In recent months, the international community, media, and transnational advocacy groups have drawn attention to the worsening humanitarian crises brewing in Rakhine State, located along the western coastline of Myanmar that borders Bangladesh. Commentators have focused on the suffering of the Rohingya, a vulnerable community of contested origins that have come to represent the latest chapter in Myanmars modern political history. Aung San Suu Kyis administration has come under fierce criticism for seemingly ignoring the plight of these people, while the democracy icon herself was criticized for her silence and apparent complicity in what some claimed to be state-sponsored genocide.
The medias focus on the Rohingya has overshadowed the optimism over the liberalization initiatives that commenced in 2010 under President Thein Seins administration and brought Aung San Suu Kyi to office in 2015. While many viewed her rise to leadership as the arrival of genuine democracy in Myanmar, continuing ethnic tensions, persistent inequity, and the enduring role of the military in state matters led many to question whether the aspirations and objectives that fueled the over twenty-five-year old democracy campaign were actually achieved.
This presentation questions the usefulness of interpreting Myanmars modern history exclusively through this democratic narrative. By examining Myanmars modern history as an ongoing crisis of community, we may take into account the diverse and often divergent priorities and worldviews that are currently in play; enabling us to interpret the contemporary debate over democracy as a continuation of a much older contest to define Myanmars identity.
Maitrii Aung-Thwin is Associate Professor of Myanmar/Southeast Asia History and Convener of the Comparative Asian Studies PhD Program at the National University of Singapore (NUS). After receiving his PhD in History from the University of Michigan, he joined the Asia Research Institute as a post-doctoral fellow and subsequently moved to the Department of History at NUS. He has written on resistance movements, law, colonialism, nation-building, and intellectual history.
Aung-Thwins research has been concerned with the histories of domination, resistance, and identity in Southeast Asia during the late colonial age. Among his publications include, A New History of Southeast Asia (2010), The Return of the Galon King: History Law and Rebellion in Colonial Burma (2011), and A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations (2013). His current work is concerned with the epistemological construction of Myanmar through public history, natural history, legal geography, and media studies.
Aung-Thwin has served on the Board of the Directors for the Association of Asian Studies (USA), as Chair of the AAS Southeast Asia Council, President of the Burma Studies Group, and as a member of UNESCOs Southeast Asian Shared History project. He is currently a trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation and editor of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.