressive to us, are to be taken as professional and scholarly. And we are to engage, if not accept, those critiques with an open mind and demure manners. Our anger is suggested as invalid and unprofessional. As a result, we are criticized as prickly and easily irritable if we disagree with or want to be exempt from those “scholarly debates.” Just as Audre Lorde (1981) has pointed out that oppressed groups’ anger is not meaningless, we express anger as we unlearn those colonial teachings of how we should feel, i.e., grateful, demure, and submissive.

white researchers are personally detached from the oppression and marginalization that local scholars have to embody on a daily basis. This is reflected in how they treat everything inside Burma as merely objects of study. To give an example, a social media campaign that took place in the last year in Burma urged people to reframe or stop using the derogatory “k-word”17 to refer to Muslims and South Asian descendants. For Muslim and South Asian communities in Burma, the term carries highly racist, colorist, and dehumanizing connotations. The bama Buddhist community who often uses this term to refer to Muslim minorities criticized the campaign on social media, claimed that it was neither derogatory nor racist, and defended their use of the term. Seeing this as an opportunity, a number of white researchers in Burma Studies circles took it to social media and created discussion posts, spelled out the term explicitly, and debated whether or not this term was racist for Muslims in Burma as if we cannot speak for ourselves and our rejection of the term coming from our lived experiences was not enough and white people in Burma Studies circles have to decide what is racist for us and what is not. They have totally ignored how their casual “discussion” of the term on social media further contributes to the trauma, pain, and oppression of Muslim minorities. Being a Burmese Muslim scholar, when Than Toe Aung sees white and bama/Buddhist scholars in Burma Studies circles casually throwing around the term on social media, he has to first confront the trauma, pain, and oppression which this term embodies for him throughout his entire life before he could think about entering the “discussion” and explaining to them why it is racist, how it should not be thrown around casually, and “theorized” as if it is just another object of study.

The languages that are used to “theorize” also speak volumes on who can speak what and for whom. In white metropolitan academia, English and other white European languages (also the colonial languages) are considered to be the standard. If local Burmese scholars want our work to be taken seriously, we need to be well-versed and published in the colonizers’ languages. As a result, we have to first learn the colonizers’ languages so that our knowledges will be valued, our lived experiences will be acknowledged, and our voices will be heard. In the meantime, white researchers have no trouble theorizing us without necessarily having to learn our languages. Even when they learn and/or cite Burmese words (and other languages spoken in Burma) in their writings 18, they standardize our language(s) into an unrecognizable romanization system. At times, even we speakers of Burmese could not decipher what those phrases and words mean when written in those romanization systems. In this way, they claim to be “experts” on various issues in Burma and suggest that they can represent our ontological existence as long as they have “researched” us and written about us and that we have to accommodate to their ways of life if we want to engage in the intellectual world.

For local and Native scholars like us, theory comes from our personal and lived experiences whereas for white academics, theory seems to be driven from the written texts of old dead European men and their “scholarly,” but reckless and ignorant, “observations” and debates.  

Trope Four: Exploiting free labor from local and Native researchers
We have seen and personally experienced white researchers asking local Burmese scholars to provide them intellectual labor for free. For example, we often receive messages and emails from white researchers sending us articles, paragraphs, screenshots while asking “What’s your opinion on this?” instead of doing their own intellectual labor. We have had experiences where our ideas and theories coming from our lived experiences were stolen and rebranded as theirs simply because we provided our thoughts during “casual” conversations, and we were kind enough to engage in a conversation with them and provide our intellectual labor for free. white researchers either do not see us as their intellectual peers or even when they do invite us for co-authorship or feedback on their writings, it is only to legitimize their findings as “stamped with an approval from a certain local person and an exotic one at that.” In one instance, a white male researcher has jokingly said to Chu May Paing that since she is from the city and of bama descent, she is not as interesting as scholars/locals from rural areas. This joke suggests that white researchers are only interested in retelling the stories of suffering and pain from the margins of the State. By doing so, white western researchers distance themselves from their historical (and contemporary) colonial involvement in Burma.

