The field of Burma Studies has expanded rapidly in the past decade. Part of this growth has been fuelled by changes in Myanmar’s political conditions, as research opportunities have opened up on topics and in regions where the military government previously restricted access. Additionally, the historical divide between scholars and activists is gradually fading, with much innovative academic work being informed by scholars’ experience with rights groups or civil society organisations. Another welcome development has been an increase in scholars from Myanmar who are more represented in academic venues.
At the same time, this window of openness threatens to be brief, particularly given the understandable pall cast over academic engagement with Myanmar due to the current Rohingya crisis. It is not just the unacceptable violence in Rakhine State that compels critical reflection on scholarly activities, but also the persistence of violence and political repression across the country. This violence has both increased international attention on Myanmar and decreased the productivity of discussions on the country, as it has entrenched polarised debate.
This talk will consider dynamics within the field of Burma Studies and how recent events have affected scholarly work. Reflecting on the past five years of activities of the Programme on Modern Burmese Studies as well as the work of other scholars, I will put forward a case for principled, critical engagement. Such engagement must acknowledge and embrace the inevitable political positioning of any scholarship on Myanmar but simultaneously insist on taking seriously concerns related to intersectionality, collaboration, spaces for collective discussion, the uses of our scholarship, and persistent limitations on whose voices are included in the field of Burma Studies.
Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on Buddhism in Myanmar. Matt’s first book, Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar, was published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press. Matt is P-I for an ESRC-funded 2-year research project entitled “Understanding ‘Buddhist nationalism’ in Myanmar.” He is a co-founder of the Myanmar Media and Society project and of the Oxford-based Burma/Myanmar blog Tea Circle. Beginning in July 2018, Matt will take up a new post as an Assistant Professor of Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.