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Poetry and Resistance in Contemporary Asia: Dissent in the Age of Pseudo-democracy

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Organizer: William Arighi

Co-Organizer: Deepshikha Behera

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The February 1, 2021, coup in Myanmar encapsulates in some ways an era in which Asian governments appear to be backsliding on democratic hopes. The promise of transparency and accountability that was meant to rise through technological development, social media, and globalized markets has seemed to inspire the opposite, with governments less accessible to their constituents. The rise of pseudo-democratic regimes throughout Asia poses a challenge to assertions of national culture, as well as to dominant forms of human rights discourse.

While governments have centralized power and repressed criticism in the face of expanded tools for public comment, poetry seems to have found a renewed purpose as a mode of self-assertion that can represent the unrepresentable to larger and more diverse audiences. Rohingya poets have been writing against Myanmar’s atrocities from refugee camps in Bangladesh; Miyah poetry has become a way of expression against the injustice meted out to the Miya Muslims of Assam whose citizenship status and human rights are being contested against draconian state laws; poets in the Philippines have been trying to surface the names and histories of those killed in the EJKs (extra-judicial killings) of the drug war. The panel aims to bring together diverse elements within forms of governance where violation of human and minority rights as well as democratic openings are pronounced in varying degrees. Be it India’s popular nationalism or Myanmar’s coup d'état, minority communities have been subjected to the atrocities of state policies. The rise of protest poetry in such contexts, each unique in their own aspect, question the very nature of human rights and resistance movements. The performativity of protest poetry, attributing to its repetition, rhythm and mass appeal makes it an impactful mode of expression within socio-political networks. 

Questions that participants may want to answer:

How has poetry’s function in society shifted over the course of the twenty-first century in communities in Asia?

How has poetry in oral and scribal forms influenced and shaped subjectivity in communities that have been or continue to be largely unlettered?

How have poets met the resurgent challenge of repressive regimes within Asian countries?

Who are the audiences for poetry from the oppressed communities of Asia (e.g. Miyah, etc.), and how are those audiences constructed?

What parts of the collective regional and national past have become newly useful for poets and poetry in the contemporary moment?

How do poets record the history of migration and settlement of diasporic communities (who are subjected to state oppression and violence) that often goes undocumented in the rubric of larger national history or a ‘single’ history?

How does the techne of human rights (pace Pheng Cheah) influence the reception of poetry within and from pseudo-democratic regimes?

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