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Situating “Transition:” Space, Contestation, and Belonging in Contemporary Myanmar

1530–1700, Saturday 16 April 2016, C2

Courtney Wittekind
University of Oxford, St Antony’s College

Courtney Wittekind
University of Oxford, St Antony’s College

Matt Walton
University of Oxford, St Antony’s College


This panel will analyze the complexity of changing relations between communities and the spaces they occupy, with an eye toward contextualizing the ongoing political, social, and economic developments that have occurred in Myanmar since 2010.

Each ethnographic contribution analyzes shifting human-environment relationships in the context of Myanmar’s political transition, asking how specific sites, locales, and power relations are produced, as well as how their use is negotiated and contested in relation to notions such as ownership, citizenship and development.

From media and online space, to urban cityscapes, to vacant or confiscated lands, this panel seeks to investigate how communities understand and act upon their relationship to unstable locales and, often, to the changing perceptions of “the state” more generally. In addition to examining changes in post-2010 spaces, this panel will also look at the agency of contemporary communities in rearticulating their relationship with those spaces – whether through property relations, censorship (or lack thereof), heritage conservation, urban and industrial development, rumor and the supernatural, or other mediums.


Paper 1: Claiming space in Myanmar’s transition: Contested geographies of Southern Shan State

Courtney Wittekind
University of Oxford, St Antony’s College

Traveling through the Myanmar’s Shan State, attempts to lay claim to the region’s land are visible at every turn. Most evident are the efforts of government authorities and those of Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw. Wooden signs painted with national slogans, flags marking government-confiscated fields, and cement barriers encircling army bases emerge from dense forests. Look closer, however, and equally significant, yet subtler, forms of claims-making also surface. Plastic nameplates hanging from wire fences point to a villager’s attempt to protect land from encroaching industry. Ruins of resettled villages scattered amidst new construction reveal the ways local memory haunts the present.

This paper proposes a close reading of communities’ interactions with concrete material and spatial forms —maps, signs, fences, roads, and forests, to start— as a means of revealing how alternative strategies for claims-making interact with histories of spatial dominance. I look not only at the maps, signs, and fences employed by villagers to maintain claims to space, on a practical level; I also examine how spaces are symbolically claimed— through accounts of spirits, ghosts, rumors, and memories tied to contested spaces. Central to such an investigation is an assertion that processes such as naming, claiming, and demarcating promote certain, often contradictory, forms of power, condensing the dynamics of a historically-laden but transitioning politics into intimate encounters with particular spaces and material forms.


Paper 2: Urban land and property relations in Myanmar’s transition

Elizabeth Rhoads
King’s College London

Building on research on legacies of the military dictatorship and the British colonial period, this paper will focus on urban land and property politics arising from Myanmar’s present ‘transitional’ environment. In the run-up to, and immediately following the 2010 national elections, government land across the city of Yangon was privatized and sold at below-market rates to junta insiders. Those receiving property were a small group primarily made up of crony businessmen on the US and EU sanctions lists, and family members of the military elite. Using case studies of recently privatized properties, this paper will use the lens of urban land and property relations to shed light on the actors and contested resources involved in the transition. This paper will also look at the types of property and business privileged by the transitional government, and modes of resistance practiced by those disadvantaged by current property relations.
Paper 3: Policy, Housing, and Gentrification in Myanmar

David Ney
University of Oxford

Currently in Myanmar there are regulations that restrict where international residents are allowed to buy and rent property. These polices are becoming more frequently ignored by both local authorities and housing owners at potentially detrimental consequences to local communities. This paper investigates how government policy, land ownership patterns, and an arcane system of local ‘agents’ serving as intermediaries for all financial transactions has led to the gentrification of particular areas of the city and the impact this has on the local resident population.

One of the issues potentially affecting gentrification is the proposed bed and breakfast legislation. While allowing bed and breakfasts could be positive for local community members and international organizations like Airbnb, this move would have to be preceded by the removal of the Guest Registration Law, in force since the colonial era. For years, this archaic law has been arbitrarily enforced by ward officials to prevent ‘questionable’ parties from living in certain areas and was the regulation that pushed foreigners into hotels for extended stay periods. To this day, the law has restricted where non-nationals are able to rent or enter contracts with housing owners. However, in Yangon, the areas where the guest registration law is most frequently enforced are the most densely populated and have the highest numbers of ethnic and religious minorities. These areas also happen to be the least expensive neighborhoods for monthly rentals. An unintended outcome of the removal of the guest registration law would be an increase of foreign renters, climbing rental prices, and a powerful push factor against poorer and more vulnerable residents.


Paper 4: Situating Buddhist-Muslim violence: space, time, and memory in a contemporary conflict

Matt Schissler
University of Michigan

Over the last three years, Myanmar has been the site of serious Buddhist-Muslim violence. This violence has caused serious concern for people inside and outside Myanmar, including prompting warnings from international monitoring groups, academics, and Nobel laureates that there are real risks of large-scale mass violence, even genocide.

How should we understand this violence? This paper argues that this must include understanding how people in Myanmar are situating violence in space and time. How is contemporary violence being connected to moments in the past? And how is this violence being connected within Myanmar and to events outside it? This paper will draw on three research approaches: participant observation in western Yangon, 2012-15; a ‘Listening Project’ in six Myanmar cities, conducted during 2015; and an examination of historiographies of past violence in Myanmar. The combination of these approaches will enable comparisons that generate insights into the mobilization of violence and point to questions that are important for both further investigation and for those interested in working to prevent violence.