Legacies of Detention in Myanmar (2016-2022)

Prisons and detention practices play a fundamental role in modern states in general, and authoritarian and post-authoritarian states, in particular. This project explores the historical and contemporary role of detention in Myanmar and its significance for the reconfiguration of state and society. This project will generate field-based knowledge about the history and consequences of detention practices (including structures, policies, institutional arrangements and everyday life) in Myanmar and explore how the contemporary penal system responds to the current political thaw. Using the notion of the legacy to capture the idea of practices of the past having powerful and productive effects through time the project explores how practices of detention persist yet mutate and have consequences for individuals, institutions, state and society. The project will illuminate people’s experiences of detention and the ways in which detention practices contribute to or detract from the establishment and maintenance of democracy and peace.

Significant contributions of the project - excerpt from final report, June 2023

Our project took its point of departure in two academic fields: prisons in the global south, and ethnographies of the state. We were convinced that prisons and detention practices play a fundamental role in state formation, and we set out to explore the historical and contemporary role of detention in Myanmar and its significance for the reconfiguration of state and society. We recognized that detention practices can be conceived as benchmarks of regime legitimacy and that social scientific understanding of these practices can serve a vital role in grounding reform efforts. We also sought to develop innovative approaches to studying prisons and prison experience recognizing the sensitivities and defensiveness of officials and the potential vulnerabilities of former prisoners.

The project has made significant contributions to both academic fields exemplified below in a series of points, expressed more fully in our 40+ academic publications. See publication list here.

Legacies – The project was always concerned with histories of imprisonment and what they teach us about state— society relations. As the project unfolded we have begun to problematise the naïve use of the term legacy (by commentators, analysts and scholars) as a proxy for history and to explore in more depth ways of grasping the deeply sedimented ways in which the past is embedded in the present. Alternative terms are now in play, for example afterlives and reverberations. Theorising that has grown out of our project is contributing to these debates.

Penal Duress – the concept of penal duress that we have developed is an example of the above, a way of thinking about dynamics and patterns of ‘anticipated and actualized violence’ that recur and live on in prisons with colonial histories and present reformers with deeper and more persistent challenges than often imagined.

Experiences, Technologies, Politics - the project adopted these three key entry points and each proved a potent point of departure and source of insight. The DK PhD contributed through innovative action research and visual methodologies (including exhibitions of former prisoners’ photos of former prisoners) to a close examination of former prisoners’ experiences of incarceration. The DK post-doc contributed significantly to forging an approach to imprisonment that takes technologies and materialities seriously (not just rights). This took groundbreaking form in a discussion of the politics of prison air as a site of contestation in a top journal. The Myanmar PhD and the PI have contributed to new more expansive and inclusive understandings of the ‘political’ character of imprisonment recognizing the foundationally political nature of imprisonment and pushing back against narrow definitions of political imprisonment limited to rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, or prisoners of conscience.

Everyday prison governance (EPG) – the ethnographic sensibility adopted by the project privileged everyday happenings from the beginning. 3 collaborative case studies based on interviews with former prisoners help shift emphasis from deficit-driven analysis of incarceration to analysis based on first person perspectives. Our study of prisoners contact with the outside world (PCWOW) drew attention to the absolute dependency of prisoners in Myanmar on the outside world (family in particular); our study of gender and imprisonment led to new ways of thinking about the prison as a hyper-masculine, heteronormative institution ill-suited to the needs of women and non-conforming identities and expanded the global knowledge of such matters (via an edited volume); our study of everyday prison governance – that is the organisation and regulation of everyday life – characterizes Myanmar prisons as sites of violent exchange driven by patriarchal, martial values and histories and affirms analyses that attend to the ‘always under construction’ character of penal legitimacy and illegitimacy. This work exposes some of the assumptions underlying reform efforts during the so-called transitional period as illusory.

Proxy governance – in prison studies and rights discourse about prison management there is an important debate about how authority is distributed in prisons, that is who is in charge. In many global contexts the idea that prison staff run prisons is false. Our research has revealed a peculiar form of prisoner self-governance that is distinct from other modes found around the world and that is based on the deliberate delegation of authority by officials to prisoners. Key prisoners act on behalf of staff to maintain an oppressive controlled environment from which staff profit. Our non-normative analysis of this practice raises serious issues for future reform efforts.

‘Closest possible vantage point’ – the project also contributes with methodological insights most significantly by revealing that sensitive institutional sites can be meaningfully studied from a distance. We adopted and worked with the perspective of Schatz seeking out the closest possible vantage point. At times this brought us into dialogue with the authorities, facilitated in part by our choice of partners – lawyers not activists – but most characteristic was interactions and alliances with former prisoners whose unique perspectives are rarely considered by standard approaches to reform.

Partnership – as our collaboration evolved we were affected by the decolonizing turn in social science to think more explicitly about our roles vis-à-vis each other, for example how northern privilege could be put at the disposal of southern counterpoints and how the value of mutuality could be embodied in practice. Thinking around these matters contributed significantly to the project’s host institution’s formulation of a new partnership policy for international development collaborations.

Global prison studies – Prison studies have been slowly expanding beyond their Anglo-American foundation. The project’s focus on Myanmar – and more regionally across SE Asia on gender and imprisonment – further adds to this important development and the significant role the PI and post doc have played. It is vital that development interventions targeting prisons in the global south are based on accurate empirical analyses of practices in those places. Our project has contributed to a long-term aim of globalising prison scholars namely to push back against the Anglo-American hegemony around knowledge of prisons and penal practice.

Transition - Ironically the military coup of Feb 1 2021 disrupted our project and yet, at the same time, showed the relevance of ethnographically studying changing state-subject configurations through the prism of prison. The rapid weaponization of the criminal justice system revealed the deeply embedded institutionalized nature of oppressive and enduring penal practices and confirmed our original hunch that times of transition are not best understood as linear, predictable processes.

Collaboration - Besides these empirical and conceptual findings – and equally as important – were the relations established through fieldwork and through collaborative research from which we have all benefited. The Legacies project has been demanding and enriching in equal measure. It is deeply regrettable that in these notes we cannot include named tribute to research partners in Myanmar who continue to do important work generating knowledge and acting to ameliorate the pains and injustices of imprisonment.

 For further information on DIGNITY’s work on Myanmar please contact Andrew M. Jefferson amj[at]dignity.dk