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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

Mar 09, 2022

Repossessing Shanland: Ethnicity and Rock ‘n’ Roll Nostalgia in Upland Southeast Asia

Dr. Jane Ferguson
with Al Lim, Hannah Hernandez, Sharmaine Koh and Sisi Yang

Transcribed by Al Lim  

SEAM sat down with Associate Professor Jane Ferguson from the School of Culture, History & Language at the Australian National University. She is the author of Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand, and a Nation-State Deferred, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2021. Dr. Ferguson delivered a brilliant Brownbag presentation at the Council on Southeast Asian Studies last week. Her book builds on years of ethnographic research among communities of Shan soldiers and families, detailing the origins and complexities of their ethno-nationalist movement. Her book is an important contribution to the field, raising important issues like identity formation, state-building in the interstices, and the lived experiences of borderlands. 

Hannah Hernandez (HH): Last week, Professor Ferguson, you gave a talk that engaged with nationalism. How did you get into researching with the Shan and what was it like navigating a war-torn landscape?

Jane M Ferguson (JF): Thank you, Hannah. This was related to my own personal experience as a political activist and later  NGO work in northern Thailand, for a group called Images Asia. They do documentary filmmaking and media empowerment, a lot about borderland issues.

I worked for them for about two years before starting my MA in Southeast Asian history and later my PhD in Anthropology. But it was through working with them and getting to know their work that  I first traveled to the Shan State Army’s south capital of Loi Tai Leng and met some of the players involved. I also was doing documentary workshops with them about how to present their ideas about the [Shan] struggle, having done social science and anthropology as an undergraduate.

I couldn't help getting to know these folks as a research methodology—the ethnographic fieldwork of participant observation. But also, having read about how this was the longest-running internal conflict in modern history, I was really interested in it: What does history mean to these folks whose daily lives are very much impacted by this ongoing struggle?

So the interest started as a broad question. Then figuring out “How can I situate it?” or “How can I make it into a thesis?” And then also, “What can my contribution, or how you know how can a new anthropological understanding of these conditions create and tell a new kind of story that speaks, not just to discourses of history and anthropology, but also something that's relevant to people today?” These were my guiding questions and motivations at that start.

Sisi Yang (SY): On that note, how do you balance or navigate your roles as a scholar, and as a participant in your interlocutors’ lives, especially since you do research on music and you also play music?

JM: I have always been a fan of pop music and I  played casually in bands with friends, mostly on the bass. Later on I picked up the guitar. It was just a fun thing to do, not so much a specific research methodology that I wrote in my research proposal before I started my fieldwork and spent two and a half years in Asia and the village.

There's always the issue of “Okay I’m an outsider, and I'm spending time with folks.” When you read an ethnography, the challenge of finding people to spend time with you is not often revealed to the reader. People talk about “Oh I’m going to learn about factory workers here.” Well, how are you going to spend time with them? That’s a really fundamental part of the methodology.

Historians might go to an archive and read texts. There's access to texts as a methodology. But often participant observation involves you knowing what you bring to the field. You're not just going there as a sponge to absorb what happens around you (even though there are aspects of that too).

When I found out that there was a local pickup band, I got to know people who played music for fun. I expressed something like “Oh, I like to play guitar!” Then they told me, “We have a pickup band. Come along and join us.”

Playing music together is a great way to spend time, and you get information that's different from a formal interview when you play music with folks. I discovered this when I talked about music tastes and the kinds of music that people like to listen to, or like to sing to. It was a way to tap into a nostalgia that was very different from the ethno-national narrative produced by the Shan State Army. Getting into happy, nostalgic memories that people had towards Burmese popular music opened this vista to more complex social lives than what a straight political narrative would get at.

My particular story of learning about this had very much to do with my hobby as an amateur musician. So, that's kind of the story of how that particular insight unfolded. And I do write about it in the book because a lot of anthropologists don't necessarily talk about what they brought to the field to learn what they learned in the field.

SY: Do you bring a notebook when you play music?

JC: Well, it's pretty hard to play bass and take notes at the same time. I wouldn't always bring a notebook. This is back in the pre-smartphone era, I had a digital recorder. Sometimes, I would bring that.

