In the next installment in our series on archival research, Jonathan Saha reflects on his experience of working in Myanmar and raises some important questions about the ‘politics of knowledge production’ and the inequity of access to archival resources in the Global South:
Many academic disciplines have their own particular site for ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies. Anthropologists have the ‘field’. Scientists have the ‘laboratory’. Archaeologists have the ‘dig’. Medics have the ‘dissection room’. For historians, this special place is the archive. Amongst those historians studying the formerly colonised world, the ceremony is supposed to be a particularly gruelling one – and it often is. From my peers I’ve heard tell of intransigent, indifferent and unscrupulous archivists, and of animal-infested, dilapidated buildings filled with disintegrating records. In the anecdotes and stories shared between us, there is a certain pride at having come out of these places alive and having glimpsed the precious materials hidden within them. The experience validates both our research and our expertise. It is, therefore, with a small amount of embarrassment that I inform you that my own experiences of conducting archival research in the National Archives of Myanmar (formerly, and still to many, Burma) have been nothing but pleasant and productive.
Figure 1: Some old colonial-era houses in Yangon © Jonathan Saha, 2008
I first visited the National Archives of Myanmar in 2008 whilst I was researching for my PhD. It is located in Yangon and I arrived during the rainy season. Besides my research, it offered a welcome retreat from the elements. The building itself was an old merchant’s house constructed in the nineteenth century. It is a great example of the imperial architecture for which Yangon is receiving justified attention. The reading room has lovely wooden floors and was kitted out with a much appreciated air-conditioner. At any given point during my research there were never more than a handful of fellow researchers working in the archive. This meant that there was often an archivist per researcher, and usually several. The material from the colonial period has been catalogued and most has been copied onto microfilm and microfiche. Whilst reading the scrawl of British officials on a microfiche reader is not the easiest activity on the human eyeball, I had no trouble accessing the material I requested. I spent every possible moment in the archive reading through document after document, noting down those I wanted putting onto a CD to take home with me. The whole process was, future impairments to my vision aside, painless.
My most recent visit was in 2012. Whilst the impact of the liberalisation of the economy and the reform of political structures was marked in the city, my experience of the archive was the same: helpful staff and easily accessible records. The only noticeable difference was that the building appeared to be full of kittens. Loads of them. This was undeniably distracting, but other than finding I was spending ten minutes at a time watching them fight and play in the corridors, they didn’t really effect my research. Access on both occasions was easy to arrange. There is a fee of $30 for foreigners using the archives, and much smaller fees for local researchers (roughly the equivalent of 50 pence). I provided a brief outline of my intended research, supplied a letter from my home institution, and obtained a letter of support from a member of the Myanmar Historical Commission, a group of, mostly elderly, established and respected academic historians based in the country. Whether I received access so easily because my research was deemed so banal as not to warrant concern, I can’t say, but once I was working in the archive I had no problems consulting material tangentially and remotely connected to by initial research interests. In short, getting permission to research on the colonial period was a straightforward procedure.
The ease with which I was able to consult the material in the National Archives of Myanmar masks the structural privilege of being able to research in the Global South. The struggles of my peers to get access to archives brought home to them the politics of knowledge production. Instances of bribery revealed the difficult conditions for poorly paid archival staff. The broken buildings and rotten documents showed the material challenges of maintaining archives with limited economic resources. That I didn’t encounter these problems also got me to reflect on who could and couldn’t access these records. In 2008, following the devastation of cyclone Nargis and the earlier monk-led protests, the population of Yangon were under considerable political surveillance. During my time in the city, a bomb exploded in the park next to my hotel. The military were a visible presence and the streets in the centre were almost deserted after 10pm. Despite recent reforms, and particularly outside Yangon, repressive state practices continue and likely inform who has access to the archives. In addition, the deterioration of Myanmar’s education system during military rule (although literacy rates remain high) has led to a shrinking of the academic community. By virtue of my institutional backing, my nationality and relative wealth, I had access to resources that majority of the Burmese population did not.
Privileged access is not a problem limited to Myanmar. Comparatively (if my colleagues’ tales are true) the archive in Yangon is in many respects a well-functioning and open institution. However, that those from the former colonising nation can access the documentation of the colonial regime more easily than the majority of the formerly colonised, should give us cause to think about our responsibilities as researchers.