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Karaoke Fascism

Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear

Monique Skidmore
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Karaoke Fascism
    Book Description:

    To come to Burma, one of the few places where despotism still dominates, is to take both a physical and an emotional journey and, like most Burmese, to become caught up in the daily management of fear. Based on Monique Skidmore's experiences living in the capital city of Rangoon, Karaoke Fascism is the first ethnography of fear in Burma and provides a sobering look at the psychological strategies employed by the Burmese people in order to survive under a military dictatorship that seeks to invade and dominate every aspect of life. Skidmore looks at the psychology and politics of fear under the SLORC and SPDC regimes. Encompassing the period of antijunta student street protests, her work describes a project of authoritarian modernity, where Burmese people are conscripted as army porters and must attend mass rallies, chant slogans, construct roads, and engage in other forms of forced labor. In a harrowing portrayal of life deep within an authoritarian state, recovering heroin addicts, psychiatric patients, girl prostitutes, and poor and vulnerable women in forcibly relocated townships speak about fear, hope, and their ongoing resistance to four decades of oppression. "Karaoke fascism" is a term the author uses to describe the layers of conformity that Burmese people present to each other and, more important, to the military regime. This complex veneer rests on resistance, collaboration, and complicity, and describes not only the Burmese form of oppression but also the Burmese response to a life of domination. Providing an inside look at the madness and the militarization of the city, Skidmore argues that the weight of fear, the anxiety of constant vulnerability, and the numbing demands of the State upon individuals force Burmese people to cast themselves as automata; they deliberately present lifeless hollow bodies for the State's use, while their minds reach out into the cosmos for an array of alternate realities. Skidmore raises ethical and methodological questions about conducting research on fear when doing so evokes the very emotion in question, in both researcher and informant.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0476-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. Map
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Chapter 1 Rangoon: End of Strife
    (pp. 1-11)

    A prostitute lies in the mud under a bridge, a knife pressed to her throat. A teenage boy, the son of an army colonel, squats beside a major arterial road plunging a used syringe full of almost pure heroin into his ankle. A young mother sucks betel paste off a banana leaf and presses her shriveled nipple into her emaciated baby’s mouth while watching a Burmese romance in a video hut. These are images of Rangoon. Substitute the heroin for opium and a puppet show for the video hut, and these scenes could date any time from the latter part...

  7. Chapter 2 Bombs, Barricades, and the Urban Battlefield
    (pp. 12-32)

    In the fiercest heat of the year, I ride a boat and then a pony cart to a small town not far from Rangoon, in the lower Burma delta. It takes two hours and I am lulled by the soft lap, lap, lapping of the brown waves against the eroded banks, and the graceful arc made by the fishing nets from the boatmen hugging the banks in their small canoes. The boat and pony cart route, though illegal, is preferable to the bone-breaking, spine-jolting ride in a covered pick-up truck on roads whose bitumen is largely washed away by the...

  8. Chapter 3 Darker Than Midnight: Fear, Vulnerability, and Terror-Making
    (pp. 33-57)

    Ethnography conducted under conditions of fear and terror defies traditional methods of data collection.¹ My fieldwork interpretations and the very framework by which I determine whom to interview and why are consciously embedded in a belief in the need to write against terror (Taussig 1987). I am an activist-by-proxy, as is evident to me through my avoidance of the Burmese Generals and my continual worry over their anger at my writings.

    Linda Green (1999: 6) has argued that fieldworker and informants inevitably share experiences. Returning from the field, the anthropologist has not only the analytical tools of the discipline at...

  9. Chapter 4 Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar
    (pp. 58-78)

    Nightmares frighten us because, for a little time, we are unable to tell what is real and what is the product of our imagination. This process began to colonize my waking world. The city became a surreal juxtaposition of the sinister and the mundane. Statues, buildings, government institutions, even the “undercover” uniform of MI—pressed longyi and aviator glasses—began to scare me. I started to read Rangoon’s architecture as fascist. I explained my dilemma to a visiting American psychiatrist, David Iserman. In the middle of one of my bleak imaginings he turned to me and murmured, paraphrasing Freud, that...

