Donald M. Seekins, State and Society in Modern Rangoon.

London and New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. xix, 252; maps, photos, tables, notes, apps., bib., index.

Reviewed by Inga Gruss.

While many topics remain neglected or rarely addressed in Myanmar studies, the study of state-society relations is not among them. Keen interest among scholars has resulted in a considerable body of literature on the Burmese state and its relationship to society. Mary P. Callahan’s Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma (1), Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung’s Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies, and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma/Myanmar (2), and of course Robert H. Taylor’s The State in Burma and its second, expanded edition The State in Myanmar (3) are only a few of the most significant examples. Donald Seekins now tries to carve a niche for his scholarship in this body of literature by presenting an analysis of approximately 250 years of state-society relations in Yangon, the city that has been the economic, social and political centre of the country since colonization. (The recent relocation of Myanmar’s seat of government notwithstanding, Yangon continues to be its social and economic center today.)

Central to Seekins’s analysis of the state’s relationship to Yangon and its society is the argument that the state has attempted to isolate and place itself above society in order to control and restrict any form of “horizontal power” in society (p. 10). He argues that the process of isolation began in 1852, when Burma’s royal state lost its grip on power in Lower Burma and British colonial rule arrived there. His analysis highlights three themes as crucial in the colonial state’s effort to create and maintain distance from society: violence, adherence to Buddhist rituals, and urban restructuring. As they figure in the history of state-society relations in Yangon under both the British colonial regime and its successors, these three themes are the threads that weave the book together.

The introduction and the last two chapters of State and Society in Modern Rangoon discuss contemporary events, while the other seven chapters provide an historical narrative organized according to periods of rule by different governments. Much has already been written elsewhere about state violence in Myanmar; this review focuses on Seekins’s two other themes, the use of Buddhist rituals and urban restructuring.

The volume’s introduction serves as the bridge between its core sections and its treatment of recent developments in Myanmar. Seekins there offers an analysis of the relocation of the country’s capital to Naypyidaw in 2005-2006 and provides an introduction to Yangon’s contemporary landscape. The author’s discussion of the motivations for the move of Myanmar’s administrative capital to Naypyidaw is not, however, developed to its full potential. A cause of this underdevelopment is the cursory way in which Seekins engages his sources, and this is a problem throughout State and Society in Modern Rangoon. In his treatment of the new capital, for example, he singles out Senior General Than Shwe as the sole brain behind the creation of Naypyidaw. Seekins stresses the importance that Than Shwe gave not only to adherence to Buddhist rituals in creating an aura of legitimacy, but also to strict city planning and to what are commonly referred to as superstitious practices in guiding his decision to relocate the capital city. Seekins has made extensive use of newspaper articles to construct this narrative. While useful and exciting for their immediacy and for detail not found in other written sources, newspaper articles are, like any other kind of information, produced by a situated individual or individuals with specific agendas. A scholar must interrogate their statements carefully. Available information about Than Shwe and the ruling elite of Myanmar often mixes second-hand rumors, conspiracy theories, common assumptions and allegedly first-hand information that is very difficult to verify. Presenting this medley of information as facts makes it challenging to distinguish the credibility of those facts, and to appreciate the narrative built upon them.

Seekins’s first chapter convincingly demonstrates the importance of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burmese Buddhism and its significance to various rulers. Consecutive rulers of the country have contributed to its construction and glory and thus legitimized their rule. State and Society in Modern Rangoon returns repeatedly to the themes of pagoda construction and maintenance, donations to the Buddhist sangha, and the resultant merit and opportunity for respective governments to build their base of support. The volume’s treatment of these important issues raises questions concerning the potential and actual effects of state representatives’ engaging in Buddhist ritual. How, one wonders, have various segments of Yangon society perceived these acts during different periods? What in fact has been the relationship between state representatives’ engaging in these acts and the perceived legitimacy of respective governments? How have these acts reconfigured the relationship of people to these acts of merit making? Seekins neither answers these questions nor appears to have considered them.

In Seekins’s view, the Shwedagon Pagoda was also central to the emergence of a public sphere and of public opinion in Yangon and beyond. He argues that “the shoe controversy” during British colonial rule resulted in the formation of public opinion and at the same time turned a physical space into public space. The author points out that Burmese Buddhist thought dominated this new public opinion and public sphere in a country inhabited by diverse peoples, speaking many different languages and identifying with many different belief systems.

The Shwedagon Pagoda and other Buddhist sites in Yangon have continued to have great importance to the country’s post-1988 government. That government has sponsored the construction of Buddhist sites, renovated existing pagodas (replacing, for example the Shwedagon’s hti–the umbrella that crowns a pagoda) and undertaken other costly, potentially meritorious projects. The arrangements used to finance these projects have resulted in relationships between the government and entrepreneurs. Privileges and contracts are assigned to business-people who assist in providing Myanmar’s government with the means to continue undertaking such projects.

Seekins suggests that the restructuring of Yangon’s urban landscape and state violence often went hand in hand in the past and that they continue to do so in the present. When planning and building Yangon, British colonial officials frequently disregarded residents’ property claims and wiped villages and settlements out in their zeal to shape the city according to their plans. In the immediate post-colonial years, attempts to rid Yangon of the British presence came largely at the expense of the non-native populations, but that changed when poor urban populations and squatter settlements were forcibly removed in an attempt to “clean up” the city during Gen Ne Win’s care-taker government of 1958-1960 (p. 88). The consequences for the resettled populations were similar to those that Seekins attributes to the forced resettlement projects of the current military government. Many people could no longer afford to commute to downtown Yangon, where they worked prior to resettlement. Others, who had made a living from selling miscellaneous items in small shops in their houses, found that such enterprises were not possible in new high-rise concrete buildings. Also, existing communities and community support structures were torn apart.

According to Seekins, the main purpose of forced resettlement in the contemporary period has been the creation of a more easily controlled urban landscape for the state. Besides these deliberate, planned efforts on the part of the state, there is another side to urban restructuring. Yangon and its population are increasingly incorporated into a global net of changes, which are accelerated by the government’s search for revenues through the sale of trading licenses to foreign investors. In discussing these changes, Seekins frequently relies on terms such as “thin veneer of modernity . . . coexisting with Myanmar identity” (p. 163) without elaborating on these concepts. Terms such as “traditional,” “modern” and “globalization” are often used, but rarely explained. The possibility of multiple understandings of such terms means that the failure to explain them leaves readers with only a vague appreciation of the changes that the author describes.

In concluding this review of State and Society in Modern Rangoon, I would like to return to the issue of sources. In his research for the book, Donald Seekins has turned to published academic work, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and personal conversations and interviews. Throughout the text, the author repeatedly quotes verbatim from published secondary sources. However, he rarely works to build this material into any frame of analysis of his own. Further, he makes no reference to Burmese-language primary or secondary material. While he uses the voices of informants who are apparently Yangon residents to enrich the text, he does not make it possible for the reader to situate the individuals quoted or the information gleaned from them. Far short of compromising anonymity, there are many ways to provide background information about informants. Perhaps a more detailed explanation of the sources and their positionality might serve the purpose of empowering the voices of the informants, rather than leaving them on the periphery. A move such as this would enhance the overall work.

Inga Gruss is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Cornell University.

1. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003.

2. London and New York: Kegan Paul, 2004.

3. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987 and 2009, respectively.