This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
, 2011 doi:10.1017/S0021911811000842
The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar1
ARDETH MAUNG THAWNGHMUNG
Myanmar has been conventionally regarded as one of the most repressive countries in the world. As a result, many scholars, journalists, and human rights organizations understandably focus their attention on the draconian policies of the Myanmarese military regime. When the country makes headlines, the story of events taking place is typically framed in terms of state oppression and direct popular opposition. This leads to a restrictive view of the “political” dimensions of life in Myanmar, an approach to the topic that deals with only a small number of admittedly important subjects: authoritarian governance, organized efforts to bring about systemic change, and the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate whose latest release from house arrest put Myanmarese politics back in the headlines in November 2010. What is left out of the picture—or given only glancing attention—are a host of social, economic, and cultural issues that also have political dimensions and implications, namely the efforts by Myanmarese citizens to carve out space for independent, meaningful action on a personal level. These actions, which have political aspects but stop short of being outright forms of dissent, will be my focus in this essay.
I present as feature of the “politics of everyday life,” are important because although the military regime is undoubtedly unpopular, much of the time most ordinary citizens are concerned less with bringing about a change in who governs the country, and more with addressing immediate problems. For them, politics often comes down to finding strategies to manage such quotidian matters as gaining access to food, clean water, electricity, transportation, and healthcare; figuring out how to obtain citizen IDs; and finding the most effective methods for dealing with the omnipresent local authorities. Without denying the importance of other kinds of political stories, such as accounts of the hollowness of controlled elections (such as those that took
UCH EFFORTS, WHICH
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung (Ardeth_Thawnghmung@uml.edu) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell
1 In 1989, the Myanmarese military junta replaced the existing English names for the country and its divisions, townships, cities, streets, citizens and ethnic groups with what it considered to be more authentic Myanmarese names. Thus “Burma” became “Myanmar” and its citizens “Myanmars”; “Rangoon” became “Yangon”; and ethnic groups such as the Karen were renamed “Kayin.” I use Myanmar throughout this piece for the sake of consistency.
modify or resist prevailing procedures. 4 Kerkvliet (2005). My goal is neither to overstate the importance of these actions nor to downplay the oppressive nature of the current system. his comments echo a classic definition of politics as a matter of who gets what resources. What Some of the most influential works in the vein that interests me here have been done by James C. how the distribution is done. see esp.2 My focus.”3 Scholars such as China specialist Kellee Tsai and Vietnam specialist Ben Kerkvliet have highlighted the significance and widespread nature of these kinds of informal adaptive strategies. regulations. is on activities that are neither officially sanctioned nor regarded by the government as “illegal.4 He argues that a view of politics that is limited to activities initiated by national governments and to concerted efforts to influence formal authorities misses a great deal of what is politically significant. p. and Ben Kerkvliet. Changing the Rules: The Politics of Liberalization and the Urban Informal Economy in Tanzania (Berkeley: University of California Press. Scott. 2005). or the established order. Tripp (1997). These activities emerge as a result of individual and collective efforts to “work around official legal barriers through innovative arrangements” and citizens’ attempts to “reconstruct the world around them to the best of their ability to suit their needs. this essay will argue for the value of bringing into the picture the ways that local residents cope with their particular circumstances. official rules and authorities to the modification and evasion of them.. The Power of Everyday Politics: How Vietnamese Peasants Transformed National Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. when. religious groups. p. xv. xv. many of these activities reveal no political message. ed. for example. indirectly and privately. universities. involve little or no organization. 1997). via short snapshots of particular issues and vignettes drawn from fieldwork in a country whose current situation gets little ethnographic attention. and families – sites where the distribution of key resources also takes place. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press. and subtle expressions and actions that. see also Adrian Leftwich. and broadens the definition of politics to include activities undertaken by corporations. and compliance with. According to Kerkvliet. 2004). who defines “everyday politics” as actions that focus not on elections or direct dissent but on the distribution of key resources. Other important studies include Kellee Tsai. 2 . Thus the activities that characterize “everyday politics” can range from support for. 12). see. see esp. rules. 1987).” hence they fall into a gray zone. p. but rather to suggest. What Is politics? An Activity and its Study (Polity Press. endorse. 12. mundane. industry. and usually occur by means of low-key. and resistance against them. I will draw here particularly heavily on the work of Kerkvliet. 3 Tsai (2007). in what proportion. p. that what scholars working on varied authoritarian settings have dubbed “informal adaptive strategies” and “everyday politics” can tell us important things about contemporary Myanmar. Capitalism Without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2007).642 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung place just before Suu Kyi’s release) and the continued harassment and detention of opposition figures. and Aili Mari Tripp. like that of previous analysts of these topics. and with what justifications.
