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Phuong Le Trong—Ethnicity-based Narratives and Identity Politics

Ethnicity-based Narratives and Identity Politics

Since the beginnings of the political transition in Myanmar, the stronghold of the political structure is increasingly faced with a plurality of opinions and debates. There have been signs raising the question of the relation between political change and “identity politics” regarding different social groups and actors. “Identity politics” in this context means a transition from a state formation with its dominating political culture that has been “virtually closed” and tied to the traditional autocracy of great national unity and centralized power. Especially in Myanmar, politics involves directly the allocation of powers and benefits, it exercises a tremendous influence on social life and thereby plays a powerful asymmetrical role and influence on other aspects of culture, e.g. the (re)constructions regarding interpretation of history, culture change, civility, development prospects. Language, history, social organisation, standards which are bridged communicatively between members are references defining ethnic groups that are also resonance communities. The asymmetric relationship accounted for different narratives of what constitutes the respectively “national identity” depending on the state of relations between ethnic groups, and drawing on cultural standards and narratives. With regard to these as well as the beliefs and desires that are now “picked up” by significant parts of the society, the present processes showcase that the protagonists are mutually affecting each other or being “persuaded” by some leading figures or traditions.

From the policy making on identities and implementation processes, I will analyse recurring narratives and their references. Discussing which effects political culture can have on identity politics would offer an approach to a better understanding how ethnicity-based resp. nationalist narratives help constructing relations between people(s) and the state, as well as creating and diffusing tensions between the state and its citizens, and how identity politics constructs its discourses that have emerged alongside social and ideological shifts in the society since the reform



Judith Beyer—False Flag: Rumour, Religous Property and the Politics of Community-Making in Myanmar

The annual mourning period within Shia Islam lasts for two months every year, during which the followers of the Imamiyyah (i.e. Twelver Shia, the largest branch within Shia Islam) commemorate the events of Karbala 1400 years ago when the maternal grandson of Prophet Mohammad, Imam Hussain, was martyred. During this time period, the small Shia community in Myanmar performs elaborate rituals in their mosques and shrines and carries out processions in the streets of downtown Yangon. In my paper I will focus on a particular incident which I observed in December 2015 at the very end of the annual mourning period. The case centres on the raising and subsequent lowering of a black flag outside of one of the Shia shrines in downtown Yangon. My empirical material allows for the interpretation of internal power struggles and fault lines within the Shia community over who rightfully administers religious property. It also exemplifies the outer borders of the Shia community through the invocation of the well-known Shia-Sunni divide. Moreover, it transcends mono-religious boundaries as self-proclaimed defenders of Buddhism were central to how the case unfolded. Finally, it shows how people across religious faiths engage ‘the state’ as a way to enforce their version of truth. I argue in this paper, that what this case centres on is rumour. I further argue that rumour is constitutive of religious community-making in Myanmar and that we need to take ‘rumourous talk’ seriously if we want to understand the ongoing dichotomization of ‘religious communities’ as well as the subsequent invocation of the need for ‘interreligious dialogue’ in contemporary Myanmar.

Jella Fink—Reproduction Required: Textile Production as a Floor of Negotiating Ethnic Identity in Contemporary Myanmar


The desire for stability states a paradox when looking at fabrics. They are on the edge of deterioration from the first moment on and require constant reproduction. Stability is thus created by group-specific knowledge and in its material realization is seen as a valid basis for identification.
While speaking of the “material culture” of a specific group is problematic, things can be part of expressing one’s individual identity visually and locating the individual within a larger group identity. It is this context, in which the textile artisans in Myanmar create fabric that becomes closely connected to ethnic belonging. The objective of this paper is to illuminate the agents, processes, and intentions behind hand-woven and hand-stitched fabrics in Myanmar, as a way to analyze negotiation processes of past and present, and of “us” and “them”. The focus lies with the makers and their strategies of accommodating various identities: Their own as an artist and creator, as an employee of a workshop, and as a group member, as well as the space given to considerations concerning the receivers/buyer’s identity. In light of the drastic changes shaking Myanmar’s political and economic landscape, this micro-perspective may offer a deeper understanding of how those changes are negotiated locally.


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