ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind has a powerful and timely edition on the psychology of living under the military regime in Burma.
Particularly interesting is the interview with Dr Monique Skidmore, an anthropologist who has spent many years researching the effect of the attempts by the state to control the people, body and mind, on day-to-day living in the country.
This is interesting as most work on propaganda attempts to understand whether it is effective. In other words, how successful it is in ‘manufacturing consent’.
However, Skidmore’s work has looked at how people maintain a sense of freedom under such an oppressive regime when perhaps the only thing they can trust is their own minds. For example, by cherishing benign but subversive secrets as a form of mental independence.
She has also looked on how this interacts with mental illness and reports some fascinating examples where psychopathology seems to be expressed as expressing rebellion against state censorship.
I started by working at the Yangon Psychiatric Hospital because I was interested in how people saw their own illnesses. But the interviews started talking about all kinds of magical imagery and religious imagery. And particularly amongst schizophrenics, there was a sense that when they heard voices coming through the radio that these were interviews with senior people in the political headlines — so they were either military leaders, they were drug lords, or they were leaders of opposition parties such as Aung San Suu Kyi. And I began to see that in the minds of people who were suffering a mental illness that there was a dialogue that wasn’t allowed to be spoken out on the street but that was prevalent in people’s minds.
The other is drug counsellor Pam Rogers who works with Burmese refugees in Thailand and notes that the desire for freedom plays a huge part in the motivation to beat addiction, as addiction is seen as another form of mental slavery.
It’s a fascinating look at the quite different mind set needed to understand how the immense psychological pressure of a totalitarian government affects its citizens.
Link to AITM on Burma: ‘I resist in my Mind only’.