But I didn't take notes or record during our jams. But always just before going to bed or going to sleep at night, I would remember everything that happened as best I could. And then I would write up my field notes, before going to sleep, and reflect upon what happened.

Al Lim (AL): How was language learning for you, between Shan, Burmese, and Thai? I presume it’s not easy to pick [languages like] Shan as opposed to Thai. What were the challenges and how did that go? Often, people ask “Oh you know, what is your native language? Do you dream in that language?” So, did you ever dream [in Shan, Burmese, and Thai], or how did that work out?

JF: We won't get into the Freudian subconscious of my dreams and what language those are in because they're often not in language at all. They're very experiential. We’re not going to ethnographize the dreams of Jane Ferguson. But this is an interesting question, because obviously learning multiple languages is important for ethnographic research. There are so many intrinsic benefits to learning these different languages and being able to talk back to the issues that can become complex in translation.

There's a chapter of the book dealing with the difference between Shan and Thai, not just the languages [themselves] but the ethno-national rhetorics that are attached to or that put a symbolic value on languages. Shan migrants are much more sensitive to the differences between Shan and Thai than the Thais. Most of the time when I hear people say “Oh yeah, Thai and Shan they're in the same language family. Shan is easy,” the people who make that claim don't actually speak Shan. So, teasing out those differences actually requires learning those languages and learning them, you know well enough to be sensitive to and to listen to those claims and to evaluate them.

According to the people I quote for my field research, I’m not a native speaker of any Southeast Asian language. But because of my experience in Thailand before I started grad school, I could speak Thai. I couldn't quite read it very well beyond reading a restaurant menu, but I studied it systematically at Cornell for three years and also studied for Burmese at Cornell.

I went to the Shan village with the skills to get going in those two languages. Initially, the challenge was I would be talking to people who would sus out, “okay, you speak Thai.” Very few people in a Shan village are monolingual. That's very much the exception. Most people spoke either. Shan would be the lingua franca. People would be bilingual in Shan and Burmese; trilingual in Shan, Burmese, and Chinese; or bilingual in Shan and Thai. This depended on their life trajectory and how they were exposed to different languages.

Coming to the field with skills in Thai and Burmese meant that people would speak to me in Thai or Burmese. But I really need to learn Shan, the lingua franca of the particular village. At that point, I had also studied the Shan writing system, a bit before I started. I hired two teachers from Khun Sa’s Mong Tai army to teach me the Shan elementary school curriculum. I attended Shan elementary school up until Grade Five! It was because of going through the curriculum and talking with them in Shan, and gradually getting up to speed that later, that I was able to join in conversations that were in Shan. It took a long time.

As for the hardest thing about ethnography or learning a second language ... if you're just reading something you can go at your own pace. You can go slowly, you can look up words, etc. The hardest thing is to be at a table with a bunch of people speaking in that language to not only keep up but to join the conversation. It was definitely a very steep learning curve. If you've read the book, you'll see how learning Shan was really key to doing this research. And also to empathize with Shan subjects who are forced by Thai and Burmese nation-building projects to learn those languages too.

AL: That's fascinating! I learned [Thai] dialect pasa neua or kam meuang (northern Thai) because people were making fun of me, and I had to figure out what they were saying so I could actually respond.

To think along the lines of ethnography, at what point did you realize “Thai-ness” or “Shan-ness” was something you want to analyze? How did you parse between what people are telling you like “this is Shan” and wanting to represent them, versus taking a more analytical approach, like needing to historicize or analyze it? So, how do you toggle between what anthropologists might call “etic” or “emic” ideas, like going between locally grounded ideas of what Shan means and stepping back? How did you manage that? I think this would be really helpful for us thinking about our own analyses in history, anthropology, and so on.

JM: There's so much analytical literature about what it means to belong to a nation-state, especially thinking about how it is historicized and how the meaning has changed over the years. The ways in which patriotism or nationalism is often kind of treated as a taken-for-granted reality, that “Okay, these are subjects of X nation-state. Therefore, they’re patriotic to X, in a certain sort of way because that's their ideology.” That’s the easy-to-open box of what patriotism is.