Here, we also want to emphasize that sending us private messages to read/review their articles is different from collaborative scholarship because our intellectual labor does not receive any scholarly recognition, but only to be pondered upon as another object of study for white researchers. A Burmese phrase, “ဦးနှောက်ဖောက်စား/ohn-naunt-phaut-sar” (lit: open one’s brain and eat it), is an appropriate description here. The phrase refers to a sneaky and exploitative way of stealing someone else’s idea or information. These acts are tangible evidence of neocolonial research etiquettes that most white academics seem not to have any problem with. Adivasi rights activist and sociologist Abhay Flavian Xaxa’s poem, “I am not your data!” in which he writes against researchers’ tendency to reduce lived experiences to data points is powerful to cite here.

In the times of the current military coup, we have observed that white researchers have taken the role of social media archivists by using web data scraping tools in the name of preserving public memory. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram these days have largely become sources of communication and news/resource-sharing among local people and communities.19 Without considering the potential danger of their “scraped” data implicating the people without consent, white western researchers have no problem migrating their “fieldwork” to social media. At times, they join private groups on Facebook dedicated to certain neighborhoods and townships using the Burmese names as if they were part of those communities. They have taken advantage of the lack of monitoring for ethical research conduct for doing social media research by western research review boards like the IRB (Institutional Review Board) in the US and engaged in unethical data collection.

Currently, institutional regulations consider social media data as publicly available data and therefore not requiring reviews for researchers working with social media data. However, in the aftermath of the military coup in Burma, social media has become a salient platform through which the military investigates whether civilians express anti-coup sentiments. If they were to be found with a cellphone showing records of messages or social media posts against the coup, they would be arrested and detained. When white researchers, safe and sound in their homes outside of Burma, archive social media data coming out of Burma without informed consent, they do not consider how those “archives” could forever be incriminating for the people who may have shared a post or two but later deleted them for fear of their safety. The afterlives of those screenshots may potentially endanger the safety and livelihood of the people. Therefore, considering the case of Burma and other Global South countries in the midst of authoritarian regimes, it is also time to consider ethical guidelines for doing digital research. Unfortunately, it is more often that the demand for academic freedom in authoritarian societies like Burma downplays the very role of academics engaging in unethical data mining without reflecting on their positionality in the name of archiving public memory.

Oftentimes, white researchers use their white privileges to infiltrate local communities, revive community trauma by asking redundant questions about their suffering, extract data, publish their research, and never look back at the communities. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) contends that for Indigenous communities research is “one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary” as it “conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful” (pg. 1). We have personally witnessed how community members and local researchers were left ignored upon the completion of white researchers’ formal fieldwork periods. Monetary compensation was considered sufficient for opening our brains and eating it. And sometimes, there was even no compensation or no informed consent. The question of ethical community-engaged scholarship in Burma Studies and the Global South Studies still remains.

Trope Five: Keeping the gate
Often, the term “collaboration” (as outlined in Trope Four) is flawed for white researchers, as it operates as a façade for their pernicious intentions. Although white researchers are reaching out to “pick our brains,” they work to block local researchers from accessing certain resources even though some of those resources were written by our ancestors and about us. For example, some white researcher(s) demand that we must cite them even when mentioning the local texts written by our ancestors because they “discovered” them first. This trope of discovery shows that white researchers only perceive Burma and its knowledge(s) as a mere form of data, not something to be treated in parallel to western theorists and their works. On the other hand, white researchers do not feel any such obligation to cite local researchers when they casually chat with us.

