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Superstition, Rumor and Gun Law

By Bertil Lintner

An academic study of Burma proves to be long on humorous anecdotes, but short of real political analysis

Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century, edited by Monique Skidmore. University of Hawaii Press: 2005. 304 pages

Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century purports to be "the first collection of essays about everyday life in Burma in forty years", which is a mild exaggeration. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has written a book called Let's Visit Burma, which covers most aspects of everyday life in the country. But this new book may be the first written by academics, mainly anthropologists, and, therefore, includes chapters about esoteric subjects like lottery-ticket numerology, the question of masculinity in Mandalay, and a detailed description of the Taungbyon spirit festival, including maps of the fair grounds.

But it is, nevertheless, a book well worth reading. It is divided into four parts, the first covering "spirituality, pilgrimage and economics," the second "political and moral legitimation," then "public performance" and ending with a one-piece contribution on the issue of "the domestic domain." All a bit fluffy, but Gustaaf Houtman's chapter on the personality cult surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi, and Jennifer Leehey's account of the media and literary life in contemporary Burma stand out as excellent studies of issues that really matter.

Keiko Tosa's chapter about the importance of rumors, and superstition, is also interesting. In 1991, for instance, people believed that fortune tellers had predicted that a woman would take a position of leadership. Then, intelligence chief Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt--described erroneously by many as a "pragmatist" and "moderate"--dressed up like a female actor and climbed up on a hilltop. His subordinates, the rumor went, called out three times to him, 'Ma Ma Nyunt' (elder sister Nyunt), to which he replied, 'shin?' (the word for "you" in female speech), before turning around three times.

At about the same time, then junta leader Gen Saw Maung attempted to accentuate his own chance of success by associating himself with an ancient Burmese king, Kyansittha, because that name brought together the words for "military" (sittha) and the wish to "survive or remain" (kyan). On another occasion, leaders of the armed forces together with senior Buddhist monks flew over Rangoon in a helicopter chanting the Mangala sutta (Blessing Discourse) to bring tranquility and happiness to the city.

Comical as these examples may sound, they show how important traditional beliefs are in a Burmese context, for the men in power as well as the population at large. Tragically, they also prove that the people of Burma have little more to pin their hopes on than supernatural intervention. According to Tosa, "rumour is an ambivalent and weak weapon because in focusing upon and interpreting these political activities, the Burmese people cannot but help admit that the regime are masters of power."

In a more down-to-earth way, they appealed to the authorities to ease controls because they were detrimental to Burma's international image. Hardly surprisingly, however, the situation got worse as the military government instead tightened the rules for private publications. "The lesson for members of the literary world, it would seem, is not to complain," Leehay concludes. The general public appears to have learnt the same lesson, as no one dares to speak out against a regime that remains universally despised.

But despite the generals' firm grip on power, Houtman argues that their "authoritarian instruments have failed to create enduring structures of state." Power by the gun and personality is the rule of the game in Burma, not a strong state steeped in ancient traditions, as some Western academic sycophants are trying to tell the world.

According to Houtman, the importance of personalities dominates even the democratic movement and its foreign supporters--and here no-one is more important than Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been likened to a "female bodhisattva" by her countrymen, and called "Burma's Saint Joan" by Vanity Fair. The junta, on the other hand, dismisses her as "Mother of the West", while not denying the supernatural characteristics attributed to her.

The last chapter is supposed to look into "the future of Burma", and does that by examining how the Burmese raise thier children, and how much they value their sons and daughters. Sadly lacking is a political analysis of where Burma actually stands at the turn of the 21st century--which is just as important, or even more so, as diving into the depths of social and medical anthropology.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, July, 2006

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