But then obviously how people experience it as part of their daily lives, how they're critical and cynical about it, how it's refracted through other social identities - race, ethnicity, and gender - matter to how one relates to a for granted idea of the “nation.”

Again, these are sociological categories in the broad sense. How individuals experience them – that's the challenge of doing locally based ethnography. Then you start to see different notions of what it means to be Shan or to be a member of any community.

On the aspect about nationalism, let’s looking at topic like the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA). Here is this group that actively engaged in a military struggle to build a state. You have to look at the logistics behind state formation, the ideological project that went with it, the ways in which Buddhism intersects and ideas about race and identity. Those are, in some ways, particular to the Shan case.

But thinking about how it can be generalized beyond the specialness of what makes that particular history—that particular history of nationalism—is what started me on this idea of the active concept of “repossessing.” It's not just about being Shan. It’s about being Shan in relation to these other nation-states.

What are the parameters? Edmund Leach had this notion of a “shared ritual language” that Theravadin polities prior to colonialism had a shared ritual language and understanding of power. This might be a survival of all of the language study that went into this, but the idea of a “grammar of statecraft.” And how that changed from pre-colonial to colonial to Cold War period, but using that grammar of statecraft of how power is structured and understood from the point of state-building across these eras. Using that as a metaphor, “grammar of statecraft” or “grammar of being” as an ultimate metaphor, like what's the structure of language or what's the structure of statecraft, and seeing how those changed.

But then also looking at how ideas of race are articulated and navigated by people at the ground level. At the basic level, “Who we are” and “What we think” – that's one thing. But the stereotypes that we represent to others, we can't control, because those are stereotypes that others put onto us. But we have to navigate those at the level of daily life experiences, whether they are expectations, microaggressions, or all-out bigotry. All of these things are experienced by people, but there's a structural history to those stereotypes as well.

That is something that I explore in detail, thinking about teasing out the symbolic boundaries between Shan and Thai, ended up using some of those ideas about microaggressions or understanding the linguistic differences between Shan and Thai.

It's a broad and complex question because I'm sure in this Zoom room, we would have five different, very distinct experiences with what these ideas of social identity mean, but also what ideas of social identity about ourselves that we choose to tell others depend on our relationship with those others. So again, in some ways, talking about how Shan people were nostalgic for Burmese rock and roll, they wouldn't necessarily tell the first Thai interlocutor that they love Burmese rock because that might seem problematic to the national project of Thai-ness.

It's complex, but that's also the beauty of it. The Shan political project is a very complex one and there are people that are absolute strong advocates for Shan independence, but then there's a massive spectrum of beliefs, experiences, and daily lives of folks. I try to tell a few stories. It’s just one book and obviously not all the stories. But to try to tell a few stories, to start to appreciate the diversity and creativity of these subjects was part of my goal, and also respect for them too.

Sharmaine Koh (SK): About your comments on identity and how that produces very distinct experiences of nation-building and nationalism, I wanted to know more about the role of gender as another layer of identity that mediates how people experience things. In your talk, you shared some anecdotes of you interacting with men and women. I was curious if there was anything you observed, as a female researcher yourself, about the different ways that women and men made sense of their relationship to the nation?

JM:  Absolutely. There are sociological differences according to gender within an ethno-national project that has been framed in very political and very masculine terms. What does it mean to be a woman who's part of that? This also has to do with my social identity as a cisgender woman, doing research about insurgency, interviewing a lot of male soldiers. I also interviewed many female soldiers about their particular experiences. They were called Nang Haan (นางหาญ), which means “brave women in Shan”. They served in the SURA and then later dismissed as soldiers in 1984 following a merger with Khun Sa’s armies. These are their historical experiences of being Shan women, which you have to get into. For example, all of the Shan soldiers would get full sets of warrior tattoos down both their arms. They have cabalistic and Buddhist tattoos on their backs of various strong animals to convey this symbolic power. But some of the women that I interviewed said that they didn't just get the tattoos to be Shan soldiers, they wanted to show the men that they could stand the pain of getting those tattoos. They wanted to show, well in American terms, that they weren't “wusses,” that they were willing to fight for this national project.