2008. 4. 2008. even though the fare set by the meter might have been cheaper in the end. encouraged many customers to bargain for a set fee before they began their journey. 7 Myanmar Times.6 Theoretically.8 Other running 5 6 Kyemon. and affordable fees for the passengers. 12. and drivers would see them as a means to ensure predictable income. Why did this plan to install taximeters fail? This failure represents the broader challenges faced by twenty-first century Myanmar. unsound economic policies that favor a small group of people. estimated that by July 2008 10. and a lack of public confidence in the government’s ability and willingness to implement policies that would promote collective interests.15 USD) for every additional kilometer. In Myanmar language.000 taxis had already installed meters. the standard rate was set too low for longer distances.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 643 follows. 9. they continued to bargain to reach mutually agreed-upon prices. but also from physical and infrastructural limitations. These challenges stem not just from a lack of political freedom. the Myanmar government announced that all taxis in Yangon must install a digital fare meter in order to “create fair. reasonable. 8 Myanmar Times. January 25–31. for instance. As of 2009 there were approximately 1. is an extended story about a struggle relating to work and transportation followed by several short sections that zero in on specific forms of negotiations and contestation over quotidian issues.7 Thus the fare was set too high for customers wanting to travel only short distances. January 25–31. In addition. Then. instead. leaving only a few vehicles to complete the process. two years later it had become clear that neither the taxi drivers nor local residents preferred to use meters to settle fares. and those where the driver and passenger negotiated a price for a given ride. In Myanmar language. passengers were automatically charged 500 kyats (approximately USD 50 cents in 2009) as soon as they boarded the taxi. The taxi drivers themselves faced the opposite challenge: although they could expect a reasonable return from short journeys.5 The Weekly Eleven. to provide an introduction to everyday politics in contemporary Myanmar.” eliminating the negotiated fare system. In reality. July 8. Some drivers complained that the rate was set too low given the high cost of repairs and spare parts. Under the new scheme. in early 2008. factors like poor road conditions and traffic congestion that might increase fares. 2008. 9. . passengers would welcome the meters as a way to save money. THE TALE OF THE TAXI METER In the late 1960s there were two kinds of taxis: those that used meters to calculate fares. Meters fell into disuse by the mid 1970s. In Myanmar language. Weekly Eleven. July 4. and a further 150 kyats (0. a widely read local journal.150 kyats per dollar at the market exchange rate. 2008.
The popular journal Myanmar Times. expenses that were inevitably passed on to customers. This is one of the main reasons why the cost of imported goods is extremely expensive by international standards. or 200 USD in 2009). One driver told the Myanmar Times that he usually bring home about 5. one can boost the economy to increase the numbers of middle-class citizens who can afford to use taxis.”9 Another lesson to be drawn from the failed experiment with electronic taximeters is the widespread lack of trust in the government’s intentions to formulate policies in the public interest. but there are also days when he has to pay for his taxi rental out of his own pocket. which granted a monopoly to a few individuals to import the devices.000 kyats.000 kyats per day (5 USD).10 but also question the intentions of the government. Weekly Eleven. the number of taxis on the street exceeded the number of people who can afford to use them. July 8. 7. it cost about 1. about three weeks’ income for a taxi driver). 2009. The widespread practice of awarding import/export licenses and monopolies to trade in specific products to favored individuals has shielded them from open competition and allowed these privileged few to increase the prices of products and the cost of doing business in Myanmar. Until the end of 2009. One of Myanmar’s primary challenges is the government policy that favors a small segment of the community and a resultant lack of public confidence in the government’s ability to implement sound economic policies for the good of the majority. Taxi customers are generally afraid that their driver may try to rip them off by taking a longer route to increase Myanmar Times. Trust is also lacking among individuals.500 USD in 2009 to install a telephone at a residential address. Many taxi owners and drivers have not only found it extremely expensive to install the meters. Other solutions would be to impose standard rates that reflect real market conditions (such as those that take into consideration factors such as high inflation and exorbitant repair costs for taxi drivers) and to set separate rates for short and long distances. building more natural-gas filling stations. In addition. May 8–14. 2008. which cost 2 lakhs (equal to 200. leading one author to quip: “Don’t even stretch out your arms when you are out strolling. one can improve conditions in the country by repairing roads and bridges.000 USD in 2008. chances are that a taxi will approach you assuming that you were trying to hail it. 10 9 .644 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung costs included increased expenses and hours wasted in long queues at gasoline stations as a result of power blackouts. pointed out that poor economic conditions and the large number of express buses which charge cheaper fares have further reduced the numbers of potential taxi passengers. For instance. and providing adequate electricity to cut down on unnecessary waste and costs and create a more predictable physical environment. and high prices for natural gas and petroleum. The market value of a second-hand 1990 Super Salon Nissan Sunny was a staggering 28. The kinds of challenges faced by Yangon’s taxi drivers are mainly “infrastructural” problems.