In another incident, when we asked white researchers for their collaboration with us, we were told by white researchers that “they do not feel comfortable having another researcher coming into their fieldwork.” For them, Burma and Burmese communities are merely their fieldwork where they excavate data and leave whereas it is precisely where our histories and livelihood are located. Ridiculously, white researchers gate-keep us not from the research resources but also from our own people and land itself. These are examples and sadly not a one-time incident of a colonialist research practice among white researchers.

As professionals in higher education, we are all aware of the institutional inaccessibility and disciplinary colonial histories in academia. Even the ability to research certain archival and textual materials are highly contingent on a researcher’s ties to an institution. Publishing companies’ tall paywalls prevent some of us with no institutional connection from getting access to research. Theorizing about Burma is financially, institutionally, and linguistically already inaccessible to the locals aside from a handful of elitists.

white researchers studying the Global South like Burma actively participate in those institutional gatekeeping mechanisms in their everyday lives although they may preach otherwise to keep up with a good public facade. To give an example, a seemingly public-oriented publication outlet, housed in an Australian university, to which we first submitted this essay, mockingly questioned us about our call for  dismantling the system of the journal paywalls as if it could not be done. Although this outlet appears as an alternative to mainstream academic journals, its ideology still seems to buy into the nature of the systemic gatekeeping and hierarchization of publishing platforms and procedures. In the context of the current decolonial turn in the academy, we, scholars of color, are the ones who remain imaginative and hopeful about these possible changes in academia and in our social lives.However, white academics seem to be committed to these systemic racisms, discrimination, marginalization, and coloniality regardless of how much they performatively preach otherwise. In addition, we were condescendingly told by the editors of the outlet that there were also good white researchers who are “ambivalent” about the coloniality and “minimize” the exploitation in their research and asked if we have anything to say to/about them. This essay is exactly what we have to say to them.

Trope Six: Claiming Moral and Political Authority
We want to bring the reader’s attention to the last, but perhaps the most salient, trope of coloniality in Burma Studies, especially in the aftermath of the recent military coup. As briefly mentioned in the introduction, white researchers and Burma “experts” tend to take up authoritative space when commenting on the current political affairs in Burma. The autoethnographic vignette at the beginning of this essay illustrates this point.

There is so much to unpack in this incident Than Toe Aung experienced. First, this incident shows that the colonial legacies of the British’s “divide and conquer” colonial rule among different Indigenous populations in the lands still have its deep roots in contemporary Burma (cf. Tinzar Lywn, 1994). That is, as the incident above described, the Burmese lady and the audience felt that somehow highlighting the state’s genocidal agenda of the Rohingya population downplays other important issues in the country. Or it downplays issues of other “officially-recognized” ethnic populations in Burma. Moreover, they felt as though they needed an approval stamp from a white male journalist for their internalized coloniality, all in the name of discussing Burma’s postcolonial politics. The only thing we have to say to those local people is to recommend reading Audre Lorde’s important essay that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The “master” may reward you for being a good “imitator” and a good “colonized” person for following their versions of “development”, “progress”, and “civilization”, but the “master” will never liberate you. For our freedom, we must look beyond them, and their ways of knowing and morality.

Secondly, the final say in such political discussions about Burma still rests on self-acclaimed Burma “experts.” The authority to where and how much we should pay attention to when it comes to Burma’s ethnic politics is still in the hands of, in this case a white male journalist, for whom the significance of the oppression of certain racialized and marginalized people in Burma are merely matters to debate, agree or disagree. They will decide which oppression is more important as if we are at their mercy for attention. Unfortunately, this is not the only one incident. During a brief decade of the “liberalization of Burma” (2010-2020), we have encountered quite a number of white researchers, journalists, analysts, and so-called “experts” who hold similar views and show similar attitudes, and the locals who only believe what those “experts” have to say. Here, we share Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012) frustration that “[Indigenous communities and local people] will still select or prefer a non-indigenous researcher over an indigenous researcher…based on a deeply held view that indigenous researchers will never be good enough, or that researcher may have some hidden agenda.” In this way, coloniality is a mindset alive and kicking to this day in Burma even when colonization is supposedly “over.”

