ERASMUS Intensive Programme Southeast Asian Studies (IP-SEAS) 2007
"Cultural Politics of National Identity and Impacts of Tourism in Contemporary Myanmar – The Case of yokthe Puppet Theater“
Dominik Mûller ([email protected]
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Prof. Dr. Bernard Arps
Contents Introduction.......................................................................................................................................... 3 Historical Backgrounds of the yokthe Puppet Theater ........................................................................ 3 Yokthe Revivalism............................................................................................................................... 4 Changes in yokthe History................................................................................................................... 5 International Audiences ....................................................................................................................... 9 Impacts of Tourism on Local Arts: Between the Two Big Narratives of Potential and Threat......... 10 National Identity, the Need for Nation Building and the Role of Buddhism..................................... 12 Conclusion ......................................................................................................................................... 16 Literature............................................................................................................................................ 18
Introduction There are innumerable examples, in which nation states financially support and influence forms of arts which are promoted as being national. One example of this are the attempts of the Burmese government to make use of the yokthe puppert theater, which they promote towards national and international audiences as a symbol of deeply historically rooted, traditional and authentic national identity.
Historical Backgrounds of the yokthe Puppet Theater According to Foley, the first sources refering to doll theater in the region of today´s Myanmar1 come from 14442, when the Burmese King Narapati ruled his kingdom: Poetry and temple festival accounts of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries make clear that the string puppet theater was an important part of Burmese cultural life. (Foley 2001: 70)
After the yokthe genre had been a royal court art for centuries, it shifted to an art that was mainly practiced in villages towards rural audiences. That shift took place after the Burmese monarchy had been destroyed in 1855. The yokthe genre lived on, even though its environment, form and contents had changed partly. But in the postwar era, yokthe more and more lost ground: Despite inroads made by film, the genre remained popular up to the 1940s. In the postwar era the socioeconomic struggle of modern Myanmar, the ongoing fight with insurgent groups, and the lure of TV have all had an impact. By the late 1970s there was little recruitment of young performers into the genre, and temple festivals rarely sponsored yokthe performances. The puppet masters, singers, and musicians grew gray, and the great masters (...) who had dominated the art earlier in the century were gone. (Foley 2001: 73)
Two czech puppet experts, Dr. E. Vodickova and J. Havlikova, who did research on the puppets in 1960s - and tragically died in a plane accident during their flight away from Burma - reported in a letter to the Frankfurt based puppet-historican Purschke about the situation of yokthe. They had described wie schwierig es war, überhaupt eine Marionettenvorführung in Yangon zu sehen. (Bruns 1999: 16-17)
Even though the yokthe genre apparently was in danger to die out, it came back from its
1 Since 1989 Burma is called Myanmar. Myanmar´s capital Rangoon is now named Yangon. The renamings are very controversial and disclaimed by several countries, including neighbouring states of the ASEAN group. For further details, see: Neher 2001: 158. 2 See Foley 2001: 70, Bruns 1999: 2.
grave3 thanks to several factors, which this essay seeks to analyze.
Yokthe Revivalism There were at least four main driving forces behind the reincarnation of Burmese puppet theater: Tourism, the government´s strategies of cultural politics of national identity since the mid 1990s, the activism of artists who felt a passion for the genre and tried to revive it, and – last but not least – the audiences, which had an interest in reviving the genre. Some important architects of the revival were U Thein Naing and Dr. Kin Maung Khi, as well as U Thein Naing´s daughter Ma Ma Naing, U Than Nyunt and U Om Maung4: Dr. Kin Maung Khi of Mandalay undertook research on puppet making in the 1970s and by the 1980s had become a noted authority on puppet anatomy, creating new figures and offering them for use to members of the Mandalay middle class who were interested in reviving the art. (...) [Ma Ma Naing] and her husband U Than Nyunt, who worked as a driver and tour guide, as well as jeweller U Om Maung and others inspired by the research of Dr. Kin Maung Khi, formed a group that practiced nightly [since the late 1990s]. (Foley 2001: 73)
This very famous group is named the Mandalay Marionettes. In the earlier days of revival the troupes did not even have "enough members to mount a complete show“, which in its modern form requires forty people (Foley 2001: 73). In those times, especially in the 1980s, manipulators, “singers and musicians remained, but the art was not practiced“ (Foley 2001: 73). The main driving forces which led to a re-strengthening of yokthe were in fact the government and tourism. Through substantial support by those two sides, yokthe-groups were able to deliver complete shows again. The above mentioned theater group "had opened a small theater where, calling themselves Mandalay Marionettes, they performed for tourists“ (Foley 2001: 74). Interestingly, this group uses their incomes from touristic audiences to finance performances at local schools and temple festivals5. The government boosted attempts to instrumentalize the genre in terms of intra-national nation building as well as international advertising for the nation and entangled financial
3 For a detailed description and numbers of different marionette theaters at different times in Burma since the independence in 1948, see Bruns 1999: 17-18. 4 See Foley 2001: 73. 5 Foley 2001: 74. It should be mentioned, that, as Bruns writes, - unlike the shows for tourists - contemporary yokthe shows for locals sometimes take three days and nights (see: Bruns 1999: 123).