Thus going onto the street to protest against a policy that undermines the abilities of taxi drivers to pursue their livelihoods was not a safe option. Sometimes. thereby reducing individual costs. My cousin would walk to the taxi (she knows the license plate). May 2009. Passengers who travel the same route at the same time each day will often strike a mutually agreed-upon fixed schedule and rate with a particular taxi driver.12 Passengers use this knowledge to negotiate lower fares. which has limited capacities to enforce many of its policies. she paid the agreed-upon fare and alighted. drivers can manage knowledge of that information either to keep fares higher for those not “in the know. just as drivers use that knowledge to increase their profits. When attempting to strike a deal with a taxi driver.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 645 the fare on the meter. a cousin of mine who shops regularly at the Ocean supermarket in Yangon made a deal with a particular taxi driver to take her home at a set price. or because the driver is feeling generous and has already brought in enough fares to make a sufficient profit.11 Thus many customers attempt to strike a favorable deal before boarding a taxi in order to reduce the element of uncertainty. . and did not hesitate to take harsh measures against any hint of opposition. the response from many taxi drivers to adverse circumstances has been to devise adaptive strategies or to resort to methods proven to have worked relatively well in the past. the Myanmarese government is a classic “weak” state. Once home. until recently. who regularly waited for customers at a stall in front of the supermarket. but bringing extra revenue to the driver. let the driver open the door for her. be noted that this situation is not unique to Myanmar). Several factors encourage a meter-free system. May 8–14. While appearing domineering and pervasive. 2008. ran Myanmar. The driver. and drive her home. Myanmar Times. operational costs are generally lower for taxis that consume natural gas than for those that use diesel or petroleum. Instead. and a taxi that is run and operated by its owner can generally afford to accept lower fares than vehicles that are rented. customs with which people were already comfortable. That regime had a record of implementing social and economic policies (by force if necessary) without any input from the community. for instance. For instance.” or attempt to attract more business by lowering fares. would always follow her when he saw her leave the shopping center. Relating this 11 12 Myanmar Times. customers and drivers will come up with creative and mutually beneficial arrangements to add in more customers along a route to share rides. All this took place without a word being said. Equally important to the problem were the authoritarian practices of the military regime that. however. For example. (It should. January 25–31. savvy Yangon citizens utilize local knowledge to gain a favorable outcome for themselves. Passengers may also get lucky and manage getting a good fare because the driver is desperate to take his first customer of the day.