Decolonize Burma Studies!
In this essay, we have outlined six colonial tropes of research culture among white researchers and knowledge producers in Burma Studies circles. Some of which may even extend beyond Burma Studies. These tropes stem from our personal observations and experiences being trained in the western academia and having worked with white researchers in Burma.

We suggest everyone researching, teaching, and working in Burma to read “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” by Indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith in which she eloquently laid out the coloniality of white western research. As Tuhiwai Smith pointed out, it is crucial that the research comes back to the locals from whom white researchers have benefitted both personally and institutionally. If they have time to read Kant, Marx, and Foucault, and even Judith Butler or Donna Haraway, they must also make time to read works by decolonial scholars. Engaging with decolonial literature, like Tuhiwai Smith’s among others, must be a prerequisite for doing fieldwork for white researchers studying Burma and other regions in the Global South.

To conclude, we have two specific comments for white researchers and local researchers:

white researchers,
We are raising our voices. Our job is done if this essay could conjure up shame and guilt within you. We know that even though you have committed and will continue to commit one or more of these tropes we mentioned above, there are unfortunately no institutional guidelines in place that will hinder your “success” in academia. For those in the US, the guidelines imposed by the universities’ Institutional Review Boards do not demand white researchers to practice ethical research in their fieldwork. In the name of academic freedom and under the cloak of your whiteness, you continue to be able to call yourselves “experts” and “scholars,” and get jobs, fellowships, grants, and promotion. We do not have any suggestion or recommendation for you. It is not our job to hold your hands, provide you free intellectual labor, and educate you. We put this burden on you.

But know that we are watching you. We see you when you gate-keep us; we know when you try to open our brain and eat it; we are here when you confess your “love” to our land and people. Our commitment to this work is unwavering as you call us “racists” in the comment under the publication of the recording of our conference presentation on this paper and demand that we “should be expelled from the academic programs that are hosting [us]”. Your actions are not gone unnoticed. Our oppositional gaze is fixed upon you.

Local and Native researchers,
We need to start the work of decolonizing Burma Studies. We need to stop being “white apologists.” We need to stop being their cultural proxies. To repeat again, as Audre Lorde (1984) reminds us, “Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need to build our own house or even better we need to move beyond building houses.

Our essay points to a systemic problem of white privilege and white supremacy, and the lack of intersectional awareness in the study of “post-colonial” Burma. We need to see the systemic oppression beyond one or two good white friends that you may have. We need to come together, create initiatives, and brainstorm plans to create ethical and decolonial research culture in Burma Studies circles. We also need to foster a sense of solidarity among ourselves instead of fighting among each other to gain attention and support from white researchers. We must create a pipeline to support a new generation of scholars and theorists from Burma, celebrate multiplicities in our knowledges and other marginalized spaces and groups of people, with different lived experiences.

Upon finishing this article, we are aware of a potential danger in which our call for decolonization will be interpreted in a manner to fit the existing nationalist sentiment inside Burma. Conflating our call for decolonization with the popular Buddhist nationalism against foreign intervention lacks an intersectional and multidimensional analysis. We are both critical of popular Buddhist nationalism as well as the insidious coloniality in Burma Studies. The coloniality also includes the majority of bama Buddhist scholars and researchers “theorizing” about and “speaking for” the ethnic and religious minorities rather than amplifying their voices as we briefly mentioned in Trope Six. In light of recent political “awakening” among some ethnic majority and the elites in the midst of current militarized violence, we also see a window of potential for having productive conversations with our fellow peoples of Burma. In a broader geopolitical arena, we express South-South solidarity by calling on the voices of scholars, thinkers beyond disciplinary boundaries, and activists fighting against colonization and coloniality in its various forms in different parts of the world.

