Burma Past and Present: Religion, Ethnicity and Power is an event series of readings and discussions of works in progress. We focus on issues of identity, conflict and religion in Burma from the nineteenth century to the present.

This is a pivotal moment for Burma and the study of Burma. The next years will see a huge transition for the country and its diasporas. It is key to think through both the long history of the current fractures in Burmese society (religious identities, ethnic identities) as well as how the contemporary situation reconfigures these in important ways. The speakers are organized in four thematic clusters: Religious Minorities; Ethnicities and Belonging; Critical Studies of Buddhist Monasticism; Economy, Activism and Politics. The series is organized by Alicia Turner (Humanities).

All are welcome. 

Series events

Real Change: Converting Politics in Myanmar

Tuesday, 12 April 2022 | 12:00 to 14:00 EDT | Zoom

with Michael Edwards, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge

“Real change”: This was the National League for Democracy’s pitch to voters in Myanmar’s landmark 2015 election, an event symbolising the formal end of military rule. A vote for the party was a vote for a radical break from the past—or so the slogan implied in a familiar rhetorical move. At the same time, the offer of “real change” was at the heart of local Pentecostal efforts to evangelize to Buddhists: the familiar promise that Jesus would fundamentally transform their lives. Entering a tentatively more open public sphere, these believers shared the gospel in the hope of sparking a fire of revival in a largely Buddhist nation. This paper tracks the work of “real change” across these interpenetrating scales, focusing on the formulation’s ability to generate a combination of anticipation and scepticism. Doing so reveals how ethnographic attention to the discourses and practices of religious conversion can offer insight into the work of the real in the political life of Myanmar and elsewhere.

Imagining an Overseas Chinese Community in Colonial Burma

Thursday, 7 April 2022 | 14:00 to 15:30 EDT

with Siew Han Yeo, Doctoral Candidate in History, University of Toronto

This chapter explores early twentieth-century constructions of the overseas Chinese community in Chinese, English and Burmese language sources. Drawing from newspapers, reports and communal publications, I argue that Sino-Burmese and visiting Chinese writers played a significant role in shaping local and official constructions of tayoke ethnicity(တရုတ် Chinese) and community as a “respectable commercial class.” However, these constructions also obscured the diversity of a divided migrant population from Qing and Republican-era China by excluding the middling and labouring classes from bourgeois conceptions of overseas “Chinese” identity. Chapter One ultimately demonstrates how public and communal constructions of ethnicity and identity were defined by local livelihoods, competition, and the cultural proximity of the diaspora in Burma to their zuguo (homeland).

Women’s Participation and Visibility in the Anti-Military Online Movement in Myanmar

Poster for Women’s Participation and Visibility in the Anti-Military Online Movement in Myanmar with Isabella Aung

Tuesday, 15 March 2022 | 15:30 to 17:00 EDT

with Isabella Aung, PhD Student, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University

When Myanmar formally began its transition into a democracy in 2010, women were hopeful for an improvement in their political representation. After Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto leader in 2015, many women attempted to enter politics. However, with very few exceptions, Burmese politics remained highly male-dominated. This male dominance is finally being challenged in the aftermath of the military coup that took place on 01 February 2021. Women are now at the forefront of all three branches of the ongoing anti-military movement–the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), frontline protests, and a social media awareness movement. This paper takes Myanmar as a case study to investigate women’s political activism in traditionally authoritarian societies, where feminism has historically been frowned upon. It focuses on the social media awareness movement and how the coup has galvanized the online political activism of women in Myanmar. I will conduct a content analysis of Twitter posts under the hashtag “#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar,” examining women’s participation and responses to women’s political activism online. Stratified random sampling and systematic sampling will be used to select the posts. The goal of this research is to explore the effects of gendered oppression and violence on the participation and visibility of women in the anti-military social media movement. By offering a better understanding of gender-based discrimination women activists face, this paper aims to provide recommendations to create safer online spaces for women in Myanmar to organize against the junta.

Exposing Enlightenment: The ‘Living Arahant’ in Photography and Print in Post-colonial Burma

Exposing Enlightenment: The 'Living Arahant' in Photography and Print in Post-colonial Burma with Tony Scott on 01 March 2022

Tuesday, 1 March 2022 | 15:30 to 17:00 EST

With Tony Scott, Department of the Study of Religion, University of Toronto

Tony’s paper focuses on the “living arahants” of early twentieth-century Burma, examining how the narratives surrounding this supposedly enlightened class are negotiated and contested in the public sphere through the mediums of photography and print. By exploring the figure of the Mingun Jetavana Sayadaw (1868–1955), a Burmese scholar-monk and pioneer of insight, or Vipassanā meditation, it is argued that the application of these categories is not just a religious act, but profoundly political—determining who wields the power of definition itself.

Objects of Religious Change in the Konbaung Kingdom

Poster for Objects of Religious Change in the Konbaung Kingdom event with Alexandra Kaloyanides

Wednesday, 16 February 2022 | 16:00 to 17:30 EST

With Alexandra Kaloyanides, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina Charlotte 

The story of the American Baptist mission to Burma is a story of conversion—both failed and sweeping. Throughout the nineteenth century, Burmese Buddhists largely resisted Christian evangelism, whereas astonishing numbers of non-Burmese minority communities were being baptized. And American Baptist Christianity also found itself changed in the Buddhist kingdom. Missionaries who had arrived vilifying Buddha statues found themselves creating tree shrines and their converts hanging multicolored Jesus paintings in their churches. As eccentric as these objects might seem, they prove to be at the center of this story of religion in Burma. This book focuses on powerful Southeast Asian artifacts to understand how the Burmese majority transformed Buddhism to counter Christianity, how minority communities took on Baptist identities, and how Protestantism transformed into a kind of Southeast Asian religion.