incomes in the tourism sector6. When in 1995 U Than Nyunt suggested to the Ministry of Culture to hold national yokthe contests, the suggestion was adopted by the Ministry and the first annual yokthe contest took place in October 19957. Finally, the group is now able to "present a full-scale performance with forty people“ (Foley 2001: 74). Several other groups have emerged from this revival, but unfortunately concrete information is hard to find and Foley only gives the names of Zaw Gyi Pyan Sayar Hla, Nyaung Oo Pho Cho (in Pandan), U Ye Dwei, U Sein Tun Kyi and U Nan Nyunt Shein (in Rangoon as other "currently active groups“ without further elaborating on them (Foley 2001: 75). As mentioned before, the state was a driving force: In 1993 Burma´s University of Culture established a yokthe division: This "school is run by the Fine Arts Department, which falls under the Ministry of Culture“ (Foley 2001: 75). Main goals of that school are preservation, dissemination, research, and training on the arts. The yokthe program is housed in the Department of Dramatic Arts (...). More than thirty students are studying puppetry. (...) All dramatic arts students are required to study yokthe all four years, but some selected it as their major subject. (Foley 2001: 75)
Yokhte has become an integral part of the government´s cultural politics. Since such a Department is expensive, it is obvious that a financially weak country like Burma has to have a substantial strategic interest in supporting the yokthe genre. A postgraduate of the yokthe-studies, U Khaing Htun, gave clear words on this at a conference in the Phillipnes in 1998: According to Foley, U Khaing Htun articulated „the nationalist ideology behind the training program“ and propagated that the yokthe genre contains an "anti-imperialist and national liberation tradition“ and bears the potential of "reforming the moral culture of the young and developing national culture“ (U Khaing Htun 1998 / Foley 2001: 75). The government seeks to adopt yokthe as its own and establish an (intra- and international) perception of yokthe as being something national: A national symbol. This will be further investigated later. But first, some remarks about continuities and changes should be made.
6 As Bruns writes, this is not really new, but rather a propagandistic strategy, that was already used in a play in 1966 that was called "Unity in Strength“ (Bruns 1999: 16). He also mentiones, that a play called “Unity in Strength“ was played again (or still) in 1994 (Bruns 1999: 39). 7 See: Foley 2001: 74. However, Bruns writes that the first contest took place in 1996 (See: Bruns 1999: 18).