We therefore need to raise our voices louder than before because our decolonial work is not done confronting the white coloniality. We must continue to fight against settler colonialism, imperialism, and authoritarianism within (and beyond) the geographic boundaries of Burma. For these lifelong endeavors, we need you. Let’s talk back!

References

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Harvard University Press.

Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

Athreya, Sheela. 2019. But You’re Not a Real Minority”: The Marginalization of Asian Voices in Paleoanthropology. American Anthropologist 121: 472-474. doi:10.1111/aman.13216

Cargle, Rachel Elizabeth. 2018. When Feminism is white Supremacy in Heels. Harper’s BAZAAR. August 16.

hooks, bell. 1992. The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators. In Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston. 115-131.

Lorde, Audre. 1981. The Uses of Anger. CUNY Academics Works. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/wsq/509

Lorde, Audre. 1984. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Print. https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf

Macharia, Keguro. 2016. On Being Area-studied: A Litany of Complaint. Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 22(2): 183-190.

Rafael, Vincente. 2000. White Love and Other Events in Filipino Histories. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rodney, Walter. 2011. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Black Classic Press.

Palmer, Meredith Alberta. 2021. Tweet. https://twitter.com/MeredithAlberta/status/1357366967351595014. Feb 4.

Sinha, Mrinalini. 2000. Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India. Feminist Studies 26(3): 623–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178643.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Tharaphi Than. 2020. Coloniality of Knowledge. Rainfall Feminist Organization. August 12. (The link to this article has been removed due to the political safety concerns in the aftermath of the recent military coup in Myanmar.)

Tinzar Lwyn. 1994. Stories of Gender and Ethnicity: Discourses of Colonialism and Resistance in Burma. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. 5: 1&2.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Princeton University Press.

Tuck, Eve., and Yang, K Wayne. 2012. Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1): 1-40.

Vergès, Françoise. 2020. A Decolonial Feminism. Bohrer, Ashley J., with the author (Trans.) Pluto Press.


Chu May Paing is currently pursuing a PhD in cultural and linguistic anthropology at University of Colorado Boulder. To her, academic research means working alongside, not above, the community members. Beyond her doctoral research on public memories of Burmese dictatorial pasts and presence, she is the founder and director of ARUNA, a non-profit dedicated to supporting underrepresented scholars working in, on, and from the Asian Global South and producing experimental modes of scholarship.
Than Toe Aung is currently completing his Masters in Critical Gender Studies at Central European University in Vienna, Austria. His thesis looks at the racist, sexist, and neo-colonial nature behinds sex tourism in the Global South. Interested in the intersection between activism, poetry, and writing, he started a poetry slam movement called “Slam Express” in his hometown Yangon in 2016. When he is not calling out white academics and INGO workers in Burma on their privileges, colonial attitudes and practices, he writes about the marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities in Buddhist Burma. His interests also lie in identity, belonging, borders, migration, race, ethnicity, decolonization, (trans)gender, non-binary, and queer politics.
Suggested Citation:
Chu May Paing & Than Toe Aung. 2021. “Talking Back to white ‘Burma Experts’.” AGITATE! Now: https://agitatejournal.org/talking-back-to-white-burma-experts-by-chu-may-paing-and-than-toe-aung/

