White Shirts as Sacred Amulets: “World-Making” and “Self-Making” during the Burmese Political Festival

White Shirts as Sacred Amulets: “World-Making” and “Self-Making” during the Burmese Political Festival

Seinenu M. Thein-Lemelson, PhD
Anthropology Department, University of California, Los Angeles

Drawing upon Stanley J. Tambiah’s idea of “world conquerors” and “world renouncers,” I examine the Burmese political festival (nainganyei pwe) as a ritual, affective, and material space where former political prisoners reinterpret violence and engage in forms of collective and personal “world-making.” The lecture focuses on one practice in particular: the ritual wearing of white shirts by the 88 Generation. It is argued that there are psychological benefits to donning this symbolic attire. Like sacred amulets described by Tambiah, the white shirt provides ontological security to former political prisoners. For leaders (gaungzaungs) in the movement, the white shirts are integral to how they create and embody power, becoming conduits of charismatic authority. Within the context of the nainganyei pwe and when combined with other “technologies of the self,” the white shirts create a feeling of inviolability and allow survivors of political violence to reassert personal and collective agency. In addition to extending the literature on the sedimentation of power and charisma in objects to contemporary politics in Myanmar, I also attempt to unpack the tensions between precarity versus inviolability and self-making versus selflessness in the “political sacred” space of the nainganyei pwe and the broader cultural system of the Burmese democracy movement.    

Seinenu M. Thein-Lemelson, PhD, has been conducting long-term ethnographic and psycho-cultural research in Burma (Myanmar) since 2008. She received her PhD in Developmental Psychology, with a specialty in Culture, Brain, and Development, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2013. From 2015 to 2016, she was a Templeton-funded postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Personality and Social Research (IPSR) at the University of California, Berkeley. From 2016 to 2019, she was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Thein-Lemelson has worked with former political prisoners and democracy activists in Burma since 2013 and is finishing a book-length ethnographic study on the Burmese Democracy Movement. Dr. Thein-Lemelson is also currently a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles, where she teaches undergraduate classes on “The Anthropology of Burma/Myanmar,” “Political Imprisonment,” and “Social Movements and Controlling Processes.”


Wednesday, September 20, 2023
12:00 Noon
Room 203, Luce Hall
34 Hillhouse Avenue

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