Changes in yokthe History The history of yokthe clearly shows that yokthe´s appearance in the past has been far more transitory than stable, and that several changes in terms of form, content and social and political embeddednesses have taken place during its history. I have already mentioned its shift from a royal to a village art after the end of the monarchy in 1855. In fact, since its revival it has – in terms of the intra-national environment – shifted to a genre whose artists and audiences are situated mainly in the urban upper class. Furthermore, it partly shifted towards a commodified (and globally advertised online) form of art that is (often) staged for tourists who pay for it. While in the past, the shows were often "multinight“ or at least "all night“, now the above mentioned Mandalay group delivers "in the high season two shows in an evening“ when they play for tourists (Foley 2001: 71, 74). Since yokthe groups playing for tourists now "freely adapt traditional forms to suit the tourists´ taste“, content and form have clearly been adjusted to requirements of the market and interests, aesthetics and tastes of others, and has definitely changed to some extent (Foley 2001: 78). But, such adjustments to tastes are not new and should not only be linked to tourism. According to Bruns, after the end of the monarchy in 1855 the yokthe players tried to continue their traditional style, but the audience did not want to see that style anymore: Nachdem die Puppenspieler erkannt hatten, das ihr Festhalten an der Tradition vom Publikum nicht honoriert wurde, versuchten sie die Gunst des Publikums durch zahlreiche Neuerungen wiederzuerringen. (Bruns 1999: 12)
Furthermore, scenes that showed little "action“ were shorted or completely left away, and several scenes like "the foundation of the kingdom“, which beared high symbolic values, were taken away of yokthe shows (Bruns 1999: 14). Another quite revolutionary change was the allowance for women to participate on the yokthe-stages, which according to Bruns took place in the early 20th century8. As he notes, economic aspects were always an important force behind changes of yokthe: Die (...) Veränderungen auf der Bühne waren letztlich ein Ausdruck der finanziellen Misere des Marionettentheaters: Ausbleibende Zuschauer hatten weniger Einnahmen zur Folge, die wiederum die Bühnenleiter zur Verkleinerung des Ensembles zwangen. Dies wiederum bewirkte einen Qualitätsverlust, der zur Folge hatte, daß noch weniger Zuschauer kamen – ein Teufelskreis, aus dem es kaum einen Ausweg gab. (Bruns 1999: 13)
Other changes are linked to the rise of the age of electronic media. Music was now played by some yokthe groups through vinyl or cassettes (and presumably later CDs and mp3 8 See: Bruns 1999:12-13.
files), while the musicians were replaced and their salaries could be saved9: Bei den meisten Marionettenbühnen kommt heutzutage die Musik vom Kassettenrecorder, nur noch in Ausnahmefällen ist das Zusammenspiel von Puppenspielern, Sängern und Orchester zu sehen und zu hören. Erfreulicherweise ist die Marionettenbühne „Mandalay Marionettes“ (...) seit einiger Zeit dazu übergegangen, seine Vorstellungen von einem Life-Orchester begleiten zu lassen. Dies hat die Improvisationsfreiheit der Puppenspieler wesentlich befördert. (Bruns 1999: 13)
So, according to Bruns, the Mandalay Marionettes group which is almost exclusively focussed on by Kate Foley is rather an exception than representative for the contemporary Burmese puppet theater. However, Bruns also emphasizes the role of tourism as a driving force for local arts: Das Publikum (...) [der Mandalay Marionettes Gruppe] besteht überwiegend aus Touristen, die einen entsprechend hohen Preis zu zahlen bereit sind. Es wäre wünschenswert, daß andere Bühnen diesem Beispiel folgen, um eine Annäherung an das Marionettentheater in seiner traditionellen Form zu erreichen. (Bruns 1999: 13)
According to Bruns, tourists payed three US-Dollars for a show of the Mandalay Marionettes in the late 1990s10. While yokthe may or may not have been a symbol of the Burmese kingdom between the 15th and the 19th century, it has now clearly become the symbol of something else: A symbol of the nation state and national identity (of course it is also a symbol with other meanings, for example a symbol for the unique personal identity beyond nation-linked meaning systems). However, the (individually and partly collectively imagined) meanings of yokthe are very diverse, and changed a lot through the times. Political, cultural and economic circumstances, as well as temporal fashions, styles and changing audiencetastes have always deeply shaped the yokthe genre´s appearance and its transitory character. Another example of change is the fusion of yokthe manipulators and singers: "(...) the manipulator and the singer have been united in one artist in (...) streamlined contemporary presentations“ since the 1990s (Foley 2001: 74). Until 1821, there were several restrictions concerning form and content of yokthe plays: For instance it was not allowed "that puppets (and of course puppeteers) would have their feet above the head of the king“, which was a problem in terms of raised stages (Foley 2001: 70-71). However, in the end
