Doing High Quality Research in Myanmar: Four Recommendations
Doing research in Myanmar has not always been easy, possible, or legal. For example, Christina Fink, scholar of Myanmar and author of Living Silence in Burma originally published in 2001, was eventually banned from the country and forced to continue her research and work from nearby Chiang Mai, Thailand. After last November’s elections, Myanmar has largely been on a path towards positive change. Myanmar is slowly opening itself up to development initiatives, foreign direct investment, and even research. While total academic freedom is not a reality in Myanmar today, the country is surprisingly open to academic research.
Nicholas Farrelly, Deputy Director for the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at Australian National University (ANU) and Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Center, has demonstrated how accessible some forms of empirical and non-empirical research in Myanmar have become. For example, in a recent Myanmar Times column, Farrelly shares about the process of easily accessing archives in Naypidaw and the many eager Myanmar researchers in Yangon.
This summer through the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliot School for International Affairs, I had the opportunity to conduct empirical research in Myanmar. Four key recommendations emerged from my recent experience that may help guide the research process in Myanmar as the country gradually opens to academic research.
1) Build Relationships.
For empirical studies, recruitment is difficult without personal connections. There is still distrust of foreigners in parts of the country. Also, in many places like Mae Sot, Thailand so much research has been conducted there that participants seem to have a sense of research-fatigue. This is also likely due to the fact that many people working in organizations are overworked and underpaid, which can make it hard to find time for data collection. In my study, I chose to look at four individuals who belong to community-based organizations (CBOs) in rural areas of Myanmar. Finding participants who would be interested in this study required using relational avenues I had established and maintained through my previous work in the region.
2) Use Member Checking.
Academic researchers and methodologists Sharon Merriam and Elizabeth Tisdell in their 2016 book Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation write about the process of member checking, which is where researchers “invite [participants] to comment on your interpretation of their experiences” (p. 216). This means that after researchers collect and analyze data, they communicate with the participants – or local experts – to establish if the interpretation is fair and reasonable given the data. Amidst barriers of culture and language, and in a country formally closed off to most academic research, member checking becomes increasingly important.
3) Collaborate and Co-Author with Myanmar Nationals.
As much as possible, researchers will benefit from collaboration and co-authorship with Myanmar nationals. A recent book that exemplifies this recommendation is Trauma and Recovery on War’s Border: A Guide for Global Health Workers (2015) by Kathleen Allden and Nancy Murakami (eds.). The research and policy suggestions made in this book are clearly enriched by the collaborative research process. This recommendation is also seen in the aforementioned Nicholas Farrelly who has published with Myanmar scholar Chit Win “Inside Myanmar’s Turbulent Transformation” in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies where they explore together the implications of Myanmar’s development. No doubt this paper benefits from their collaboration.
4) Seek Truth with Care and Humility.
If you follow current events in Myanmar you are probably aware that Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel laureate is now in Myanmar alongside a team investigating conflict in Rakhine State between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority. While this is a polarizing issue, it appears that Annan and his team are seeking the truth of the situation with care for all the people in Myanmar and with a sense of humility about their purpose. Foreigners in Myanmar should respect the fact that they are guests there and seek to respect as much as possible the Myanmar people and customs. Granted, balancing this care and humility with the mandate to seek and report on the truth of one’s findings is no easy line to walk.
As Myanmar continues to open up to rigorous academic research, I believe these recommendations will improve the quality of academic research in Myanmar and make it a mutually satisfying endeavor for the researchers, participants, and public.
Oliver S. Crocco is a doctoral student in the Department of Human and Organizational Learning at the George Washington University. He is a 2016 recipient of the Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research. His research focuses on adult learning and organizational change in community-based organizations in Thailand and Myanmar.