Skip to content
Continue ReadingSince Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in early February 2021, a widening civil war has erupted, pitting a nationwide resistance in which fighters in areas dominated by ethnic Bamar have combined with various ethnic armed groups outside of central Myanmar against the armed forces. The economy is in free fall, and educational and healthcare institutions have crumbled as the military (or Tatmadaw) has limited cash withdrawals at banks, arrested striking healthcare workers, and hoarded COVID-19 pandemic relief supplies. Meanwhile, decades-long conflicts in ethnic minority areas that date back to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 show no sign of ending, largely driven by the Tatmadaw’s brutal destruction of ethnic minority villages and indiscriminate killing and torture of civilians. Countless young people from the cities of central Myanmar have joined the People’s Defense Forces and sought training with ethnic armed groups on Myanmar’s periphery, such as the Karen National Liberation Army. However, several of the largest armed ethnic organizations, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), remain firmly on the sidelines of this conflict. The UWSA, by far the most powerful ethnic armed organization, controls an autonomous region within Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State, where their involvement in transnational drug syndicates and standing army of approximately 20,000 soldiers have given them a measure of independence from central authorities that no other ethnic minority in Myanmar enjoys. They are also rumored to enjoy significant material and political support from Beijing, which has simultaneously extended a cautious embrace to the junta. On the one hand, Beijing initially withheld criticism of the coup, which they referred to quixotically as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” On the other hand, Chinese officials reportedly pressured the new military junta in Naypyidaw not to dissolve Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. Beijing had invested substantial energy and resources in Suu Kyi’s NLD, signing a raft of deals on infrastructure investment and bilateral cooperation in recent years. Most of all, Beijing would like to see the return of stability to its smaller neighbor Myanmar, through which energy pipelines pump the oil and natural gas that help drive China’s sizable economy. Myanmar holds significant other natural resources as well, including rivers for hydroelectric dams as well as jade and copper mines, and Beijing has major investments in the country which they want protected. The current instability is bad for business. Veteran journalist and Myanmar watcher Bertil Lintner’s latest book, The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance, captures the complexity of China’s historical relations with the Wa and thereby provides valuable perspective on the decades-long struggle between Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group and the national armed forces. As Lintner illustrates in impressive detail, that conflict has disparate historical roots linking anti-Communist Kuomintang militias and the once-formidable Burmese Communist Party (BCP), Chinese warlords and opium traders, and a poor—and poorly understood—upland minority people seeking protection as well as a degree of freedom from their lowland rivals, the Bamar ethnic majority, which comprises roughly two-thirds of Myanmar’s population. The book provides a remarkable overview of the history of the Wa and the myriad sociopolitical forces that have shaped contemporary Wa society. Lintner puts forward a compelling critique of predominant accounts of the Wa which depict them as more narco-state than ethnic nationalist resistance movement. He pushes back on this simplification of the Wa’s cause, arguing that rather than one or the other, the reality is a bit of both. The Wa have used revenue generated from the sale of opium and methamphetamines to finance their political goals, “promote Wa nationalism,” as well as fund local development such as roads, schools, and hospitals. Neither are the Wa truly a revolutionary Marxist group or ideologically aligned with Chinese communism. Their historical links to the Burmese Communist Party were born from pragmatism and desperation: the Wa needed arms, and the BCP was happy to oblige. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party found willing partners in the Wa during their war against the Kuomintang in the 1960s. However, as Lintner demonstrates, Beijing’s priorities shifted during the 1990s following the collapse of the BCP in 1989, a time of a mutiny within the ranks as well as a booming drug trade across the border with China. At the same time, under Deng Xiaoping, China’s leadership abandoned aspects of its revolutionary ideology. Instead of exporting communist insurgencies across the developing world, Chinese leaders began to seek business opportunities. Myanmar’s abundant natural resources and lucrative cross-border trade presented new ways of getting rich, and corruption facilitated this two-way street, particularly among Tatmadaw officers willing to work with their nominal enemies in the Wa hills. Beijing has sold arms to both the Myanmar military as well as the numerous ethnic armed groups across China’s border, primarily through the UWSA. Lintner confidently adds that those arms transfers are “almost certainly directed from the highest level in Beijing.” Scratching beneath the surface, he eloquently sums up Beijing’s double game in Myanmar: “China’s interest in the talks between Burma’s government, its military, and the country’s many ethnic armed groups is […] not motivated by a desire to find a final solution to decades of civil war. China does not seek peace, it wants stability which it can use to its geostrategic advantage.” As others have pointed out, Myanmar offers China vital overland access to the Indian Ocean, thereby providing insurance against what is frequently referred to as the “Malacca dilemma,” on account of the inordinate amount of energy imports which flow through the narrow Strait of Malacca off of Singapore, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Ultimately, though, readers enticed by the title’s allusion to China’s “quest for global dominance” may find the book comes up short on this front. Only one, penultimate chapter is devoted to analysis of how the Wa fit into China’s foreign policy today, and it is hardly conclusive. While this imbalance may reflect the editors’ discretion more than any limitations on the part of the author, Lintner’s latest is a remarkable achievement and puts forward valuable reading for Myanmar scholars as well as contemporary policymakers seeking to understand this conflicted sub-region of Southeast Asia, which has become another battleground for U.S.-China rivalry.