9 See: Bruns 1999: 13. 10 See: Bruns 1999: 122-123.
for good sightlines even the monarch was willing to overlook the rules that prevented a lower-rank person from standing above the head of a higher-ranked one. (Foley 2001: 71)
In the colonial period, details of the ritual opening scenes underlied several considerable changes. In the hi mawun ta opening scene, when the birth of the world out of the chaos (according to certain Buddhist belief-systems) was staged, a white horse entered the stage: Das mythische weiße Pferd (...) wurde zu einem ordinären Rennpferd degradiert. Unter dem Gejohle der Zuschauer wurde es von einem abstoßend häßlichen gestalteten indischen Pferdeknecht – in vermutlicher Anlehnung an das UrduWort syce (Pferdeknecht) saikkala genannt, wie sie von den Rennbahnen Yangons bekannt waren, auf die Bühne geführt. Andere Marionettenbühnen ließen (...) im jungfräulichen Dschungel khaki-gekleidete Jäger auf Tigerhatz gehen, europäische Damen führten dort ihre Schoßhündchen aus. Den traurige Höhepunkt bildete der Auftritt von Marionetten-Fußballspielern im Dschungel... (Bruns 1999: 14)
So, changes determined the historic past of a genre which is today perceived by many people as an authentic and traditional and thus unchanged form of art. Axel Bruns for example writes: “Die Suche nach der `ursprünglichen´ Form des Burmesischen Marionettentheaters gestaltet sich schwierig, soll jedoch hier nicht unversucht bleiben“ and thus assumes, that an fully authentic, original form once had existed (Bruns 1999: 36). People like Bruns who defend the idea, that there is an original, traditional and authentic form, which once existed, should explain when exactly that authentic form existed, and when not. Was it authentic in the 15th century, or in the 16th, or rather in the 17th? Since – as exemplified above there were always changes, such a date, and thus the idea of an authentic form of a yokthe show simply cannot be convincingly announced by anyone. Last, but not least the aspect of the forces of patronage for yokthe evidences the transitory character of the genre: While until 1855 the king was the patron of yokthe, now the government as well as tourism (or at least byproducts of tourism like financial funds) play the role of patrons. Getting more theoretically now, I wish to argue that Yokthe as a commodity has a life history that is culturally, politically, economically and temporarily embedded: Commodities (...) can be usefully regarded as having life histories. In this processual view, the commodity phase of the life history of an object does not exhaust its biography; it is culturally regulated; and its interpretation is open to individual manipulation to some degree. (Appadurai 1996: 17)
Thus, the various changes and continuities in the history of the yokthe genre can be
understood as being part of yokthe´s biography11, in terms of and also beyond the question for yokthe being culturally negotiated as a commodity.
International Audiences On one side the yokthe-theater can work as a source, symbol and motor of national identity in terms of intra-national audiences. On the other side, Burma can make strategic use of yokthe-theater in terms of international audiences by attracting tourists and thus economic ressources, as well as spread a certain image of the state and its national culture as traditional, authentic and not corrupted or corruptable by western influences. So, two different target groups of yokthe are planned to be reached.
A main function of tourism is certainly monetary support, but of course this is not the sole relevant aspect. And certainly tourists do not fall from the sky, they have to be attracted. Of course, a puppet theater as THE national symbol is more attractive and attracting than the images of dictatorship, poverty, forced labour and an imprisoned democratic opposition. In fact, in terms of international audiences, the Military Government of Myanmar is – from their perspective - deeply in need to promote a new image of itself. But the results of this strategy should not be overestimated: As Taylor sees it, Myanmar is a "pariah in the eyes of Western media“ (Taylor 2005: 25). Furthermore, the economic situation of the country is very bad (despite large ressources of oil, gas, gemstones, precious woods and precious metals), and new sources of income, like tourism are – in financial terms - very much needed, and thus have to be attracted through strategies of advertising and promotion. The state is certainly badly in need for reforms, and its image outside the country could rarely be worse: The legacy of civil war, separatism, ideological conflicts, socialism, underinvestment, inadequate infrastructure (...) have created a poverty stricken society in crisis in terms of health and educational provisions. (Tayor: 25)
Burma is badly in need to increase its financial sources. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated Myanmar´s GDP per capita in 2005 at US$219 and Myanmar was on place 175 of 182 listed countries, while the neighbouring Thailand was on place 94 with 2.659 US$12. Furthermore "about 40% of total government spending goes to the military“,
11 It shoud be mentioned, that this concept of biographies is based on Kopytoff´s idea of the "cultural biography of things“ (see "Literature“). 12 See: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/portal/pls/portallive/docs/1/8135701.PDF.
