The Discourse on Transition

The events held in the last 6 months have successfully exposed not only the intellectual power of poets and artists in Myanmar to the international community, but brought some international academics to the doorstep of the creative community in Myanmar. If we attempt to simplify (we do, this is a blog, not an academic journal), the thing that has changed in the last decade is the discussion about change. TRANSITION is a word which appears endlessly in writing and conversation. Two particularly powerful speakers are Ko Ko Thett and Paul Rae. I saw them both speak and share my notes below.

Too many to count were the things I found wrong with this year’s Irrawaddy Literary Festival. Perpetuating an “upstairs downstairs” mentality implanted by British colonialism, many poets and writers from Myanmar boycotted the event, due to the ILF’s inexplicable budgets, which excluded spending on local academics and creative writers. Teams of heroic student volunteers from Mandalay worked tirelessly to save the festival from a terrible fate – the danger of becoming dated. If it weren’t for the young and enthusiastic volunteers, I do believe the “Banking During Colonial Burma” session would have been almost unbearable.

One speaker stood out. Perhaps because he is both an insider and outsider, born and raised in Burma by its creative and political energy, but exiled in Europe, where he works as a translator and poet. Where other panel discussions were stuck in the past, Ko Ko Thett* addressed the current ironies of “change” which the world has claimed Myanmar is experiencing. Under the title Traits of Totalitarian Discourse, KKT gave a succinct analysis of Burma of the past, Myanmar of the present, and the certainty of the instability in the future.

KKT first mentioned how much signage still exists in Myanmar listing the “National Causes” and the “People’s Desire.” And he then went on to address the 3 MYTHS of Totalitarianism in Myanmar. I am not in a position to dig deep, so I’ve just copied an outline of notes to share the basic framework of his talk (most words are his own).

MYTH I: The Tamatdaw is a Historically-rooted Institution  – the idea that the military is enshrined in the kings and generals of days gone by. There was no standing army (as it is considered today) in Burma until the Anglo-Burmese wars.

MYTH II: Omniscience and Unquestionable Authority of the State – “in school, we were told that Burma would not be independent without the armed forces”

MYTH III: Manichaeism Justified by Nationalism, Jingoism, and Xenophobia – “Burmese” as “National Race,” mentioned the anti-colonial sentiments beginnings in the Indo-Burmese riots of the 1930s. Racism and Nationalism are the two most exploited, given the ban on inter-faith marriages. This is conspicuous discourse, which means that the public discourse then follow the totalitarianism of the government.

How does it change? Unearth the archive, rewrite the history. Would the new professionalism of the military improve things? Or would it be used to return to an old “professionalism of defense?”

Weeks later, Paul Rae* spoke as part of the iUi Transitory Acts summit of speakers, performance, workshops, and presentations. He spoke very clearly and simply about two very complicated subjects. No doubt the translator appreciated greatly the approach. With such a convoluted and often miscommunication subject, especially when it comes to art, I too appreciated the candor and compact approach. Again, most of the notes are his words.

What’s the difference between change and transition?

Change is happening all the time, everywhere. Transition is from one condition to another. Change is qualitative, transition is quantitative. We can analyze and influence it. This can also be said about ART work, like time-based performances. “Performance as a synthetic transition, not artificial.” The results are beyond the artists’ control. The larger transformation/transition is beyond the artist’s control.

In Myanmar, some of the biggest changes PR has noticed: phones, money, clothing – all ways we communicate, exchange, express and value. Changing clothes changes the way you understand your own and others’ bodies.

When change is happening all over, artists have minimal effect BUT even a small contribution helps explain or complicate the risks of change.

Just a sampling of these two scholars’ thoughts on change and transition. Mostly, they just left the audience with more questions, and that’s probably the best thing. Sick of hearing about a transitioning Myanmar? Skeptical? Hopeful? Ya, me too. Still wondering whether the artists are attempting to say something about their futures or just analyzing their pasts, based on the work of the last 2 years. Maybe both. Transition is awfully amorphous.


*Ko Ko Thett co-edited Bones Will Crow with James Byrne.

*Paul Rae is a Professor at the National University of Singapore and scholar on Performance Studies, with a focus on Asia.

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