How racist is my engagement with Burma studies?

I would like to respond to Charney’s article ( by using his metrics at the end to evaluate my own research practices. These metrics are reproduced below:

  1.  most Western scholars of Myanmar are writing not for the societies they study, but for those that pay their salaries.
  2. most Western scholars of Myanmar, or many are concerned about promotion, and this depends on peer impression among senior scholars who are mostly white (again, a structurally racist factor)
  3. most Western scholars of Myanmar do not treat Burmese as the equals they are, but as subjects (both metaphorically and literally)
  4. most Western scholars of Myanmar do not engage with debates in Burmese and most Burmese are not engaged in English, German, or French only literature.
  5. Noting that colonialism was also sustained by small numbers of elite Burmese who worked with the British to keep the system in place, we should remember that everyone can be shaped by structural racism, so that there are Burmese scholars who only care about what senior white academics think is important or they see themselves as better than other Burmese because they were educated abroad or went to international school.
  6. Love of the colonial as a research topic is partly at fault – much Western research focuses on the colonial period, the 19th and early 20th centuries, and of course so much of the material (not all) is in British collections, which is easy access to those who live in Europe. If more historiography focused on the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and so on, the advantage would be for Burmese with everything required for research being located essentially in Myanmar.

To skip to my responses for each, you can click the first word of the item in the list.

Point 1

Dr. Charney is pointing out a real problem that exists in academia, but by qualifying it with “most”, he places the burden on himself to show me the stats. How do you know that most Burma studies academics are writing for their salary-payers? I’m certainly not, since I don’t make a dime off of anything I write in this blog or anything I’ve submitted to OpenAccess journals (which more Burma Studies people should do, by the way). So, while I’m sure there are scholars in Burma studies who are guilty of this, I can’t believe it is most.

That being said, he’s correct that researchers need to write research that is beneficial to the society that we study, as well. Due to my limited time and limited funds, I was able to give modest gifts, including pre-defense versions of my thesis that contained typed accounts of the stories I collected in the local orthography. The question of usefulness to the local community is one reason why I want to continue with my work, because I don’t think I have put myself in a position where my research is mature enough to be useful, yet.

Point 2

A few things to unpack here. First, see above for my discussion of “most” and ditto that here. Secondly, is it Burma studies scholar’s fault if their colleagues or the people in power are white? In The US, The UK, Germany, and other Western countries, white people are the majority. I don’t believe that it is racist to have an all-Japanese faculty at TUFS studying Burmese linguistics, nor do I believe that it is racist to have an all-Burmese faculty at YUFL or YU studying English. They’re the majority. If the criticism is that there needs to be more Burmese representation in Burma studies, I’m all for it. But the scholars better be held to the same standards as their Western counterparts and vice versa.

Point 3

[Citation needed] is all I’m going to say to your “most” again. As a Christian who views everyone as God’s children, I not only treat the Sizang people as equal to me, but in the beginning I thought of myself as beneath them, because I was, in a sense, an apprentice to learning their language and culture and they taught me about it as an act of goodwill and genuine love for me, as if I were their collective brother, child or grandchild. I did make some adversaries along the way, often due to cultural misunderstanding or differences of opinion, but my continued involvement and care for the people actually turned a few adversaries around. Despite the coup and all I try to keep communication lines open with Sizang people in Burma as often as possible and have tried to help them in different ways from Thailand.

Point 4

I used to write a lot more in Burmese, but I got tired of being insulted for my (at the time) less-than-pristine Burmese, so I stopped. I’m much more comfortable speaking in Burmese and I’ve spoken about Burma with Burmese people on many an occasion. So, besides the written part, I guess you could say I’m exempt from this one.

Point 5

Amen and amen. I agree with this completely and do think that scholars from marginalized communities should be given the chance to be heard, because the erudites and urbanites from Yangon often try to speak on their behalf and they have absolutely no idea what life is like for them. I actually stayed (illegally, I might add) in Chin villages (only for short periods of time, due to the illegality of it), which is something that many erudite Bamar haven’t done. Yet, they feel that because everyone is Myanmar (or Myanmarese *cringe*) that they have the right to speak on the Chin’s behalf. I don’t even speak on the Chin’s behalf, because I know that they can speak for themselves.

Point 6

Sure. Let’s study about other things than the colonial period and better yet, let’s have indigenous scholars from Burma lead the way. I’m all for it. Now, do it!

I have to agree with the sub-point of access as well, since I’ve also never been to Europe and thus most of what I’ve accessed was either photocopied, scanned, emailed to me, or put online somewhere. I also haven’t had institutional access to journals since 2014, so any academic article I used usually had to be provided to me by the author or downloaded by a friend with institutional access.

How’d I do?

  • Point 1 is not applicable to me. I don’t get a salary for my research.
  • Point 2 is not currently applicable to me. I do not have a tenure track position.
  • Point 3 is not applicable to me for the reasons I discussed above
  • Point 4 is not applicable to me for the reasons I discussed above
  • Point 5 is maybe applicable to me, because I haven’t found any Sizang researcher willing to do the kind of work I would like to do for themselves. In the meantime, I will do what I can to prepare the way for when that person comes. To be nice, I’ll give myself a demerit here.
  • Point 6 is not applicable to me, because I focus on modern language use, not colonial activities (although I have to look at those to contextualize Sizang life), and I see Sizang as my equals

Cool, so I’m 1/6. Maybe you should revisit your term “most”, Dr. Charney.

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