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Rumors, riots, and taxis: The politics of Myanmar's new media infrastructure

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Duration: 0:44:26 | Added: 23 Jun 2015
Southeast Asia Seminar Trinity Term 2015

In early July 2014, Myanmar’s second largest city became the site of anti-Muslim riots, extending a pattern of violence that has developed in the shadow of a much-heralded transition away from military rule. State authorities responded by blocking access to Facebook, locating the riot’s cause in rumours circulating on social media. This explanation for the violence – riots as the result of rumours and new technology – has been echoed in journalistic and academic treatments of the issue. This emphasis on technology is understandable. The dissolution of authoritarian ordering of everyday life has been strikingly abrupt, felt daily in the relaxation of censorship and the arrival of telecommunications infrastructure. Mobile phones, Internet, and media technologies previously inaccessible to all but less than 10% of the population are becoming commonplace, and contemporary Myanmar cannot be understood without accounting for their significance. Yet any project to understand events such as the July riots that prefigures the centrality of these technologies risks replicating the deterministic or apolitical explanations offered by state authorities. Accordingly, this talk will argue for attentiveness to those sedimented histories of embodied practice through which cultural and political mobilization is enacted: How are the discourses and affective fields that constitute the mobilization of mass violence such as the July riots being produced, circulated, and received? And how are these cultural and political processes mutating to incorporate new technological infrastructure? This talk will consider these questions, drawing on long-term participant observation in Myanmar and initial findings from the Myanmar Media and Society Research Project, under the Programme in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College.

Matt Schissler has lived and worked in Myanmar and Thailand since 2007. He is based in Yangon, where he manages the Myanmar Media and Society Research Project for St Antony's College, Oxford University. From 2012-2014 he was the Advisor to Paung Ku, a local organization that provides mentoring, financial, and technical assistance to strengthen civil society across Myanmar. Prior to joining Paung Ku in early 2012, Mr Schissler spent nearly five years working with ethnic human rights and media organizations, where he focused on strengthening local capacities to document human rights violations, advocate for human rights, and work as independent journalists in Myanmar. He holds an MSt in International Human Rights Law from Oxford (New College), and earned distinction for a dissertation on the relationship between responses to forced labour demands in villages across eastern Myanmar and transnational efforts to enforce the ILO Forced Labour Convention. He graduated magna cum laude from Whitman College (USA), where he earned BAs in Politics and in Rhetoric/Film Studies. He speaks Burmese.

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