Studying Social Silence and Agency in Southeast Asia: Politics and Strategies of the Unspoken
Time & LocationSession 9
Fri 09:00–10:30 Room 1.502
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- Between Structural Othering and Local Agency: Silence, Remembering and Narratives of 1965 Violence in East Java Grace Leksana Leiden University
This paper will explore how silence became part of memories of 1965 violence among the rural community in East Java. The military-led violence occurred nationwide in Indonesia, targeting members of communist and leftist organizations, including their families, supporters, even those who did not have a direct relation to such organizations. An estimation of 500.000 to one million people were killed, and others experienced gross human rights violations throughout 1965-66. the violence was also followed by massive rural transformation and agrarian policy as an effect of Indonesia's capitalistic turn in 1966. Since then, the state had constructed anti-communist collective memory, leading to social and political exclusion of the accused. Through my case study in Donomulyo district, Malang, East Java, we will see that the political exclusion that was constructed by the state did not necessarily resonate in the exact same way at the local levels. Here, Donomulyo reflects a sense of local agency against the structural othering of accused communists – and within this agency, silence seems to be one of their strategies. In this case, silence was not related with fear created through repression by the state. It was also not a complete absence of the past as an expression of traumatic behavior. On the contrary, the silence that I encounter was a surviving mechanism, a navigation device, to be able to continue their daily lives within such massive changes in their village.
- Silence and Care at the End of Life: Narratives of Advanced Illness in Indonesia Annemarie Samuels Leiden University
Silences within narratives may harbor a multiplicity of other narratives, some told and some untold. In this paper, I will reflect on silences around approaching death of people with advanced illness in Indonesia. Rather than openly discussing the possibility of dying, caregivers and patients silently discern signs, while often subjunctively holding on to the possibility of healing. Sometimes relatives only recognize the silent signs of approaching death in retrospect. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia, this paper discusses the ways in which listening to silent signs may be acts of care. It moreover underscores that listening to silences within narratives is crucial to the social scientific analysis of care.
- Silencing Suffering, Occluding Dissent: Narratives of Love and Sacrifice in Vietnam Merav Shohet Boston University
In Vietnam, sacrifice (hy sinh) refers not just to patriotic acts, but also to practices and affective stances that embrace pervasive and relatively silent suffering (Shohet 2018). Theorizing silence as a fully social and communicative presence in the everyday (Weller 2017), this paper excavates how a patriotic former war prisoner and combatant whose biography was embroiled in his nation’s history frames his own and Vietnam’s past as filled with both ordinary (‘home-front’) and extraordinary (‘battlefront’) sacrifices. In attending to his narrative’s form as well as content, and to the ways in which he names or excludes certain protagonists and events in his account, I highlight which aspects of Vietnam’s nationalist history are tellable, and which remain strategically untold to avoid dangerous dissent. This in turn illuminates the political and gendered dimensions of love and care in Vietnam, and the ways that narrative silences reify—but also subtly contest—hegemonic accounts of the nation’s past struggles and present developmentalist aspirations.
- The Multiple “Voices” of Social Silences: Youth Citizenship in Myanmar Wendy Choo University of Auckland
Citizenship is a critical component of statebuilding and peacebuilding in conflict-affected contexts, yet it is also the most neglected. In this presentation, I conceive the state as a membership organisation and statebuilding as the socio-political process of constituting legitimate governance. Citizenship then, in this context, is both the instrument and object of social closure for the state as an association of citizens. Taking a critical realist, ethnographic case study approach, my PhD thesis examines youth citizenship in postcolonial, conflict-affected Myanmar in order to understand the nature of postcolonial citizenship and the ways in which it is produced. For this presentation, I reflect on the empirical findings gathered from 5 months of fieldwork and 20 photo-elicitation interviews with Myanmar youth in Yangon and Mawlamyine from November 2017-April 2018, as the Rohingya crisis raged on in the background. I discuss how I encountered the silences and how these silences ‘spoke’ to me through the theoretical concepts that I drew on to interpret them. Specifically, I draw on Walton’s theorization of Burman-ness as whiteness and Bob Jessop’s strategic relational approach to understand two different types of ‘silences’ among my Myanmar youth participants that became particularly visible during my fieldwork: the ‘silence’ of Bamar Myanmar citizens regarding ethnicity in their identity and the ‘silence’ of Muslim Myanmar citizens regarding their religion in their identity narratives. While the ‘silence’ of Bamar Myanmar citizens reflected their dominance in the ethnocratic state, the ‘silence’ of Muslim Myanmar citizens spoke to their marginalization from the national imagination. The structural preference of the Myanmar state for Buddhist citizens of ‘indigenous races’ contributed to Muslim Myanmar citizens’ need to be visible about their citizenship affiliations and silent about their cultural identities.
This panel reflects on the multifaceted presences of social silence in the face of political exclusion in Southeast Asia. While silence is often associated mainly with the result of oppression or repression, this panel deliberately shifts the focus to the active ways in which people maintain silences to sustain their everyday lives and social worlds. Recent approaches in anthropology theorize silence as a presence rather than an absence. Bringing these insights to bear on the politics of exclusion and “othering” that haunt the public spheres of many Southeast Asian countries, we ask: When, how and why has silence been a strategy for ordinary people, historically and in the present? How do such strategies interact with social and political forces of exclusion? How does the navigation of silence and speech relate to the politics of visibility and transparency? We also reflect on the ethical, epistemological, and methodological conundrums of studying the unspoken in politically sensitive contexts. How do we encounter silences, and to what extent may we interpret them? How do we respect silences in our writing and which silences may better not be probed at all? Aiming to bring together scholars studying different countries in Southeast Asia, who draw on their own research experience in reflecting on the unspoken and unspeakable, this panel contributes to a growing academic attention to the range of relations between silence and politics.