Thus the imposition of new rules and regulations applied to taxis are highly likely to fail in Myanmar if they do not take generalized local practices into account. it is difficult to understand the failed experimentation of the taximeter and other government projects and policies without understanding the multiple challenges faced by Myanmar and the strategies adopted by Myanmarese citizens to respond to these deficits. local rates for various destinations. and have helped promote community support and create self-governing spaces for communities. her husband. service providers and business partners to overcome constraints. in return. are based on non-productive. in order to utilize the opportunity to fulfill individual and collective needs. and she. conserved energy. or to get a favorable deal. One of his nephews is single and is attending . both of whom are blind and ill. Many of these informal adaptive mechanisms have nonetheless succeeded in producing goods and services.000 kyats (12 USD in 2011) per month. and their usefulness and effectiveness very much depend on one’s knowledge of local circumstances and politics. These personalized dealings are usually hidden from public view. goes occasionally to her patron’s house to help with household chores. since they are unaware of the informal. THE POLITICS OF LIVING FRUGALLY After moving from a delta village to a suburb of Yangon. She. In sum. has never married and now lives in the upper story of the house along with two nephews and his sister and uncle. an alcoholic retired civil servant. she remarked with obvious enjoyment: “I hate wasting time bargaining for a fare with all these taxi drivers. They pay their rent with a combined income garnered from selling fish in the bazaar and the daily wages the husband earns as a mason. however. Ma War’s landlord. Other reactive strategies. I will turn now from the specific case of the taximeter to a more general subject: the way that some ordinary Myanmarese citizens deal with the challenges of living in a setting where scarcity is a fact of life. for a variety of business dealings (as will be seen below).646 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung story to me. only local residents know whom to approach and the minimum they need to offer in order to receive services that are ostensibly free – or to avoid regulations that constrain their activities. resources and expenses. A well-off neighbor has helped pay for the daughter’s school fees. tin-roofed stilt house of an old acquaintance for 10. This method saves time and energy!” Fundamental to all these informal practices is the cultivation of nar lai mu – an informal and tacit agreement struck with authorities. rent-seeking activities. In the same way. Foreigners and visitors to Myanmar may prefer to rely on the taximeter. Ma War rented the open space underneath the wooden-walled. whether natural or institutional. To expand our vision of everyday politics. and are having adverse consequences on collective welfare and long-term economic and political development. and their two daughters enclosed the earthen-floored area with bamboo walls and tarpaulin.
These strategies often involve engaging in income-generating activities while at the same time attempting to conserve resources. For instance. capital. which sometimes fall outside government regulation.” Some homeless families. have devised creative approaches to daily survival. As one mokehinka seller on a street corner in Insein remarked: “Sometimes the ability to feed our children leftover food from the shop can be considered ‘profit’ even when we could not recover our investment for that particular day. and energy through frugal living and recycling. the most common method for ordinary families to supplement their income is to set up a home-based food stall or small grocery business. Naturally. which are fed on food scraps collected in the neighborhood. this option is available only in villages and in suburbs where some open space is available. while his wife is employed as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family in Yangon city. in fact. . one woman whose husband was employed as a night guard at a construction site temporarily camped out at the site where she sold snacks and betel nuts to the construction workers while breastfeeding her infant and taking care of her other children. and families lacking the initial capital often make arrangements with a patron who funds the purchase of the piglets. as illustrated in the story above. tax. in which obtaining basic services is difficult due to a mixture of governmental neglect and official corruption. Regardless of whether one or both heads of a household have employment. and leftover food provides a source of nourishment for the family. The other nephew is married and has a four year-old daughter. the pigs are sold for their meat and the profits are split between the patron and the family who raised them. but when they do make their monthly visit. Another common approach used by individual families to address economic hardship is to grow seasonal vegetables and engage in small-scale animal husbandry. Home-based shops. I also interviewed a mokehinka (a popular Myanmarese dish of rice noodles and fish sauce soup) seller who opens her shop from 6 am to 10 am.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 647 high school. Raising pigs to sell for meat is considered an efficient way of earning a bit of income. He rarely sees his wife and daughter. he helps take care of his two disabled elderly relatives in the home. have many advantages. and supervision. He does odd jobs in the neighborhood. have taken advantage of the local municipal rules that prohibit the building of squatter homes but allow people to live in their shops. to find both living quarters and a means of making money. as owners can open the shop at their own convenience and can engage in multi-tasking by taking care of children and doing household chores. Many deprived communities. cared for by his own parents in a village in the delta. activities which are likewise outside government control and supervision. They allow individuals flexibility. In addition to allowing individuals to keep flexible hours. the number of people living in the ten square foot house swells to eleven. When fully-grown. Her adult son was also employed as a construction worker. after which she returns home to prepare her children for school. the costs of a homeoperated food stall are low.