which has tripled its number of soldiers in the 1990s13 (Neher 2001: 161). Several embargos and trade-restrictions14 make the need for tourism-money even bigger. Thus, a profitable commodification of yokthe can serve economic interests of the state. The international audiences are not limited to tourists and diplomats inside Myanmar. The laganabove mentioned Mandalay Marionettes group has toured to Singapore, Europe and the United States15: And, last but not least, there are international yokthe audiences on the internet as well, even though they are not able to really see and experience full yokthe shows. They rather build an audience of the yokthe advertising machinery and the self-presentations of groups like the Mandalay Marionettes (www.manadalaymarionettes.com)16. Furthermore, on the videosharing homepage YouToube short clips of Mandalay Marrionettes shows are available for international (and - if they have access - intra-national) audiences17.
Impacts of Tourism on Local Arts: Between the Two Big Narratives of Potential and Threat Tourism builds not only a source of financial and economic profits, but – according to several writers – also a source of danger, a threat for authentic and uncorrupted local arts and national cultures, because it causes cultural changes. Some writers tend to believe that there is a certain cultural authenticity, for instance an authenticity of a certain genre of art, which is endangered by tourism´s demand for a pleasant and easy-structured mass-consumption of this genre. In this way of understanding, local arts are forced to undergo deep transformations in order to adjust themselves to the tourists´ tastes. Such approaches assume that the authentic art of a certain cultural group is destroyed by conniving, neo-colonial western forces, which force the art-genres to become completely
13 According to Jagan, with “more than 400.000 armed soldiers and officers, it is already the largest standing army in the world appart from China.“ (Jagan 2006: 33) 14 For details, see Taylor 2005: 23-24. 15 See: Foley 2001: 78. 16 Myanmar´s government advertises its country with puppet theater as a tourism destination (see for instance: http://myanmartravelinformation.com/mti-myanmar-culture/marionette.htm). 17 See: Youtube: “Mandalay Puppet Theatre (1)“ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDvzI7h_Xio). This video has been posted on April 1st, 2007 and has been viewed 131 times on October 3rd, 2007. Another clip entitled “Shop of the Puppets in City Mandalay“, posted on Youtube on May 28th, 2007, does advertising for a puppet shop in Mandalay, but has until October 3rd , 2007 not been viewed more than 80 times (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaRi8E7l3Y4).
understanding, authentic cultures are being killed by the impacts of tourism. This is in fact very much linked to orientalist stereotyped concepts of timeless, authentic, and passive non-western cultures, which are dying out and have to be rescued18. Further, it is shaped by social-darwinist and unilinear-evolutionistic heritages of academic and cultural history. Foley distinguishes two different approaches: The "post colonial literary interpretation“, where tourism is perceived as a neocolonial culture-killer while the postcolonial artists reject western heritages and influences and try to get rid of them. The second approach is the "neocolonial category of tourist art“, in which "modern artists and thinkers consider New York, London and Paris as the centers“ of art (Foley 2001: 77). This second category of interpretations tends to see tourism as the worm that eats the heart of Third World art. In these interpretations, the local arts, fallen from pristine practice, are displayed at tourist hotels as bored puppeteers play figures to entice the viewer to buy what carvers churned out for the seemingly endless hunger of the tourist-consumer. The native experience is commodified in standardized objects that the tourists cart home19. (Foley 2001: 77)
In other words: Foley distinguishes between "postcolonial independence of artists“ and "neocolonial dependancy“ (Foley 2001: 77). Finally she argues for a middle-stance between both approaches: the two tendencies are intertwined. East and West are themselves cultural constructs (...). Commodification and the search for national distinctiveness are interrelated (...) The patterns (...) are symbiotic. (Foley 2001: 77)
She concludes, that contemporary yokthe theater should be understood (and termed) as a "neotraditional art“ (Foley 2001: 77). Interestingly, according to Foley the Mandalay artists claim that if the tourist hunger did not exist, puppetry as a performing art might not be preserved in their city. The tourist performance creates a venue wherein Mandalay Marionettes develops itself artistically and economically. This provides a base which allows the leaders to commission and develop shows for a national festival, to serve as consultants for school, and to keep active so that when a temple festival calls on them they have the repertoire. (Foley 2001: 78)
So, while tourism is a force of change regarding form and content of yokthe shows, it also serves as a strengthening factor: "Thanks to the desire for tourist display and the search 18 This idea of rescuing the heritage of dying `original´ cultures is partly linked to Cultural Anthropology´s classic school of Culture Relativism (around Frans Boas, Alfred Kroeber, Edward Sapir etc.). 19 Indeed, according to Bruns, the sale of yokthe puppets has become an important and quite big market (Bruns 1999: 123). Puppets are also marketed and sold through the internet. See for instance: http://www.mandalayhandicrafts.com/Puppets.htm.
for a national artistic model, this is a living art.“ (Foley 2001: 76). Thus, the impacts of tourism are very ambivalent.
