Political science professor Ardeth Thawnghmung has just published her new book with us: Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar, about strategies adopted by ordinary citizens in Burma/Myanmar—most of whom survive on the equivalent of two to five dollars a day—to cope with the economic stresses of everyday life.
What inspired you to write the book?
The book was inspired by my own experiences growing up in Burma under the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s. My family and I employed various survival tactics to supplement my parents’ combined earnings, which barely covered the cost of food and basic necessities. These strategies—multiple poorly paid jobs, painstaking financial management, pooling resources, and engaging in acts of reciprocity and mutual obligation—are still being utilized by many people, even in the freer political and economic environment created by the more reformist governments elected in 2010 and 2015.
A lot has been written about everyday life in poor countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. How does your book differ from others in this field?
I employ a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates political, economic, social and psychological aspects of coping strategies, analyzing their impacts on collective welfare, the environment, the national economy, and political development. I also examine comparable political and economic situations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to develop systematic categories of informal activities that produce autonomous and self-governing spaces and lead to positive—as well as negative—policy changes for society, or even undermine state capacity and democratization efforts.
How did you collect data, and what were the biggest challenges you faced while conducting research in Myanmar?
This project is based on in-depth interviews and surveys of 372 individuals from all walks of life throughout Myanmar between 2008 and 2015 as well as my own observations and experiences. Many of the challenges I faced are typical for research carried out under authoritarian regimes, including a lack of available data, restricted political environments and concerns about the safety of those who associated with me.
Did any of your findings surprise you?
I was surprised by how prevalent and long-lasting these strategies were, and how creative people became to meet economic challenges in evolving political situations.
Myanmar has recently provoked international outrage over military brutality which triggered the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh. How does your study of everyday politics in mainly Buddhist areas of the country offer insight into their plight?
The Rohingyas situation is an extreme case where people go about trying to create a sense of normalcy out of difficult situations. However, very little attention has been paid to the majority of Myanmar citizens, whose attitudes toward the Rohingya have been overwhelmingly hostile. While these attitudes are influenced by specific historical and political context that shape and constrain popular behavior, and by the growing anti-Islamic sentiments that we see across the world, they are also a product of responses to decades-old authoritarianism. Some of these individual and collective coping practices help foster self-help and can even challenge the legitimacy and longevity of military rule, but general survival tactics among ordinary people rarely align with the practices that are key to successful transitions to democracy.
Do you think your findings offer advice and insights for the current National League for Democracy government led by Aung San Suu Kyi?
Some survival strategies have negative long-term consequences, not only on individuals and their communities, but also on the environment, public welfare, state capacity, and democratic processes. Both the Thein Sein and NLD governments have attempted to deal with their effects by formulating new regulations and enhancing enforcement mechanisms while rarely addressing the root causes. For instance, successful attempts to act on negative activities from petty corruption, counterfeit products and illegal gambling to illegal mining, and logging and issues such as child labor require not only enhancing state capacity through proper incentives and training for civil servants, but also providing alternative opportunities for those utilizing such methods. These are crucial challenges that need to be addressed by any transitional democratic government with limited resources, particularly the NLD government which is facing elections in 2020.
is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is the author of several books, including Behind the Teak Curtain: Authoritarianism, Agricultural Policies, and Political Legitimacy in Rural Burma.