Imaginaries have been with us as long as people have shared knowledge and experiences about different places and peoples. Referring to a place or a people as part of an imaginary does not mean they are imaginary, but rather that they have been imagined, mentally shaped in a particular way through various discourses and experience. The use of imaginary here relies on Charles Taylor’s (2004) conceptualization, for he attributed to the influence of Benedict Anderson’s (below) work on imagined communities, that a modern social imaginary is the way people imagine society. As Taylor explains:

“I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”

The idea of imaginary can and is often applied to how groups and societies imagine other groups, societies, and places as well.

Benedict Anderson (1991) mobilised the concept brilliantly in Imagined Communities which discussed the history behind the transition from other kinds of imagined communities, again not imaginary, such as those built around religion, to imagined national communities. An audience was increasingly defined by who rested within and outside based on a shared imagining of what made their people a nation. This was the result of ideas carried in literature that was circulated and read by larger numbers of people in an increasingly literate population supported by print capitalism. Other forces helped to substantiate this imaginary into everyday administrative practice through the reimagining of the Thai geobody to fit the nation by Anderson’s student Thongchai Winichakul in Siam Mapped (1994).

Imaginaries are sometimes the work of those who come from the audience itself, but more often they are not. In a world of exploration and movement, whether during the Age of Imperialism or in that of Globalization during the last half century, the range of people who write, talk, and think about “other places” and “different peoples” has mushroomed to the point of being countless. Some are more important than others, particularly when power, money, and agendas of domination are behind them. Edward Said (1978) called attention to this problem a half-century ago in his book Orientalism, in which he argued that the West, which had created knowledge about other areas for the consumption of themselves and then the world, had constructed the Middle East in which it was a foil for everything the West saw as modern to justify imperial rule. Said understood that in a particular imaginary a people would only be viewed one way, the way that was most desired by the producer of the imaginary. The West thus essentialised the Middle East in undesirable ways. When this imaginary was taught to the world, including the people of the Middle East themselves, they were locked into a way of thinking about the world, in which the Middle East was inferior to Europe. Dipesh Chakrabarty, in Provincializing Europe, took this one step further and argued that one of the reasons that the rest of the non-western world has failed to understand that they were also home to other kinds of modernities is that local societies measured themselves against Europe and the criteria for modernity defined by Europe, rather than looking for these criteria amongst themselves.

As Stephen Keck (2015) has shown, the British colonial period produced an imaginary of Burma that was different than the Burma experienced by everyday Burmese (and even some groups of Europeans, as well as the Chinese, Indians, and others). British writing and discussions on Burma produced a Burma imaginary that was populated with European concepts of ethnicity, race, geography, historicity, religion, and the like. Burmese educated in colonial schools sometimes were drawn into this imaginary and some Burmese who stood one foot in indigenous society and one foot in the Western, colonial school, saw the tension between the British imaginary of Burma and the indigenous imaginary of Burma (at least one of the many indigenous imaginaries of Burma depending on family, class, region, religion, and population group) and this helped to propel them into anticolonialism and nationalism, because they understood just how far the British did not understand the Burmese. This tension was also true, they found, between the wartime Japanese imaginary of Burma and their own, leading to the the Anti-Fascist People’s League. As Chu May Paing and Than Toe Aung argued in 2021, the lingering impact of the colonial imaginary of Burma has been six tropes of Burma Studies ever since. These include, “falling in love with Burma,” theorizing Burma, exploiting free indigenous labour, keeping the gate, and claiming moral and political authority.

The Cold War saw a very conscious effort to produce new imaginaries about countries that could aid the United States (or the Soviet Union) in the Cold War, both the inform strategy and for instrumental tweaking to lead smaller countries into the Western Bloc. The United States began a massive effort to fund what became Area Studies. A Western imaginary of Burma, shaped in ways most relevant to the United States, was produced. But Burma was now a country, not a colony, and its prime minister U Nu, tried to counter this imaginary with one of his own that would keep Burma out of the Cold War. Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council would also do this, presenting Burma as the continual victim of foreign intervention and depicting some Burmese as foreigners who were brought in by the British and some who were native to the country, as Nicholas Cheeseman (2017) has shown regarding the Taingyintha Myth. This imaginary fed new policies such as the Citizenship Laws of 1982 and the repeated efforts to eject the Rohingya from the country. Later military regimes continued to align themselves with tweaked versions of this imaginary until the present.

