Glass or Mirrors? The political construction of the Byamaso organization in Mandalay.

Dr Lei Shwe Sin Myint

Department of Anthropology, Mandalay University, Myanmar

Whilst definitions of populism remain contested, key features include the importance of ‘the people’, a construction of an existential other, and reference to some form of extreme crisis. Civil society organizations are often expressions or vehicles for populist sentiments. However, little attention is paid to the political construction of civil society organizations, and how that draws from and contributes to emergent populist discourses. Myanmar has a surprisingly rich history of emergent civil society organizations, some of which, such as the Dobama Asiyone association of the 1920’s, were linked with populist, nationalist movements which appealed to religious and ethnic values.  The Byamaso association was formed in response to a crisis arising from difficulties in conducting funerals in the urban centre of Mandalay, gaining public support by appealing to charitable values and organizational transparency. This subtly juxtaposed the Byamaso organization with the government of that period, by appealing to values and services not provided by the government.  However, as government services are being reformed, how does the Byamaso Organization maintain its public appeal and relevance? What populist discourses shape the current political form of the Byamaso organization, and how do these relate to, or potentially challenge, populist discourses framed around religious or ethnic ‘others’? This research uses critical ethnography to show how the Byamaso organization is constructed, and where the Byamaso and similar organizations are placed in relation to the wider populist geography of Myanmar, enabling more informed scrutiny of civil society organizations.


Lei Shwe Sin Myint has been teaching and researching in Anthropology for over 17 years, focusing on the social organization of different ethnic groups in Myanmar, as well as the changing nature of religious belief amongst Burmese Buddhists. Her recent research interest in Buddhist social organizations builds on an increasing interest in reflexivity and the research process


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