National Identity, the Need for Nation Building and the Role of Buddhism As Martin Smith notes, "Burma (...) is one of the most ethnically vibrant and diverse lands in the south and southeast Asian region“ (Smith 1998: 225). According to Smith, "the question of ethnic politics and ethnicity in Burma is one of the most central challenges facing the country today“ (Smith 1998: 226). He further observes: It is very striking (...) that the modern Burmese state which merged at independence in 1948 after over a centutry of British (and brief Japanese) rule, has manifestly failed to achieve a stable national and political identity in the postcolonial world. (Smith 1998: 225)
There are a lot of factors, which caused this failure of imposing a strong national identity. One point is certainly the high ethnic and cultural diversity of the country: throughout the five decades since independance, a host of different ethnic nationality opposition forces, (...) have continued to wage armed struggle against the central government (...). National politics of the country have been characterized by a cycle of political and ethnic confrontation, internal deadlock and economic malaise. (Smith 1998: 225)
A highly important factor is the political history of post-colonial Burma, which is of course in many aspects linked to the population´s diversity: The attempt by Gen. Ne Win to impose a unique and unifying "Burmese cultural identity“ on the country´s peoples during a quarter century of isolationist politics, under one-party “military socialist“ rule (1962-88), ended in political failure and economic bankruptcy. Similar, Burma today remains a state of deep political crisis under the Military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which assumed power following its suppression of the shortlived democracy uprising in 1988. (Smith 1998: 225)
One symbol of national identity is the "national independance hero“20 Aung Sun, whose daughter Aung San Suu Kyi is in the center of international media-attention and is known for being a political prisoner. Her political party, the NLD (National League for Democracy) can be considered a bearer of nationalist, but anti-government identities by some groups of the population. Aung Sun himself, who was assassinated by political rivals in 1947 is according to Smith known for having "coined the expression of `Unity in Diversity´“ and
20 See: Smith 1998: 230-231.
more "than any leader in Burma´s history; has become a revered symbol of unity, patriotism and loyalty to the modern state“ (Smith 1998: 230-231). But Myanmar´s military government cannot use this symbol of Aung Sun, since his daughter currently plays the role of a public enemy number one. National Symbols bear the capability to build a common ground that can bind people together. That is what cultural politics of national identity are all about. Not only since the old symbol of Aung Sun cannot be used anymore, and state leader General Than Shwe does not allow his face to be shown on Myanmar´s state television21 and rarely appears in public, - from the government´s point of view - other symbols and tools capable of promoting nation-building are deeply in need. Nation-Building - that is, where the close relationship between yokthe and the government comes into play: Die seit 1962 herrschende Militärregierung förderte das Marionettentheater als eine für das Land typische Kunstform, die auch zur Verfolgung politischer Ziele eingesetzt wird. So finden sich in zahlreichen Aufführungen Szenen, in denen Marionetten, die Angehörige nationaler Minderheiten darstellen, auf der Bühne gezeigt werden.(...) Offenbar soll mit Szenen dieser Art der Zusammenhalt des stark von Spaltungstendenzen bedrohten Staats gefördert werden. Im übrigen finden sich solche Praktiken auch in Indonesien, wo es nach der Unabhängigkeit zur Entwicklung eines wayang pancasila kam. (Bruns 1999: 16)
If yokthe was perceived by majorities of the population as a "für das Land typische Kunstform“, this would be of strategic political interest for the government in terms of nation-building and the spread of unifying elements of national identities. Promoting yokthe as a deeply historically rooted, culturally authentic and typical national Burmese art mirrors a mechanism that is at the core of the construction of national identities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere: National identity is largely about the state and its various ideological apparatuses (the media, schools, bureaucracies) producing a public consciousness of `eternal and unquestionable values´ that bind people together, and which differenciate `us´ (the nation which shares these values) from `them´ (those who threaten those values from both inside and out). (...) there is a need, on the part of the state, for one `over-riding´ set of values to nullify `national discontents´ (...). (Birch & Schirato & Srivastava 2001: 15)
Thus, if yokthe is perceived as a symbol of "eternal and unquestionable values“, the state profits from that in many ways, including – but far extending – the aspect of nation building. That many tourists currently seek to consume the experience of authentic, uncorrupted cultures is another aspect resulting from the promotion of such concepts of 21 Source: “Heute Nachrichten“, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), October 2nd, 2007.