She continued wryly. It is not uncommon for three generations of one family to be living under the same roof. they quickly disappear from their usual spots. my siblings made bags out of used paper and sold them to grocery shops for wrapping goods. bottles and paper. but most visitors would not recognize them as they appear to be merely idle residents lounging in chairs next to a pile of tools on the street—an expedient adopted to avoid arrest by the police or municipal authorities because they do not have business licenses to operate and because it is illegal to earn money on the street without one. where they share the chores. She remarked: “At least my family members are able to have fish every day. A mokehinka seller told me that she sets aside half the fish she buys from the market as ingredients for rice noodle soup. Sometimes. When tipped off by friendly officials that an inspection is imminent. Grandparents usually take care of the grandchildren while the parents go off to work. or binding books.” She also bought fish bones from the market daily to make ngapi (a salty fish paste usually eaten with rice). people live frugally in order to make efficient use of their space and labor. Some women carry jewelry samples in their bags to sell on consignment while on visits to friends. At one home salon in Insein I visited. At any busy intersection in Yangon city. householders would grant him access to their backyard garbage pile. Such services are aimed at local residents and are usually offered at affordable prices. papers. each specializing in repairing such items as umbrellas and shoes. who would then sort them and send them on for recycling and repackaging. and income. recycle. which he pulled out to give to his daughter. He would then collect any used plastic. One such trader I met in a suburban neighborhood of Yangon traveled around the area with his handcart buying up used goods from local homeowners. which she sells to customers. Cheap “mobile” mechanics can be found in many sections of the city. one can find artisans of all kinds. he spotted a ragged doll sticking out of a dump. . and uses the remainder for her family. A table used for displaying hair-care products during the day became a study desk for the children every evening.” Other people attempt to find additional income by providing services of various kinds that operate in a gray zone economically. bottles. Many stay-at-home moms set up home-based seamstress or hair salon operations. and broken shoes and take them to the wholesalers. Once.648 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung While some produce food products. Some earn a modest living by scouring their neighborhoods for second-hand materials for resale. where he would carefully select any reusable items and pay the owners a negotiated price. a living room was used as a waiting area for customers during the day and was transformed into a sleeping space for the family at night. He would seek to establish a rapport with his customers by offering to clean up their house or compound for free. “We just have to think about ways of getting through each day. and reuse materials such as plastic cups. When I was growing up in Myanmar. others wash. In addition. responsibilities.
000 kyats (approximately 50–60 USD at the time). maximizing his work time in any given location. Many doctors supplemented their incomes by working at private clinics. And it is not uncommon for government officials to request payment from individuals to smooth the way for services they request.000 kyats (about 30 USD) would often tutor students after hours to earn some additional income. In another example of workers adapting to local needs and maximizing their remuneration for their efforts. coming to each location only once per year. A primary school teacher on a monthly salary of 30. and they were happy to supplement the women’s modest wages with gifts. touting his services from street to street. and so on. According to my calculations. some seeing as many as 100 patients per day.000 and 60. I interviewed a man of Indian descent who makes his living by sharpening knives and tools such as lawn mower blades.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 649 Some services are created in response to local needs and conditions. The parents of a schoolboy who was hit by a car while crossing the street believed that his chaperone failed to take good care of their child because they had given her insufficient remuneration. When I visited Yangon in the summer of 2009. they are practiced by private individuals as well as by civil servants . thus condoning their clients’ attempts to avoid cumbersome government regulations.000 to 100. security guards rented out traditional attire—consisting of Myanmarese skirts for both men and women—for a small fee. Since most clients required his services on an occasional basis only.000 kyats (80–100 USD) for three years in order to obtain a license to practice. I learned that women had been employed by pickup truck owners to chaperone children as they commute to school. in 2009 a low-income family of four had average monthly expenses (for food and other basic necessities) of between 50. Until June 2009. doctors graduating from Myanmarese medical schools were required to work for the government at a reduced monthly salary of 80. Some parents told me that these caretakers sometimes requested particular foodstuffs in return for providing better care for their children. Parents apparently believed that their motherly instincts would make these women superior caregivers. granting vehicle licenses and inspection certificates. issuing building permits. Their job was to make sure that the children get on and off the pickup truck and cross the streets safely. he took care to time his visits. It is common for local officials to request “tea money” in return for efficient service when processing national identity and passport applications. Poorly paid civil servants and government employees also provide all kinds of informal services to supplement their incomes. THE BLACK MARKET Rent-seeking activities are those that do not directly produce new goods or services. Taking advantage of the university regulation that prohibits visitors from wearing Western clothing from entering the campus.
