Food for Thought
Physically leaving Myanmar does not at all mean leaving Myanmar behind. Back to Berlin I fall right into the preparations of the annual Myanmar conference as part of the Myanmar Study Group Berlin organization Team. This year’s conference was particularly interesting: on the professional level it helped to get back in touch with academic life and discussions and buffered my culture shock. On the personal level it supported my idea to find ways to use the researchers’ knowledge in the local context. It was great to see the interest of development aid practitioners and physicians working in Myanmar and to listen to their remarks. The question came up: “With all the research you do – what about your humanity?!”. As a representative of practitioners in general this physician formulates a critique researchers have to face.
I would like to explain the situation as good as I can, as I have heard this question from many people from various backgrounds and finally that voice in my head as well. And there is just no clear, absolute line. That’s what makes it hard for all sides to understand.
Speaking in defense of anthropologists I can say that most engage in one way or another for their source communities and local contacts. But I share the feeling that this engagement is only dealing with selected points and although we get to know local contexts well, it is mostly not us using that knowledge accumulated in that very context in the end. Thus, the kinds of engagements existing are not very visible, or for the few cases I know that are visible, researchers have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position facing skepticism and at worst being dismissed from academic discussions as having lost their professionalism.
Trying to compare anthropologists and another group of professionals I will break it down to a term that can be criticized but helps to follow the general idea (I hope). A physician masters skills that quite clearly give an idea of what they can do and what they should do. For anthropologists we could say that one of our central skills is “cultural knowledge”. But to frame what we can and should “do” with that knowledge is a difficult task and needs to be revised for each and every new context. And although similarly like a physician our actions take place in living organism – in our case the community – our job is to form part of that. We are there to learn, not to treat. We are not there because we assume something needs fixing. We are there only to understand how and why things are different and learn more about societies, humandkind in general and finally about our own cultures, too.
We are not automatically the ideal candidates for implementation of the acquired deductions. It does make us ideal candidates for critical and holistic advise though. And that is possible in two directions. Locally we can try to answer the questions people have about our cultures of origin and internationally we can bring in what we learned about a specific context. Needless to say that in the end this will not be neatly divisible anymore.
But thinking this thought to an end, let’s imagine our engagement was stronger and clearly visible: would we still be objective scientists and a reliable source of knowledge, potentially a basis for social, cultural, economic and political decisions and projects far beyond our individual reach? Or would we be seen with different eyes due to what will happen sooner or later: taking sides (on whatever discussion, dispute, decision, ideology, event, something we try to remain as neutral about as we can usually). And at that point we ruined our stand on both those sides that we are working hard for to explain to one another.
We are not lobbyists, we are the ones in between, call us cultural brokers if you will. The essence of our work is the fostering of intercultural understanding.
Keeping this in mind I can see a work assignment stemming from this discussion: improve knowledge exchange. Make knowledge available to both sides in a form not only for the source communities and Academia but also for practitioners. Particularly in the context of Myanmar, where little research was possible in the past and not many experts on the field are approachable to date, we should work on the accessibility and visibility of our research for those who seek and need advise.
I would like to thank the participants of the conference and the Myanmar Study Group for the inspiring exchange and am already looking forward to the next meeting in Bonn!
As a follow-up to this theoretical considerations I will go practical now, introducing how I used cultural knowledge to support local initiatives while trying to interfere with my research field as little and as traceable as possible, seeing this as an experiment of testing potentials and limits.
There is a lot going on in Myanmar. There are many locals doing their best with very few resources. Many things just crossed my path coincidentially. When asked for it, I gave “Foreigner Feedback”, which thus is not so much locally acquired knowledge but ideas from the cultures I grew up in. From these requests of cultural knowledge, I decided I may as well function as a translator into a medium that Foreigners would use and my source communities cannot yet navigate: the Internet. Together with Khin Aye Mar and Aye Aye Aung we built the website www.threemamasprojects.com and a facebook page. Here, everyone is able to see the communities’ efforts and can receive reliable information in English. We developed this website as a structure to bundle different projects to avoid particularism and enable synergies for the future while taking into account the individuality of each initiative.
Two of four projects take place in communities I researched at, one of them is related to my research focus on weaving, the other one is about education. For matters of transparency I will explain that first one here: When I told my friend Phyu Ei Thein from Sunflower Textile Gallery about the fabrics the ladies weave and that they have no visitors during rainy season, we decided to do a trial and bring the products to Yangon to bridge that income gap. I used the last 3 days in the field to explain this mediation (meaning that I am not the buyer, only the broker/transporter) and acquire one product per lady in each village. While I was thinking it’s a practical matter, I can say that also my research profited from this experience. I learned a whole lot more about the calculations and considerations involved, at a point when I thought I already understood most of it…It was also a community project, where everyone could get involved, discuss and think together. These were really special days and I hope the fruitful exchange of ideas can continue in the future.
Through this connecting of people locally and internationally I hope I could give back to my source communities in a sustainable manner and do my part in fostering intercultural understanding.
As the active fieldwork phase is over for now I will say “See you again soon”.
I am happy to receive more feedback and want to sincerely thank everyone who shared their remarks publicly or privately!