Jonathan Saha on Applying History to Contemporary Political Debates

My research is in the history of British colonialism in 19th century and early 20th century Myanmar, or Burma. There are two particular areas which I’ve focused on. One has been the history of low-level bureaucratic corruption and how that played out in the delta region of the country, and the second is a project on the history of animals across the colony as a whole.

Where this fits into policy has been a bit more broad-brush. Some of the corruption stuff has picked up some responses from people who have used it in reports on present day corruption, partly to demonstrate the long-standing nature of those problems. But more widely, it’s the post-colonial methodologies of deconstructing notions of race and belonging that have found their way into policy engagement around the issue of Rohingya populations in Myanmar, and the way that hundreds of thousands of them have been violently expelled from the country.

How have you approached policy engagement as a historian?

I haven’t proactively sought out policy makers. I wrote on my own research blog, expressing my concerns about how history was being used in the debate around Rohingya populations belonging in Myanmar and it seemed to hit a nerve, or it filled a gap, and it got shared by a number of different platforms and eventually in Bangladeshi newspapers. This led to some Bangladeshi diplomats writing to me to say they found it useful and that they had similar concerns about how history was being used in that forum. It was instructive to learn that things can pick up momentum like that.

In your blog post you spoke about the limits of history and its application to contemporary debates – could you expand on this?

There are two aspects to the limits of history that I was trying to get across. One is the actual limits to what historical knowledge might be and the other is the limit of history in it being able to resolve or change policies or problems, and even potentially becoming a distraction from a more pressing issue.

My point was that self-identification – how a group might see themselves – is first of all not historically stable and secondly not something which is very easy to get at. As a result, the type of scrutiny that Rohingya identity has been given isn’t really commensurate with other modern identities in Myanmar. You shouldn’t look at one identity in exclusion without thinking about how all identities are shifting through unstable, deeper, underlying paradigms of identity. It’s worth acknowledging that we might get hints at what someone’s ethnic self-identification might be, but we can’t get much beyond those hints without acknowledging that it may have been very different for those inhabiting it.

The second part to the limits of history is the way that it can then distract and deflect from conversations. Today, large groups of people identify as Rohingya and have done for at least two generations, and they are facing untold horrors because of their contemporary identification. The longer history of that should have no bearing on the rights and protections that those individuals should possess. In a sense, even when we’re trying to defend and establish that the Rohingya identity is valid, getting drawn into a question about its historical origins can fail to address, and in fact deflect attention away from, the contemporary issues.

Bearing those limitations in mind, do you have any thoughts on how historians can navigate these issues – contributing their knowledge and skills to modern debates whilst recognising, or being sensitive to, the potential implications of what they are saying and what it might be used for?

I think it is very context specific, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some ethical line that you can tow in those circumstances. When you’re a Western-educated academic with a UK passport and you’re working in a country like Myanmar where citizens’ rights aren’t as strong, where their own mobility to engage in academic and scholarly circles is circumscribed by a whole host of factors, you need to be aware that your arguments potentially have a life in that space. It’s about engaging with people who are doing that work, in that place, to make sure that your arguments aren’t going to have detrimental effects, or that they are framed in a politique way. Which isn’t to say you curtail what you’re saying, or that you limit your expression of academic freedom, but that you make sure that it is in an appropriate format.

When I was finishing my book on corruption I did start to wonder about the potential political use of that. This affected how I wrote the conclusion, getting me to reflect on what I think are really important colonial heritages to a lot of the problems of corruption, whilst acknowledging the role of various post-colonial regimes in perpetuating that. That came out of talking to Burmese friends and interested parties. They helped me think about that issue and how I was framing it. It’s thinking about the effect of your work, and it’s thinking about how you as a historian may be in a privileged position to be able to say things that won’t necessarily come back to harm you but could affect others.

Dr. Jonathan Saha is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History. His areas of expertise include the history of Myanmar/Burma, British imperialism, the colonial state, corruption, and the history of animals across the colony.

Dr. Saha’s blog post, ‘The Limits to History’ which is referenced in this interview, can be found here: <https://colonizinganimals.blog/2017/09/15/the-limits-to-history/>