New Mandala readers hoping to get a grip on the current state of scholarship on Burma would do well to read a new paper by Andrew Selth. It is published in the City University of Hong Kong’s Southeast Asia Research Centre Working Paper Series. The full text is available here. Thanks to prolific contributor, Srithanonchai, for bringing it to my attention.
For those who don’t have the time to wade through this excellent 65-page document, I should highlight Selth’s conclusion. He writes:
…The Burma studies scene is more active than ever.
Yet much remains to be done. There are aspects of Burmese society and culture that have been barely touched upon by scholars, and even in some well-trodden areas of study, like the country’s history, politics and economics, there is wide scope for additional research and analysis. Burma is still poorly understood, compared to most other countries in the region. The brief survey above reveals numerous gaps in the literature that would benefit from attention. Not only could such works shed light on hitherto unexplored aspects of the country but, by adding empirical data to the public record, they would have the added benefit of encouraging the inclusion of Burma in broader thematic and theoretical works. In such circumstances, comparative studies would be easier to conduct.
Yet, until the military government in Burma falls, or the current regime changes its attitude to academic research – neither of which are in prospect – field work in Burma will remain difficult. Changes will also need to occur outside the country. Burma studies demands greater recognition as a legitimate and worthwhile field of academic activity, and deserves more support from universities and funding institutions. Also, despite the current highly charged political climate, there must be a greater emphasis on the rigorous analysis and frank discussion of contemporary developments. It is to be hoped that Burma-watchers of all kinds, both within the Academy and outside it, can pursue their shared interests in a collegiate and civilised manner, and in an atmosphere that tolerates – indeed encourages – intellectual differences. For failure to do this will inevitably be at the cost of originalresearch, and fresh insights into Burma, a country that has for too long remained hidden behind walls of ignorance and misunderstanding.