Former ISRF Fellow Jonathan Saha argues that everyone should be watching Myanmar right now. The history unfolding in the country’s towns and cities is closer than some Western commentators might like to think.
Protestors against the military
coup, February 2021.
Photograph by Htin Linn Aye
(CC BY-SA 4.0).
An earlier version of this article was published by History Workshop Online. It has been reproduced here with permission from the editors.
I have long claimed to those who would listen, albeit casually and often without conviction, that Burmese history is world historical. This is not to say that it is universal or that its particularities are essentially unimportant. To the contrary, it is in its particularities that we can see global conjunctures. The first of February military coup, as well as the growing resistance to it, have strengthened my belief in this hitherto lightly-held intuition. Everyone should be watching Myanmar right now. The history unfolding in the country’s towns and cities is closer than some Western commentators might like to think.
Fascism has returned to political discourse. In scholarship on Myanmar, the term has had a chequered, uneven history, but was repopularised in the 2000s by the anthropologist Monique Skidmore. Her book Karaoke Fascism attempted to trace the everyday traumas and psychological fallout of the routine brutality of the then military junta’s rule. As her title suggests, she was interested in the daily mimicry of state violence as it was reproduced in a cascade through society. Her approach was flawed and her findings pathologizing, but in recalling her study in my title it is not the internalised effects of oppression that I wish to highlight—although a return to the authoritarian state she critiques is an animating and legitimate fear. Rather, I wish to point out the resonances of global fascisms within Myanmar, as well as the vitality of the emergent antifascist resistance that the civil disobedience campaign might represent.
This desire to foreground these resonances is also occasioned by Geoff Eley’s essay in issue 91 of the History Workshop Journal (coming in spring 2021) in which he locates the contemporary rise of the far-right represented by Donald Trump within histories of fascism, recognising its multiple trajectories and grappling with its analytical allusivity. The spectre of fascism in the White House has drawn the attention of the world’s political commentators. The return of fascism into the mainstream political lexicon, and Eley’s demonstration of its continuing utility when deployed as an excavatory lens rather than ideal type, is necessary. The emergent power of fascistic politics across the planet, from Rodrigo Duterte, to Narendra Modi, to Jair Bolsonaro, should not have needed Trump’s presidency to be named. But it is now from Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, that fascist politics are emanating and echoing, in a karaoke performance of both Myanmar’s past and the global present.
Myanmar is hard to locate in the literature on fascism, as Eley presents it, in spite of the military’s anti-communist, autarkic, autochthonous, and ethnically-chauvinist ideology from the mid-to-late twentieth century. But we must name it as fascist. The strategies deployed today recall fascisms past. Just as they did in the face of widespread opposition in 1988, the military released prisoners—themselves desperately vulnerable individuals—into neighbourhoods to cause chaos and incite violence; an almost archetypal example of fascism creating the crisis that it would purport to step in to eliminate. At the same time, ever since the election in November 2020 the generals have deployed rhetoric strongly reminiscent of Trump’s claims of electoral fraud and fake news. This has been a campaign of disinformation alongside accusations of disinformation that has myriad contemporary resonances. But the facts are clear: the election in Myanmar was credible. The victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy at the ballot box is undeniable. But it was not a fair election. The marginalisation of Rohingya peoples, and their exclusion from that most lauded, near-paradigmatic liberal democratic ritual of voting has been well documented. This is the latest manifestation of a denial of their citizenship, all too often extended into a violent denial of their humanity. While military rule is not popular, the generals have fostered a wider groundswell of popular racism.
However, whether through miscalculation or myopia, the military are learning that they are more unpopular than it seems they anticipated. The creative, fervent civil disobedience that has been unleashed across the country, like the fascist politics it contests, draws on both a rich local tradition and a global language. The diversity of those unified in Myanmar’s civil disobedience campaign is complex, bringing together different generations, ethnic groups, and classes. Women, LGBT activists, punks and religious minorities have all been visible. Spearheaded by a new generation of activists inspired by political resistance in Hong Kong and Thailand—a solidarity most visible to those outside of the country through the emergence of the pro-democracy internet activist movement operating under the banner of the “Milk Tea Alliance”—Myanmar’s opposition movement’s most spectacular recent weapon has nevertheless been one of the oldest modern tactics for the oppressed: the general strike.
The scale of the strike on 22 February was staggering. Aerial images of urban centres across the country thronged with masses of people have circulated globally across social media platforms. In the days that have followed protestors have bravely continued to come out in the face of escalating violence from the military. The historical resonances abound. In her brief account of the development of the general strike, Gayatri Spivak has called for its “reterritorialization” in political idioms beyond those of white, imperial centres. Myanmar has a particularly rich anticolonial vernacular of the general strike. Strikes punctuate key moments in the country’s history throughout the twentieth century. The Burmese word for the verb “to strike”, thabeiq hmauk, is synonymous with “to boycott” and literally translates as the upturning of a monk’s bowl to refuse alms. It can at once evoke an act disrupting the materialist accumulation of capital and the karmic accumulation of merit. The world historical and the particular cannot be disentangled or fully distinguished.
Myanmar’s opposition movement is not singular, but multitudinous and multivocal. It may prove generative of new political subjectivities forged out of practical acts of solidarity. Some of the most widely circulated images from the protests have been those of Burmese people bearing signs disavowing their previously held prejudices against Rohingya peoples. While the term “antifascist” does not and cannot capture this living movement born out of situated praxis, we might hear in this nascent movement the echoes of antifascism past and present. There are new futures for Myanmar being imagined on its streets. Socialists and fellow travellers in the West, confronting their own paler manifestations of fascism, and seemingly unsure of how to understand events in Myanmar, with its fallen heroine and recent ethnic cleansing, will find in Myanmar resonances worth listening to. Antifascist solidarities must not be orientated exclusively across the north Atlantic, but to the Global South as well—this is where a better future will be won or lost.
- Aung, Geoffery interviewed by Zachary Levenson, ‘Keep the Streets: Coup, Crisis, and Capital in Myanmar’, Spectre Journal, 20 February 2021: https://spectrejournal.com/keep-the-streets-coup-crisis-and-capitalism-in-myanmar/
- Eley, Geoff, ‘What is Fascism and Where Does it Come From?’, History Workshop Journal 91 (2021 Forthcoming)
- Prasse‐Freeman, Elliott, ‘The Rohingya Crisis’, Anthropology Today 33, no. 6 (2017)
- Schissler, Matt, Matthew J. Walton, and Phyu Phyu Thi, ‘Reconciling Contradictions: Buddhist-Muslim Violence, Narrative Making and Memory in Myanmar’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, no. 3 (2017)
- Skidmore, Monique, Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘General Strike’, Rethinking Marxism 26, no. 1 (2014)
- Thakhin Po Hla Gyi, trans. Stephen Campbell, ed. Hans-Bernd Zöllner, ‘The Strike War’, Myanmar Literature Project, Working Paper 10:11.1 (2010 [original 1938])
 The Burmese here has been given in a phonemic Romanised form, transliterated according the American Library Association—Library of Congress standards the term would be rendered sapit‘mhok‘.
Dr Jonathan Saha
ISRF Mid-Career Fellow, 2019–20
Jonathan Saha is Associate Professor of History at the University of Durham. He is a historian of colonial Myanmar and a member of the editorial collective for the History Workshop Journal. He was an ISRF Mid-Career Fellow in 2019–20.