"Activist becomings in South Africa and Myanmar. Studying infrastructure and politics through activists’ life-worlds"(Principal investigators: Judith Beyer & Thomas G. Kirsch)

Comprising four case studies, this anthropological project uses ethnographic research methods to explore the sociocultural dynamics by which activists in South Africa and Myanmar learn to shape (inter-)subjectivities, socialities, imaginaries and political fields when addressing the issue of material infrastructures. It uses the concept 'activist becomings' to highlight our interest in both the individual processes through which activism is incorporated into people’s daily lives, as well as activists’ collective aspirations and endeavours in bringing to bear their influence on the political configurations of their social environment. By analysing and comparing two countries that are currently undergoing momentous socio-political transformations after decades of repression, the project will provide important answers to interrelated questions concerning (a) the emergence of novel forms of political engagement, (b) the co-production of activist biographical self-shaping, political imaginaries and emergent socialities, (c) the interrelatedness of the material and the political, and (d) the role of meso- and macrostructural cultural and socio-political environments in these dynamics.

The two sub-projects (with two case studies each; see below for more details) will shed light on how and to what extent the space for political engagement and activism has expanded in these two countries, and along which axes. In the final phase of the project, this will allow a comparative assessment of the relationship between rapidly changing political cultures on the one hand, and the emergence of activist groups and aspirations on the other. The project group plans to analyze these comparative empirical insights in the form of a condensed conceptual framework that lends itself to application to other regions of the world.

Case studies in Myanmar (one PhD position open, one PhD position already filled)

The two case studies deal with activist groups in urban Yangon whose work highlights the neglected provision of access to public services in Myanmar. One research project focuses on the Food Not Bombs movement and explores the ‘tactical urbanism’ (Spartaro 2015) of the movement to ‘create infrastructure outside of money through which abundance can be shared’ (Food Not Bombs manifesto). The other PhD position is currently vacant. For details please contact Prof. Beyer (judith.beyer@uni-konstanz.de)

Case studies in South Africa (two PhD positions, applications currently under review)

The case studies will explore selected activist groups in Cape Town (case study A) and Johannesburg  that engage in protests concerned with public service delivery. The case study in Johannesburg (B) explores activist organizations in the field of electricity, especially the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee; the case study in Cape Town (A) will deal with activist engagements in the field of sanitation, water and sewage (e.g. the Social Justice Coalition, the Housing Assembly and the Western Cape Water Caucus).

Communal sense. Law, property and the making of ethno-religious Others in Myanmar. (Judith Beyer)

Ethnographic research on relations between the religions in Myanmar has hitherto largely focused on the conflicts between the Buddhist majority and the Christian minorities in the northern regions or the struggles of Buddhists and Muslims in the western coastal and border region. In contrast, urban relationships and interactions even in the former capital Yangon in the south of the country have rarely been investigated. My project aims to fill this gap and examines the strategies that Muslims, Hindus, and Christians have developed to safeguard their communities vis-à-vis the state, the city administration, the neighborhood and other individual actors. The particular focus lies not on religious practice as such, but on people’s self-understanding as a community, on their inward and outward presentation as a community, as well as on the central role that their religious buildings (churches, mosques, temples) in the city center of Yangon have come to play in this context. These non-Buddhist religious communities in Yangon have to actively claim their right to exist as communities in the public space, which also protects them from state and private investors, whose new financial interests in Yangon has raised land and property prices to the level of Bangkok and beyond. How these communities go about safeguarding themselves and their possessions is the focus of my research. The challenges they are faced with in the context of Yangon is exemplified by the newly adopted “Race and Religion Laws”, which aim at discriminating against non-Buddhist groups and demonstrate the current ethno-nationalist climate in the country. These laws do not only concern people’s different ethnicity and religion: It is crucial to see them in the wider context of social and demographic change, rural-urban migration, a housing crisis as well as a general lack in legal security as well as the overall precariousness a large part of urban residents find themselves in.

Activist Becomings in contemporary Myanmar (Carolin Hirsch)

Project description by Carolin Hirsch

In my ethnographic fieldwork in the Southeast Asian metropolis Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, I have joined a group of young Burmese adults, most of them from the local Punk scene, in their occupation as activists of a movement called “Food Not Bomb Yangon” (FNBY). The movement builds on Food Not Bombs International which its political origin in the anti-nuclear movement of the US but now exists 1.000 cities in 65 countries worldwide.  Participating in their everyday lives, I engage in preparing and offering food to people who are forced to live on the street, every Friday night. I also help out with the group’s merchandise products, accompany them on short field trips and attend their Punk concerts during which they raise money for their cause.

In mostly Buddhist Myanmar, food is offered to monks and nuns by laypeople, often irrespective of their own religious affiliation. By offering food to the poor, Food Not Bombs Yangon align local practice with the international movement’s aim of “shared humanity”.

The place, where the syncretistic practice of donating food is happening is the public street. While the country is said to have “opened up” since 2008, public space in Yangon is shrinking as high-end shopping malls, hotels, and roads are expanding. Street vendors and local shops vanish and thus poverty and homelessness are growing. As access to the street is more and more restricted, the focus of Food Not Bombs Yangon is on the people who need the street for their survival. Through their weekly walks and by focusing on the people who live on the street, they reclaim public infrastructure for themselves and those who depend on it.

On the one hand, my project investigates how international concepts and ideas are appropriated and reinterpreted to fit the everyday practices and needs of local activists and the people they are addressing. On the other hand, I probe how activists’ lifeworlds in contemporary Yangon are shaped by more traditional Burmese practices.  Moreover, my project shows how urban space is reclaimed through activism, by building on existing infrastructure while challenging the current capitalistic tendency to privatize and thereby narrowing public space for all.

Kyaw Kyaw and his “grandmother” (downtown, Yangon, 09.02.2018) Addressing the ‘unseen homeless of Yangon’, Food Not Bombs Yangon (FNBY) walk in groups through the downtown area and deliver self-cooked food to people in need. Gesturing “I pay you respect” while offering food, the receiver can decide whether to accept or reject the offering. After a little chat, the procession goes on …

Children of Dala (Dala township, Yangon). Every few weeks, Food Not Bombs Yangon (FNBY) takes a ferry across the river to the fishermen village Dala in order to bring food and toys for the children of the area, most of them living in impoverished conditions.