AAS20

David Brenner on the Civil War in Myanmar

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The AAS Annual Conference is taking place this March in Boston and ahead of the event, we asked author David Brenner three questions about his new book Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands, and his research on the changing dynamics of the civil war in Myanmar, one of the most entrenched armed conflicts in the world. 

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

While researching in Laiza—the capital of the Kachin rebellion—I befriended a group of young activists. Before my first trip to a frontline position dug into the hills outside the town, I asked them how I should best prepare. I expected some sorts of survival tips. To my surprise, they taught me how to play classic revolutionary songs on the guitar. It turned out that this was excellent advice as it helped me bond with young soldiers during the long hours waiting for something to happen in the muddy trenches of a forgotten war.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I actually started to write a book on the political economy of conflict in Myanmar. Specifically, I wanted to analyze how increasing investments in the country’s conflict-ridden borderlands shape the politics of the Karen and Kachin rebellions. I thus sought to interview the leaders of both movements. In the process of doing so, I spent significant time with their rank-and-file and wider support networks. These interactions had a profound impact on my research: I came to understand the crucial importance of both movement’s social foundations. Instead of writing a political economy of rebellion, I wrote a political sociology of rebellion.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Asian studies?

I am not a big fan of the artificial boundaries drawn between epistemic containers such as Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Northeast Asia. The borderlands of Myanmar can only be understood in relation to developments in India’s Northeast, China’s Yunnan and Thailand’s western provinces. Exchanges with experts from these different sub-regions are thus incredibly important for my work. I thus see my book as a contribution to the de-centering of traditional area studies registers as for instance promoted by the Asian Borderland Research Network.


David Brenner is Lecturer in International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. Follow him on Twitter @DavBrenner.

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