On the other hand, there were women who got married to male soldiers and would have to face whether they chose to have children and not be active fighters anymore. Those were the sorts of things they navigated as well. There were women in same-sex relationships as well within the Shan insurgency.

In a lot of the nationalist literature, those aspects of gender and sexuality are sometimes given a backstage to the nation-building project, even though they're obviously imbued in the project. These are citizens, these are Shan people, but is the nation-building project really reaching out to them?

Another point that I had raised specifically in relation to the Shan insurgency was there was an NGO that formed in Chiang Mai, but with an aim to reach out as a feminist organization, Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN). They made an important research report, which you can download for free from their website called “License to Rape.” It systematically documented various cases in which the Myanmar tatmadaw (army) had raped Shan women and girls, hundreds of cases and to see it as a human rights abuse.

Later, their project caught the attention of the then-US First Lady Laura Bush. One of the co-authors of the project went to meet George W Bush in the early 2000s. For some Shan soldiers, they thought that they were being upstaged by the women, and that this particular project was getting more attention than their ethno-national project had been getting. So, the fractals of gender are very much worthy of not only exploring, but also thinking about how that relates to everyday sexism and the multiple experiences of the state-building project.

As for my status as a woman ... in some ways I’m reticent, to say that this automatically qualifies me for some sort of inside scoop to a woman's perspective, because women can be just as conservative or women can have differing ideas or, as I like to say, it's an equal opportunity project if you want to do bad work. It doesn't matter your social identity, anybody can do bad research. So, there's that. But as a woman, I wouldn't necessarily automatically be empathic to the issues of other women. This was just something that, you know, as a political activist and as a feminist, I’d want to learn about.

There’s another implicit question in there too, which is: would a women tell a different story to a man, just because he is a man? I wonder, well, “What kind of man?” Even if you don't share the same social identity in anthropology, there are ways of triangulating or finding somebody who's cynical about that social identity, or cross-checking your data with another person or another peer.

What you do learn in the field, like I was saying before, is related to what you do bring to the field. You get a lot of different kinds of narratives that challenge the narrative that you learn from one person.

There's another funny quip that anthropologist Katherine Bowie had once said, “I teach my student that: when they go to the field, just talk to one person. If you want the truth, just talk to one person. Because if you talk to more, it starts getting confusing.”

Jane Ferguson in conversation with Al Lim, Hannah Hernandez, Sharmaine Koh and Sisi Yang

HH: You mentioned that when you were doing your research, there were a lot of ideas, such as social identity among the Shan people, that you analyzed as you were doing your field research. Do you think that your own social identity helped you to better understand your fieldwork? Or perhaps did your social identity pose challenges to your fieldwork? What brought you to study this?

JM: In Anthropology 101, we’re often taught that the goal of the anthropologist according to Clifford Geertz is to see the local culture through the eyes of the native. Well, okay, that's a fantastic metaphor, but it assumes that there's like one set of eyes and there's one culture to be seen. And who are and what you can do… I think Sherry Ortner’s talked about it in that way, thinking of you, your social self, you become (forgive the uncomfortable notion) the tool to get the research.

This is especially for me, being a red-haired, blue-green-eyed white woman, coming from a very privileged [background]. I have an Irish and a US passport and was a PhD student from Cornell. When I was doing this fieldwork, I'm learning about a very difficult situation for many people, and I'm coming from a very privileged background, spending two and a half years here to do my thesis.

That’s the reality that I was mentioning before. You can't control the stereotypes that other people will have about you. I’m not going to say that “Oh yes, after spending time we could all become friends.” No! That’s kind of a hippy-dippy new-age approach. You don’t just erase social differences by hanging around and being buddies. Of course, they're always going to be there. Admittedly, there were times in which I knew that this person resents what I represent, and I can't change. Not every interview is going to go swimmingly, and not everybody is going to want to talk to you.

As for the goals of your thesis … a thesis itself is just a tiny speck. We're talking about the lives of millions of people. Keeping that in mind, in some ways, kept me grounded about the thesis. Even though in the university environment, you're often taught the thesis is the Center of your universe. But actually, there's a huge galaxy out there, so it isn't such a big thing in that respect.