Some civil servants took advantage of the gap between the official and market prices for scarce goods by abusing their privileged access to these hard-to-find products and selling them on the black market at inflated prices to those who lacked the connections needed to obtain them. the time of this research). government employees working in the gas retail sector. gas stations were privatized. along with retirees and jobless citizens. though they increased to the point that they were closer to market prices. Prices remained fixed. Many car owners.13 Later. For example.000 to 20. Some would make small side payments to the employees of the gas stations to be allowed to queue several times at the same location. Even after the government tried to limit the practice by implementing ration books. making an average of 10. Some car owners camp out at For instance. in 2010. Some rent-seeking activities have arisen to circumvent official policies that have resulted in the creation of artificial prices and markets for a variety of goods and services. the Burma Socialist Program Party (1974–1988) set extremely low prices for basic consumer goods and foreign currency transactions. 13 . A few car owners replaced their old 15-gallon gas tanks with 50-gallon tanks so as to buy more gas at every transaction. Until 2007. a friend of mine who was in between jobs found himself a reasonable cash flow when the black-market price for petroleum gradually went up while the government continued to impose limits on the price private gasoline stations could charge customers. and civil servants (who received a special quota). They would spend their entire day. as unemployed car owners spent their time obtaining as much gasoline as they could manage and selling it in areas outside of Yangon where stations were scarce.650 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung and government officials. automobile drivers were allowed to purchase as much fuel as they wanted. the amount of gas each station was willing to sell at every transaction. including my friend.000 kyats daily (12–25 USD dollars in January 2011. again limiting the amount of fuel an individual could purchase. however. while others would go to multiple stations in the Yangon area. a black market for petroleum sprang up on almost every corner of every main street in Myanmar’s major cities. began lining up at gas stations to buy the cheaper petroleum in order to sell it back to the black market at a higher price. the government rationed petroleum to car owners at around two gallons per day at a low fixed price. As a result. Furthermore. depending on the distance. high-ranking government officials or university department heads received about 60 gallons petroleum and additional amounts of natural gas per month free of charge to operate government-owned cars for official purposes. from 5 o’clock in the morning until 8 pm when the stations closed. in November 2010. Many of the resellers bought diesel and petroleum from individuals (some car owners made a living simply by selling their quotas onto the black market). marketers worked around the system by arranging with favored station owners to get extra shares of gasoline. For example. and the duration of the wait at each station. The black market remained. Car owners had to wait an average of 2–3 hours to buy the petroleum at these private stations.
allowing only a few privileged individuals to engage in this highly lucrative trade.. leaving only a few of them.150 kyats per dollar in 2009). reducing the profits for black market operations. “without license”) cars were very cheap. more domestically produced cars are available. Thus the 1986 Nissan Sunny Super salon that my husband and I bought for my parents for 5000 USD in 1995 had a market value of about 20. pushing up prices on all vehicles available. Along with idle talk. those in the queue usually exchanged information (or warned each other) about gas stations that would sell their product short. and would relay the amount of gas each of these stations sell at each transaction. after 1994 the government placed restrictions on car imports and issued import licenses to only a few individuals. generating a market for illegal imports. paying the government rate of around 6.5 kyats per dollar rather than the market rate of 1. and Chinese imports have increased and are permissible.14 Some business entrepreneurs have conspired with government officials by deliberately damaging “without” cars as “proof” that they were manufactured by the domestic automobile 14 In 2010. private citizens (especially seafarers. overseas workers. all to be found in the hands of government officials and their cronies. He remarked “we don’t know how long this situation will last. However. and government-sponsored academics studying abroad) could import cars.. adapt to circumstances. ultimately the regime’s policies benefit only a small group of government officials and their business partners who have ready access to these scarce goods. While these so-called “without” (i. Rent-seeking behavior also occurs when government places restrictions on imports and exports. Some officials have used their privileged access to local money markets. .The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 651 night to be at the front of the queue to buy gas the next morning. many cars were smuggled in from neighboring countries.000 USD in Myanmar in 2008.e. Until 2004.g. but as the Myanmarese saying goes. These various activities do not create new products or services. the government tried to sell these impounded cars to the public through auction. to import foreign goods (e. “we collect water while it is raining and we will weave fabric while there is moonlight”—in other words. Furthermore. thereby driving down the prices of automobiles in Myanmar. Although they have enabled some ordinary Myanmarese to profit by participating as middlemen or selling supernumerary quotas on the informal market. the government confiscated many of these illegal vehicles. hundreds of impounded cars were piled up in front of the main government building. taking advantage where possible. where official exchange rates are overvalued. when the government restricted access to imported automobiles the cost of cars increased. In Taungyi Township. Until 1994. My friend befriended other “like-minded professionals” and as the day progressed would idly engage in conversation to kill time and to divert his attention from the heat of the sun blazing through the window of his beat-up pickup. For example.