national identity (also see above: 8-9). So, the seemingly corrupting force of tourism is even more attracted by a concept of national identity which strongly rejects influences by the western cultures. Ironically, Burmese rejections of the west and the tourists´ hunger for consuming authentic cultures go hand in hand. However, the – at least in propaganda slogans - rejected westerners visit the country to consume an "anti-imperialist“ and – following the government´s propaganda - "anti-western“ art (Foley 2001: 75). This symbiosis brings deeply needed financial ressources to the state, as well as for the yokthe ´s infrastructure and the artists. Obviously it is not seen as bad or bitter money. The tourists enjoy the profit to consume their imagination of an authentic, deep-rooted traditional art, while this idea of authenticity turns to a self fulfilling prophecy, since it is perceived as being real and thus imagined into a certain existence. Until now "some very different visions of Burma´s history and identity have emerged“ (Smith 1998: 234). However, by declaring and promoting yokthe as containing "an anti-imperialist and national liberation tradition“ capable of "reforming the moral character of the young and developing national culture“ the government clearly tries to implement certain meanings into audience receptions of yokthe, and exhibit what can be termed political propaganda22 or political advertising (Foley 2001: 75). That - like all forms of advertising - includes communication
manipulation and/or value-creation. Marketing the "marionette tradition as an antidote against the MTV images“ certainly is deeply shaped by political interests and propaganda strategies (Foley 2001: 76). But there are other tools as well aiming at the same goals of nation-bulding, ideology-spreading and identity-shaping: A classical, and in Burma frequently used method are propaganda slogans on sign- and billboards in the public sphere. Contents like "Anyone who is riotous, destructive and unruly is our enemy“, "Down with the minions of colonialism“ and "Crush all Destructive Elements“ speak the same language as the above noted state-fashioned yokthe interpretations (Skidmore 2003: 10, 12, 13). A commonly imagined enemy has the power to bind people together and has often been an important tool of nation-building. Constructions of national identities imply processes of identifying against (also see above: 13): A group or community is always constructed, to some extent, in terms of what it is different from, or opposed to. (Birch & Schirato & Srivastava 2001: 4)
22 Interestingly, in Brazil the local word propaganda is synonym with the english word advertising and does not have the negative connotation that it bears in other countries.
It should be noted, that – in general – such discourses of difference can also be peaceful minded, but in Myanmar they are in fact fashioned quite hostile. Very important is the aspect of strategic adds of Buddhist elements. Buddhism and the state are currently deeply entangled with each other in Myanmar23: The military and the sangha (the monkhood) are the twin forces controlling contemporary Burmese politics. (...) the current Ministry of Culture is framing its education of marionette masters in political and religious terms that bolster the nationalistic aims of the government. (Foley 2001: 76)
Franck Wittwer, who worked three years in Myanmar as a translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told me, that monks even circle in luxurious limousines around central buildings of the military and pray for them in order to provide the military government24 with supernatural protection. This is arguably not only done because of its representational and propaganda value, but also because the generals might really believe that this supernatural protection is neccesary to be able to stay in power. However, Buddhism in Myanmar plays an important role in terms of politics of identity and power in many ways. The above mentionend yokthe academy at the University of Culture plays an important part in implementing more Buddhist elements into yokthe: "The puppet theater, in the thinking of the academy, is linked to Burmese Buddhism“ (Foley 2001: 76). The academy provides new interpretations and meanings in order to expand the link between yokthe and Buddhism. For example, in yokthe opening scenes are – despite other figures - four ministers on the stage: In the academy´s interpretation, these ministers are "symbolic of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire) of the Buddhist cosmology“ (Foley 2001: 76). Furthermore, in one case students of the academy played a scene for a group of foreign diplomats, in which an ordination of monks in a heroising enthusiastic manner25 was staged. Foley mentiones other examples, which cannot be discussed here. The political sphere in Myanmar is deeply sacralized and the sacral sphere is deeply politicized as well26. However, government´s propaganda strategists use yokthe as a credible channel, that is – at least in theory - not perceived by the audience to be aiming at purposes of (political) 23 "Although Christianity, Islam, and other faiths have significant numbers of followers, Theravada Buddhism, the faith of the majority of the population, is at the heart of Burmese culture.“ (Neher 2001: 157) 24 For more detailed informations on the military, see: Jagan 2006. 25 See: Foley 2001: 76. 26 Notably, as Marie-Sybille De Vienne had elaborated on during the IPSEAS 2007 Summer School in Paris, there is also a number of monks, who are not happy with the deep entanglements of monkhood and the military government. For more details on historical developments of the relationship between state-leadership and monkhood (including a comparison to Thailand) and sectarianism inside the Burmese sangha community, see Taylor 2005: 5.
