'We are Like Water in Their Hands' - experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar
Summary, in English
Prisons are institutions through which states exert social control and deprive citizens of rights; where entitlements of citizens are limited to the bare minimum deemed acceptable to a given state. Therefore, prisons are institutions which reveal core aspects of the relation between a state and its citizens. In authoritarian regimes, as Myanmar was in a very recent past, prisons are places in which people are subjected to extreme punishments. In the postauthoritarian state of transition Myanmar is currently in, legacies of past regimes linger and show their face in various forms. By studying experiences of imprisonment, this study approaches experiences of subjects whose lives are under an intense state control. As it explores their experiences, it takes the temperature of the transition as it explores what changes have occurred and what legacies remain from past political regimes. Until recently, Myanmar was closed off to the world while under military dictatorship. For the last decade, however, major changes have occurred and a political space has opened up in which it has become possible for researchers to do empirical research within the country and in which the first ever prison research project could be launched. This dissertation is part of the project Legacies of Detention in Myanmar, which explores how practices in Myanmar prisons today are shaped by legacies from past regimes. This dissertation focuses its attention on those who have gone through prisons as it analyses experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar. To do so, it builds on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork with former and current prisoners and an action research project conducted with four former political prisoners and photographers. The dissertation poses the research question: What experiences do prisoners in Myanmar go through and how are they affected by such experiences? This question is addressed through four publications. Paper I shows how penal practices of today are affected by legacies from the past through an ethnographic history of the practices concerned with fetters, convict officers, amnesties and torture. Paper II shows that access to experiences of imprisonment depend on other factors than physical access to prisons. Paper III shows that liminal experiences in prison can lead to positive development or suffering, depending on the presence or absence of guidance and communitas and on whether these experiences are forced or voluntarily. In doing so, it shows that solitary confinement represent structural violence, which can lead prisoners to become ‘unhinged’ from a sense of self and reality. Finally, Paper IV discusses the role of recognition in post-liminal re-integration of former prisoners and their opportunities to reestablish their lives after release. Through these papers and the synopsis surrounding them, the dissertation shows that prisoners go through liminal experiences which can affect them in various ways. Through theory on liminal experiences, the dissertation has identified inadequacies of prisons that make them inherently harmful institutions. Prisons represent forced liminal experiences, in some cases without the guidance of a master of ceremony and a communitas with whom to go through liminality. Furthermore, upon release, when prisoners are supposed to exit liminal experiences, the lack of proper post-liminal rituals that enable parity of participation through recognition, prevent prisoners from re-establishing their lives and becoming the lawabiding citizens prisons are supposed to mould them into. In addition, the empirical contribution on prisons in Myanmar shows that legacies from the authoritarian past are still practiced within prisons in Myanmar. As a prism on the state, the prison suggests that, while in transition, Myanmar has not completely left its authoritarian past behind. This suggest either a need for further reform if authoritarianism is to become a thing of the past, or itreveals a symptom of the shortcomings of the current disciplined democracy, which can lead to a return to authoritarianism in the future of Myanmar.