  10. Chapter 5 The Veneer of Modernity
    (pp. 79-97)

    It is only a one-hour flight from the modern Thai capital of Bangkok to Rangoon, but the difference is extraordinary. There is perhaps no other country in the world that has closed its tertiary institutions for most of the last decade; where a lost generation of youth turn to heroin if they’re wealthy, and prostitution and smuggling if they’re impoverished; no other country where the border areas are frenzied frontier posts of enormous hundred-room brothels, exit gates for Burmese slaves, sites for amphetamine factories and heroin refineries, and river crossing posts for weapons, teak, tigers, bears, rubies, Buddha images, and...

  11. Chapter 6 The Veneer of Conformity
    (pp. 98-119)

    One of the most common propaganda signboards seen in urban areas is the National Conference signboard. It depicts a procession of progress, a march of prosperity where a young Burmese man holds aloft the Union flag, a beautiful young Burmese woman by his side (Figure 8). They are followed by other heterosexual couples from the “National Races.” All members of the procession wear their designated “ethnic” clothing. A superfluity of symbolism: the relationships that pertain between genders, generations, tradition, and modernity, and between model Burman citizens and the National Races, rise above the cracked pavements of the cities, a pale,...

  12. Chapter 7 The Tension of Absurdity
    (pp. 120-146)

    Before we leave the city limits and witness the suffering and dissociative strategies of the peri-urban poor, let us indulge in some dark humor, some subversive sayings, and perhaps even a little karaoke with friends. In short, let us discover the limits of discourse as a survival strategy. As the city becomes a modern vista, unrecognizable to its inhabitants, these same inhabitants work assiduously with words to re-politicize their landscape and to recover the truth of their nation’s recent history. Ernst Bloch slyly noted that although the fascist claims to a utopian worker’s future are false, the myths (such as...

  13. Chapter 8 Fragments of Misery: The People of the New Fields
    (pp. 147-172)

    Soon after the failed democracy uprising in 1988, mysterious fires swept through neighborhoods in central Mandalay and Rangoon suspected to harbor people with democratic sympathies, as well as those townships abutting sites marked for tourist development. Shanty towns, those bamboo thatch settlements in the shadow of the regime’s nation building endeavors, were not allowed to be rebuilt by their former residents. Instead, these urban dwellers were shipped, with their belongings and a few pieces of tin and sometimes other building materials, to rice fields on the outskirts of the major cities. Farmers were sometimes compensated for the loss of their...

  14. Chapter 9 The Forest of Time
    (pp. 173-206)

    Despite the “miasma of fear” that Aung San Suu Kyi has described cloaking Burma, there is clearly both open and collective resistance to the military regime. The continued existence of the National League for Democracy, despite its dwindling ranks as members are imprisoned, intimidated, and die in custody, is testimony to the enormous desire for change in Burma in the face of overwhelming repression. Those who braved the military roadblocks and military intelligence photographers to attend the NLD roadside speeches give further evidence of the desire for change. The will to resist is also evident in the number of people...

  15. Chapter 10 Going to Sleep with Karaoke Culture
    (pp. 207-212)

    It is late 2001, the rains have stopped and the cool season has begun. I board the Circle Line train, its detergent advertising obscured by a shiny new coat of paint, already peeling in the tropical humidity. I jump off at the level crossing near Nyaungbintha and begin the trek out to the townships. What a difference four years has made. Looking-for-a-husband-hill is no more. The new bridges carry cars and trucks high above the riverbank. The small hillock, the site of so much painted cheer and private despair, has been graded to a uniform slope and planted with fast...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 213-222)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-234)
  18. Index
    (pp. 235-246)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 247-248)