That kind of reminder of what I was supposed to do, and to try to do my best in the situation, and reminding myself of what can I contribute, and how can I join a conversation about uplands Shan and see myself with all of these structurally structural advantages but also you know positioning myself as a learner. But then, I can create something, and it can be a contribution to a discussion. That was the main kind of point that I wanted to see my thesis work about. Because there's also this stereotype about the reflexive turn in anthropology and it's been animated by this kind of joke that “Here comes the ethnography going through the jungles, cutting through, finally finding the native in full flesh and saying ‘let’s talk about me.’” That extreme reflexivity and denying all of these issues that you're learning about… it's really important to have some awareness about your social identity.

But on the other hand, this language training and this historical work are also directed towards trying to understand a situation in uplands Shan. Who I am is part of the story, because who I am helps me to learn, but it's what I’ve learned that I see as my contribution to the discourse. That relates back to kind of my social identity as somebody, that’s who I am, but also somebody that's doing work, and this [book] is kind of the product of that work.

AL: In the spirit of the Cornell Mafia and James Siegel, I was curious if there were any differences between the Shan, Thai, or Burmese ghosts. How were ghosts brought up in the field? Andrew Johnson writes a ton about ghosts in Chiang Mai, and I was just curious because [ghosts] seem like a very different category from what we think about in the US. Going back to Thailand, it’s like ghosts are everywhere. So, I was just curious, do Shan people also think about ghosts in similar ways, or what was that like?

JF: Well, it's fascinating because the repertoire of ghosts depends on you which cultures and which systems of ghosts you're tapped into as part of social identity. So, on the one hand, there are Shan ghosts and Shan understandings of Buddhism.

To generalize: [those] to the west of the Salween River, incorporate the pantheon that is the same as the Burmese ghosts, but has foundations in local beliefs about ghosts. For example, the jao mueang is the ghost that looks after the town or the village, and has a hut to give donations, or where the home of the jao meuang has a cognate or same concept in Burmese. It is the nat or the ghost that looks after the village.

Whereas, to the east of the Salween River, the Shan communities that have much longer contact with northern Thailand and received their Hinduization via Cambodia, have the notion of the jao tii (เจ้าที่), the individual house of a spirit on the individual compound of the property).

Also, I’m really reticent that there’s a kind of Shan repertoire because then you're ascribing ethnicity to ghosts, and are they necessarily into that? They might not have ethnic identity at all, and they might see this as something that these idiot hominids came up with in the past few hundred years. So, let's not assume a culture of ghosts unless we're going to look at the culture of the peoples who worship the ghosts, who would see ethnicity into ghosts.

It's an interesting question because this was also related to other work that I had done about airport workers in Myanmar and Thailand, and the ghosts that live in the airports. Some of the airport ghosts had learned to operate a FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) autostart on a jet engine. So, there are definitely technically adept ghosts out there in the airports.

The perception of pantheons of ghosts… I had interviewed some Burmese folks, and they were convinced that in Thailand, they had way more ghosts than we [in Myanmar] do. Well, I asked, “How do you know?” “Haven’t you seen Thai movies? Well, watch Thai movies.” Well, actually in 1962 with the Ne Win government, they banned the representation of ghosts in movies. If you’re using popular culture to index the kinds of ghosts, that’s another refraction or understanding of ghosts. Being a true-blue anthropologist, well, have you talked to the ghosts themselves and what’s the methodology you’re going to use? Have you found the right spirit medium? What does the ghost say?

AL: That's fascinating, and reminds me of the weizza (Buddhist wizards) in Myanmar from Patton’s book (2018)! Super cool. Thank you so much for this wonderful talk. The kind of care that goes into your work that’s clearly so connected to your interlocutors, and your work with the airport workers and the kinds of music and popular media–that’s super fascinating. I can’t wait to read more! On behalf of the Southeast Asia Movement and all the future interview watchers and readers, thank you so much for this.

Questions? Email the interviewers:

Al Lim

Hannah Hernandez

Sharmaine Koh

Sisi Yang