Decolonizing the Academy is the newest academic wave to give us pause to reconsider how we look at Burma and what imaginaries of the country inform us. Decolonizing the Academy is global-level perspective that argues, as many of the scholars mentioned above would likely agree, that the Western construction of knowledge and its formal institutionalization into disciplines, has been shaped in ways that favour Western hegemony and actively plays a role in maintaining Western global dominance. There are different stances on decolonizing the Academy, including giving equal weight to non-Western knowledge and methodologies and to give indigenous populations more of a voice in the production and teaching of knowledge about their own societies. The movement sometimes overlaps (particularly in the United States), but not always with Critical Race Theory, and it is often rejected on grounds which has misinterpreted it as entirely a guise of the latter.

Decolonizing the Academy faces another challenge. While the need for a rejection of Western imaginaries of Burma as the main point of entry into Burma Studies is relatively clear, what constitutes an indigenous imaginary of Burma that should be mobilized instead has been less discussed, partly because it is a much more daunting obstacle. Should the articulation of what Burma is be Karen and not Burman, or then, Buddhist Karen or Christian Karen? Area Studies as it exists now and as it has stood from its inception, has helped to ensure that the advantages in securing the gatekeeping imaginary for Burma would be Burmese-speaking, Buddhist, lowland, and very likely Burman. Can Area Studies be adjusted to accommodate multiple indigenous imaginaries in shaping thinking of the country? This is a problem that has not yet been worked out yet satisfactorily to my knowledge. It is also a problem within the country relative to ethnic minorities who are in competition with mutually exclusive self-legitimizing imaginaries of local pasts. As the stakes are high, different groups claim the same histories, such as the Rakhine and the Rohingya, and assertion of one imaginary and denial of veracity of the other has led to the Rohingya taking refuge in Southeastern Bangladesh. There is little reason to hope for the sustained tolerance of conflicting imaginaries in the country in the future.

A further challenge is that while Western imaginaries of Burma should not monopolise our ways of learning about the country, they are one legitimate object of study regarding the country for one or more particular audience(s). We could not understand history otherwise, why Burma was colonised, why it was ruled in particular ways, and why this rule was rejected. On the other hand, there are indeed many other imaginaries that require the same or more attention.

The Western imaginary of Burma has dominated international thinking about Burma for so long partly because of the advantages Western countries have in terms of funding and power and the longevity of the educational institutions. Contemporary Burma also has the disadvantage of domestic political violence. Some Burmese scholars advocate not producing knowledge about Burma while the current revolution continues, although this raises questions about whether Burma should also not have been researched during the half-century of civil war as well. Moreover, there are other audiences than the Burmese one(s) that need for various reasons (and not all nefarious) information about the country for whom just shutting down the knowledge tap about the country is not an acceptable option.

Finally, perhaps the least discussed aspect of this is that there is not really a singular Western imaginary of Burma. The Baptist Christian missionary societies, the activist networks, the organizations of descendants of British settlers of Burma, West African veterans, Black American veterans, the Indian Army, the British Army, and a huge range of other audiences have different imaginaries of the country, not to mention the various national audiences divided on a country-by-country basis. There is, for example, a very powerful scholarly Thai imaginary of Burma. But none of these should be the sole imaginary used to understand the country. From a scholarly perspective each can be studied as the result of an experience with the country that is meaningful to an audience out there, even if they are not located within the country and not indigenous.

Ultimately, the result of the debate and rethinking of Burma Studies now going on will not be completely satisfactory to anyone, this is the nature of academia and scholarship, particularly when it segues with popular politics. While the need to reorient Burma Studies around representative indigenous imaginaries of the country has to be met (and worked out), this should not be taken by existing scholars embedded in other imaginaries that their work or future projects should be relegated to the dustbin of histories forgotten. At the same time, imaginaries that are niche, outdated, and foreign should not be structurally and aggressively pushed to the centre of the stage as the main lens through which to view the country.

Professor Michael W. Charney 
Dept. of History, SOAS, University of London

Banner Image: Burmese chess players, by Max Ferrars, late 1890s. Wikipedia Commons

Posted by Michael Charney

A native of Flint, Michigan, Michael Charney is a full professor at SOAS, the University of London, in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (School of Interdisciplinary Studies) and the School of History, Religions, and Philosophies, where he teaches global security, strategic studies, and Asian military history. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 1999 on the subject of the history of the emergence of religious communalism in Rakhine and has published a number of books on military history in Southeast Asia and the political and intellectual history of Myanmar. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies at the (National University of Singapore) where he researched religion and migration, was a project professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Asia at the University of Tokyo, and has spent most of the last two decades at SOAS, where he was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2016. He is a regular commentator in the media on events in Myanmar.