Continue ReadingWinds, currents, and reefs make it impossible to navigate the seas in a straight line. Vessels must instead tack back and forth, taking these forces and obstacles into account to reach their destinations. Edyta Roszko, in her engaging book, details how fishers, monks, and cadres do the same along the western edges of the Eastern Sea—an area more commonly known as the South China Sea to non-Vietnamese speakers. The study, the product of multi-sited research based on years of fieldwork, is notable for many reasons. But perhaps most broadly, Roszko success- fully decenters the academic literature on Vietnam, which is heavily tilted toward either its northern or southern regions due to the research ques- tions historically posed. In doing so, Roszko rightly points to the impor- tance of the maritime in the making and remaking of the country over time. To ground her analysis, Roszko interweaves historical materials with ethnographic ones, with a focus on one coastal village (Sa Huỳnh) and another village on nearby Lý Sơn Island. Despite their proximity, Roszko illustrates how each locale is, to varying degrees, both connected and dis- connected from state power. These dynamics, Roszko argues, are most clearly evident when conceptualized in triadic terms, which she defines as the shifting relationship between three domains: village life, religious belief and practice, and the administrative power of state authority. These shifting relationships, as each of the chapters demonstrates, generates “pluralities” rather than binaries, as the multiple agendas in play defy reduction to either-or outcomes. To support her argument, Roszko employs three concepts: “semiotic ideology,” “purification,” and “indiscipline.” The first concept refers to symbolic meanings as mobilized by different actors both within and across different semiotic systems. The second concept concerns the tensions between orthodoxy, on the one hand, and heterodoxy, on the other hand. The tensions are most apparent in the religious sphere, though efforts to promote “purity” and resistance to it are also present in other contexts. The final concept, “indiscipline,” encapsulates the ways in which state and non- state actors, typically ones who hold subordinate positions in relation to those wielding power, strategically appropriate concepts and practices to create spaces to achieve their goals. In terms of overall structure, the first chapter describes how the inha- bitants of her two field sites narrate their histories, geographies, and mo- bilities. The next three chapters, summarized below, are thematically organized in ways that highlight the triadic relationship of collaboration and confrontation that Roszko employs as her analytical frame. The final case study foregrounds an issue that runs through each of the chapters, but warrants focused discussion of its own—namely, women and how they differently engage with political, economic, and symbolic shifts in the gen- dered relations among fishers, monks, and cadres. More specifically, chapter 2, which concerns itself with religion, provides a summary of the socialist state’s efforts to eradicate “superstition”—to “purify” practice in a manner that placed “official” Buddhism under gov- ernment control—and the state’s later rehabilitation of some village-level spiritual traditions. The historical arc of the chapter highlights how suc- cessive efforts to cleanly delineate politics from religion, science from superstition, and orthodoxy from heterodoxy have never been fully suc- cessful. Instead, “fuzziness,” as Roszko describes it, has been a defining feature of these contestations, a point that challenges the longstanding academic tradition of either top-down or bottom-up analyses of power in Vietnam. Chapter 3 continues this exploration of “fuzziness” by examining how fishers and farmers are linked in ways that again upend hierarchical arguments that subordinate life on “the sea” to life on “the land,” with the latter traditionally representing what it means to be authentically Vietnamese. Central to her discussion are the multifaceted ways in which identity and territoriality combine and recombine over time due to the interdependencies between mainlanders (farmers and craftsmen) and seafarers (fishers). Chapter 4 again returns the discussion to religion, but this time through the concept of “indiscipline.” As was the case in the previous chapters, Roszko emphasizes the ways people strategically mobilize elements of the binaries rendered “fuzzy” in chapter so as to enlarge the space for them to pursue their interests both in and around existing constraints. Commemorative politics are the focus of chapter , with an analysis of the ways the disputes over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Archipel- agoes have reconfigured Vietnam’s geo-body to more centrally include its maritime territory. While popular protests and diplomatic wrangling between Vietnam and China have dominated the press, Roszko directs attention to the ways that local beliefs about the nation and lineage, as well as ancestors and ghosts, are harnessed by the government to advance its interests, as the residents of her two field sites simultaneously seek to do the same. The resulting reconstructions of the past, and thus the terms of the present, once again illustrate the agency of local actors. The final case study on gender similarly provides a historical overview of women’s “identity” as refracted through patriarchal practices and state symbols. Roszko’s key insight here concerns the multiple ways in which some women have crafted ritual practices in a manner that permits them to become “authentic” bearers of religious authority. The author convincingly demonstrates how the triadic relationships disrupt the binaries that structure relationships among fishers and farmers, laypeople and monks, people and cadres, as well as men and women. Less clear is how these binaries powerfully reassert themselves in the face of such continual disruption. Both Carolyn Nordstrom’s “Shadows and Sovereigns” (Theory, Culture, & Society, : –) and Timothy Mitchell’s “Every- day Metaphors of Power” (Theory and Society, : –) offer useful ways to rethink the process of reconstitution against which fishers, monks, and cadres “navigate” their lives. This minor criticism aside, Roszko provides us with a valuable contribution to the history and ethnography of one small part of Vietnam. In doing so, she opens up the space for future comparative studies, not just of Vietnamese coastal communities elsewhere, but of the Southeast Asian littoral more generally.
Continue ReadingThis superbly edited, theoretically progressive volume, consisting of ten empirically-based and meticulously researched case studies, is focused ostensibly on instances of spirit possession within Burmese, Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese Buddhist religious cultures. Its richly detailed and provocative analyses reflect how modernity, in its dynamic guises of globalizing neoliberal capitalism, increasing urbanization, the proliferation of digital media platforms, and the politics of ethnic and national identities, is producing, through a variegation of ritual articulations, new efflorescent forms of enchantment for vernacular religion concerned primarily with worldly well-being. As such, this sophisticated series of essays, book-ended by a masterful introduction by the editors and an incisive afterward by Erick White, not only upends Weber’s well-worn secularization thesis, but also indexes how the “marginal” and “magical” are becoming increasingly mainstream, and consequently, how non-monastic everyday religious practice in Buddhist cultures is being transformed throughout Southeast Asia. This is clearly a landmark contribution, one that invites the serious attention of scholars in anthropology, the history of religions, and especially Buddhist Studies