  1. To her credit, something did go wrong in Burma—the military staged a coup after the 2020 election citing voter fraud without evidence.
  2. The Rohingya are not recognized as an “ethnic group” by the former civilian government (2015-2020), the bama military, and the majority of Buddhist communities in Burma—both inside and outside of Rakhine State.
  3. These quotes were paraphrased from Than Toe Aung’s personal encounter at the event.
  4. We choose to de-capitalize the term white as an act of linguistic resistance.
  5. It is worth noting that when Parami University published the talk on their YouTube channel, the Q&A session was completely left out.
  6. For more, see Ekeh, Peter. 1983. Colonialism and Social Structure. University of Ibadan.
  7. See Joey Ayoub’s suggestion to use “the peripheries” instead in his essay “On Erasure and Discourse” here: https://joeyayoub.com/2021/05/21/on-erasures-and-discourse/ 
  8. We also choose to de-capitalize the term bama.
  9. The formal study of Burma began with the founding of the Burma Research Society by the foregin (British) researchers and two bama male scholars U Me Oung and U Tun Nyein in 1910 with the goal “to investigate and encourage art, science and literature in Myanmar and neighboring countries”. In 1980, the society and its academic journal were abolished due to then military dictator General Ne Win’s anti-British sentiments. The previous era of military dictatorship’s anti-colonial sentiments and its effort to control the education sector within the country have been the reason why the study of Burma has largely been in the hands of western researchers or those educated abroad. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London is the first higher education institution outside of Burma hosting many researchers studying Burma including early bama intellectuals like linguist U Hla Pe and historian U Than Tun. Currently, the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University is the only academic center focusing on studying Burma, collecting and archiving cultural artifacts, hosting academic conferences, and publishing primarily English-language academic articles via the Journal of Burma Studies, a peer-reviewed journal founded in 1996. The revamped version of the Journal of Burma Research Society renamed “The Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship” was launched in 2011 with the support of Yale University, Open Society Foundation, and the Luce Foundation. With the ongoing military coup, academic freedom in Burma is very much at risk.
  10. The link to the article (in Burmese) has been removed to protect the publisher and the authors in the aftermath of the military coup in Myanmar.
  11. This is not specific to the researchers and academics in Burma Studies circles; this is also prevalent in the development and INGO sectors as well. As a good friend of ours who has been working in the field of development, peace, and human rights sectors in Burma for years (whose name will remain anonymous) confided in us, “When the storm is over and the situations are better, they would come back, take senior positions with salaries and benefits that are at least three or four times better than those of locals, live a luxurious ‘expat’ life, then they would lecture us about how social justice is important, and how they are promoting it.”
  12. We understand that this is a living document and submissions might change overtime. These numbers may not represent the real-time changes. The document was accessed on December 15th, 2020.
  13. See Ahmed’s (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life for more.
  14. https://www.press.umich.edu/10490/mother_india
  15. Vagina Monologues, initiated by an expatriate white woman, came to Yangon for the first time in 2018. The first two events in 2018 were performed only in English although there were several local women joining the performance and in attendance. The play was hosted again in 2019 in Burmese and English. While there were praises, there were also (mostly verbal) critiques regarding how the major portion of the play’s contents were merely translated from English (with foreign names in the play being replaced with Burmese names), thereby leaving out the experiences of the most vulnerable Burmese women on the ground such as garment factory workers who are exploited by the foreign corporations and have to work under horrible working conditions, Rohingya women who have been subjected to various forms of gruesome human rights abuses, or even Burmese trans women who do not necessarily have the experiences portrayed in the translated version of the play. In addition, the vagina cupcakes sold for fundraising during the events necessarily center womanhood on the genitalia despite the fact that the organizers included trans women in their list of performers which some saw as gestures of tokenization. One of the organizers allegedly wrote on social media, “No vagina, no opinions, bro” in response to a cis man critiquing the events. Although the statement was directed at a cis man for not recognizing his male privilege, the wording nonetheless played into the transphobic trope.
  16. That is, the Vagina Monologues series in 2018, for example, highlighted the voices of highly-educated English-speaking cosmopolitan women who reside in the city like Yangon in Myanmar whereas it left out the voices and experiences of women beyond the city center and beyond the middle class, who are still very much subjected to not only gendered but also class, ethnic, and religious oppressions within Burma.
  17. We choose not to reiterate the term here.
  18. We also want to nuance here the fetishizing tendencies in citing a local indigenous word or phrase in academic writings and theorizations.
  19. The military has banned Facebook and Instagram following the coup, but the people continue to join those cyberspaces via VPNs to remain connected with the international community.
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