advertising and identity-management. This is comparable to strategies of Public Relations agencies all over the world, that try to use methods of communicating messages through hidden and credible27 channels, that are not recognized as channels of advertising and manipulation. Another example of this method is the familiar strategy in the government-controlled media in Singapore where government position is presented by a house-whife. This ensures that (...) the government is not always seen to be the `bad guy´. (Birch & Schirato & Srivastava 2001: 23)
In this case, the housewife (and the frame of a certain style of televisual presentation) is used by the government as a channel of propaganda, that should not be perceived as such by the targetgroups. A very similar same strategy is taking place, when Myanmar´s government instrumentalizes yokthe to spread propagandistic contents. The art genre as well as the news genre build the classic channels of this form of hidden political advertising, even though the contents of propaganda can be very different: In Myanmar, yokthe has also been used to communicate the state´s position on Aids. As Naing Yee Mar, a co-founder of the Mandalay Marionettes reports, their marionettes “inform teenagers outside of the cities about AIDS"28.
Conclusion Contemporary yokthe puppet theater is used as a tool of nation building and governmental national identity management, of political advertising, of attracting tourists and of financial fundraising for the Burmese state. Yokthe has clearly become a part of cultural politics of national identity, even though Bruns and Foley seemingly do not agree on the question when this process of nationalizing the yokthe genre has started. Tourism can be seen as strenghthening the yokthe genre by providing it with funds while it is nevertheless perceived by some as a threat to an authentic art and culture. In terms of the latter – in my opinion – it has to be emphasized that such an authenticity is an imagination that turns to a self fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore tourism is surely a force of change, motor of commodization, commodification and standardization. Some might also understand tourism as a form of neo-imperialism. However, Foley and Bruns perceive it as
27 For more details on the role of credibility for strategies of influence-gaining through mass-communication, see A. Drosdek: „Credibility Management. Durch Glaubwürdigkeit zum Wettbewerbsvorteil“, Frankfurt/New York 1996, S.69f. . 28 Quoted by: Marseille: 2006.
a patron, preserver or reviver of the traditional art of yokthe. Seeing tourism in terms of the dualism between positive and negative kinds of influences is not at all adequate in terms of the complexity of tourism´s impacts on local cultures and arts in Myanmar and elsewhere. The politization of the sacral and the sacralization of national politics and policies go hand in hand in contemporary Burma. Central aims of such a symbiosis are – in Burma and elsewhere – mainly to legitimize, preserve and increase political (and economic) power. From my point of view, politics and religion (at least all religion that extends individual imagination without any communication) should never be seen as separated spheres because they are always very much interlinked, just like religion as well as politics are always dependent on media and on being mediated. In fact it can be argued that yokthe puppet theater is a type of media. Since political propaganda always seeks to use a variety of channels of media, yokthe builds one of these channels of governmental communication towards its citizens. As I see it, the sources on yokthe tell a lot about governmental propaganda strategies, but few of the highly important entangled audience receptions. Thus a very important part of scientific work on the yokhte genre is yet undone and heavily needed for a broader picture.
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