Beyond the village headman. Transformations of the local polity in central Myanmar (1750s-2010s)

Beyond the village headman. Transformations of the local polity in central Myanmar (1750s-2010s)
Stéphen Huard

Summary

This dissertation in anthropology questions the making of power in the lowland of central Myanmar by looking at how village headship became an ambiguous position. Rather than seeing power in the bamar society as coherent and institutionalised – the antithesis of the ‘chaotic/anarchic’ uplands and highlands – this thesis shows how it is also subject to constant negotiation.
Based on twenty months of fieldwork between 2014 and 2019 in Myinmilaung village tract (Sagaing Region) and on archival research, this research explores headship as a matter of craftsmanship and personality through the evolving relationship between the government and villagers. It focuses specifically on the making of the local polity of Gawgyi, the village which controlled the headship of Myinmilaung tract during most of my stay, and shows how, besides factionalism and clientelism, a group of bigmen took care of village affairs with or without the presence of the headman. They embodied notions of propriety and upheld an ethics based on earlier models of power. They also kept their distance from the state which, after having forcefully tried to bring about socialism in the countryside, was a more disengaged presence during my stay. Myinmilaung headship is an ambiguous position because it sits at the juncture between village government, village affairs and family relations, the balance depending on who embodies the position and at which time.
The historical part of the thesis explores the fashioning of Myinmilaung tract and the way this brought about debates over conceptions of power, on the transformation of land relations and on contestations about local history. In these debates, headmen are described as either usurpers of precolonial chiefs, as servants of a foreign state, as buffers against state demands, as charismatic patrons anchored in a local, as corrupt officials, or as political entrepreneurs. However, as much as headship is debated in history, its everyday practice goes beyond the institution and requires the ability of navigating relationships and gauging obligations. I argue the authority of a village headman is based on craftmanship and that diverse forms of engagements pervade social processes and leadership such as the transmission of inheritance, the making of ceremonies and the caretaking of village affairs.
Showing how each of these forms of engagement is shot through with ambiguity, this thesis suggests that the questions of responsibility, obligation and morality are crucial to local politics insofar as the temporality of relationships is accounted for. In doing so, this research renews the literature on local politics in Myanmar from an ethnographic starting point and combines history and anthropology of uncertainty and of morality; it contributes to political anthropology at large by exploring key concepts – power, authority, headship, bigmen, patronage – and the way they play out in the Bamar context; and to a wider set of debates about gift-giving, ethics, land tenure, colonialism and the state.

Author

Stéphen Huard

Defended in

2019

PhD defended at

University of East Anglia, Faculty of Social Science, Department of International Development

Specialisation

Social Sciences

Region

Southeast Asia
Myanmar

Theme

Society
History