Several countries face difficult challenges in achieving political transitions from autocracy to a more democratic system. In what ways are political processes in these countries formed by indigenous belief systems and cosmologies? How is political legitimacy and authority understood, and how do various opposition groups make use of popular culture and art to propagate their messages and generate support in the population?
Myanmar and Thailand are both examples of countries that are caught up in long-standing conflicts and disagreements where minorities and opposition groups have built strong political visions and systems of ideology that are incompatible with the current political order of the ruling elites. In these countries, we find that cultural, religious and spiritual belief systems are not irrelevant relics of the past. They are phenomena with direct influence on today's political and territorial conflicts. The POPAGANDA research team therefore aims to unpack the role played by myths, cosmology, religion, spirituality, and magic in both generating and challenging political legitimacy.
The research team investigates how such opposition groups and their supporters among artists reinvent narratives rooted in these ancient belief systems. We examine how popular culture and art are used to both generate the legitimacy of political opposition groups and contest that of the state. We then explore how this practice of contestation affects political processes and power structures. The research team does not only aim to generate important insights into the dynamics of politics and violence in Myanmar and Thailand. We also seek to provide the necessary building blocks to develop theory on how to understand unresolved violent and political struggles in other transitioning states.
The project is led by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in collaboration with researchers at the partner organizations Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand and Naushawng Development Institute in Myanmar. The start-up meeting for the project was held digitally on 21 December 2021. Both the pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar prevented a physical meeting. All the partner organizations attended the meeting, chiseled out a common conceptual understanding of the project and presented and discussed research ideas.
An important milestone for the project has been the employment of doctoral researcher Amara Thiha. Amara was employed by PRIO from 1 January 2022 with the project Ancient Belief Systems, Legitimacy, and the Struggle for Democracy in Myanmar. The doctoral thesis will be defended at Coimbra University in Portugal and is supervised by Teresa Almeida Cravo (Coimbra) and Marte Nilsen (PRIO). Amara defended his project outline at Coimbra University on 27 October 2022 with Professor Nicholas Farrelly as an external examiner in a jury appointed by the university. The project outline was approved by the jury with 19 points on a scale of 20.
In the first year of the project period, much of the data collection was conducted digitally. A research trip to Ubon Ratchathani and Bangkok was carried out in March 2022. New research trips are planned to Thailand in December 2022 and to Myanmar from December 2022 to January 2023. A project seminar for the entire research team in Bangkok is scheduled for 9-11 December 2022. Towards the planned mid-term conference in Oslo in the summer of 2023, the research team will continue with data collection and with drafting articles for a special issue of an academic journal on popular culture and art as tools in the struggle against military rule.
POPAGANDA investigates how political opposition groups in Myanmar and Thailand use popular culture and art to generate legitimacy for their political causes and propagate their messages. The project team seeks to discover how these subaltern groups and their supporters among artists reinvent narratives rooted in ancient belief systems and cosmologies to produce political legitimacy in contemporary struggles over democratization and peace. The project team aims to reveal how these groups use popular culture and art to contest the legitimacy of the state and how this practice of contestation affects political processes.
This research is essential for the understanding of how and why countries that are undergoing transitions from autocracy to a more democratic system fail to solve internal political and violent conflicts. An outcome of the project is to significantly improve knowledge about the cultural, religious and cosmological origins of political legitimacy in these countries.
Studying narratives and the cultural transmission of such narratives, provides a unique way of researching group identities, political legitimacy, power relations, and perceptions of democracy and peace. Such insights are needed to understand the dynamics of conflicts, but they are also necessary building blocks for theories and strategies for solving violent and political struggles in transitioning states.