mung beans. 16 15 .g. people who are overjoyed to win a little money run the risk of discovering that those selling the tickets could or would not pay out – nor could their bosses. or even their bosses’ bosses. or garlic. 2009. so failure to pay is always a real possibility. I saw piles of garlic. or the illegal seizure of the Weekly Eleven. However. since ticket prices are cheaper and the chances of winning are higher than for the official lottery. regardless of socioeconomic status. http://southasia. Amidst poverty illegal lottery flourishes in Myanmar. Imprisonment can result from such cases. Couples get divorced and family relations suffer. People become mired in debt and frequently pawn and sell their possessions because of it. 21 July 2009. do not contribute goods or services to the community. Many poor residents buy illegal lottery tickets in the hope of making a little extra income on the side. August 5.” In addition to the poverty it brings in its wake.net/todaysheadlines/amidst-poverty-illegallottery-flourishes-in-myanmar. like rent seeking. the primary beneficiaries were the few individuals who have access to car import licenses and the government officials who confiscated illegal vehicles. 2009. Thus. bet considerable sums on national and international tournaments. addiction to the illegal lottery has become a widespread social problem in the country..15 When bean prices did not go up as much as anticipated. In the same year. When I visited the Southern Shan state in 2008. This particular chain of speculation turned out to be a house of cards.652 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung industry. Myanmar citizens hoard rice. rendering so many confiscated cars useless.16 Myanmarese have long been followers of soccer and some individuals. Speculative activities constitute a further informal adaptive mechanism that. in private storerooms. The created inefficiencies (e. Even fish sellers in the bazaar will ignore questions by customers while they anxiously await the release of the “lucky numbers. While some ordinary Myanmarese middlemen benefited from these activities. Gambling the running of illegal lotteries are another form of non-productive informal practice that is widespread in Myanmar. the exporters lost everything and could not repay the debts they owed to the mung bean merchants. Like other non-productive activities. and large-scale sabotaging of car parts) generated considerable waste. hoping to reap huge profits when prices rise. many middlemen who had hoarded garlic lost their investment when prices dropped due to reduced demand for Myanmarese garlic in neighboring countries. In 2008. thereby entering the world of elite owners of foreign cars. the lottery creates employment for many ordinary people as ticket sellers and serves as an outlet to relieve the frustrations of the poor.oneworld. One World South Asia. the illegal lottery is not underwritten by any institutional or state authority. accessed August 3. 7. discarded and rotting. mung bean merchants lost “billions of kyats” from exporters who never paid them.
from senior military officials to poor farmers. a two-hour bus ride from Yangon. Ma Chaw is not unique. but often nothing was done until recently to redress the problem. People also visit Buddhist monks seeking spiritual comfort as well as advice for choosing the right lottery numbers. THE WORLD OF THE SPIRITS IN EVERYDAY LIFE Some activities that provide emotional and spiritual support that are impossible to measure in monetary terms can also be characterized as informal adaptive mechanisms because they help sustain individuals through difficult situations. A broad spectrum of Myanmarese rely on supernaturalism. because there was no corn in Pegu. She had to find ears of just the right size—small enough that they could be held in a single bunch for her offering. illustrates this. Sometimes this results in not taking action: At about the same time as Ma Chaw’s trip. Astrologists are not the only specialists consulted for advice. the most popular magazine in Myanmar over the past 10 years was Nakata Yawng Kyi. to take a specific course of action aimed at avoiding imminent misfortune).. her continued job prospects. content in the knowledge that danger had been averted.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 653 ticket-seller’s goods by aggrieved players. and. She nonetheless went to bed happy after her long day. According to a survey conducted by the Yangon-based Myanmar Marketing Research and Development (MMRD) in 2008. because his astrologist advised him to defer travel to avoid calamity. had to catch transport early in the morning to search for the corn at vegetable markets in Yangon. She recalled that she was once told by a palm reader to make an offering of 23 ears of corn (she was 23 years old back then) at the pagoda in order to ward off an impending danger predicted to befall upon her. to choosing names for her new-born relatives and picking appropriate dates for special events. For example.e. Astrologers may advise people to yadayakye (i. She consults a number of astrologists two or three times a month on issues ranging from whom to choose for a spouse. or consult the supernatural with the assistance of published literature. are often heavily influenced by advice offered by astrologers. Because she had to visit a number of different markets in different locations. The Myanmarese interest in various forms of “superstition. Ma Chaw is an unmarried thirty-year old college graduate who has a coveted job as a TV personality for a local private station. The decisions taken by many people. She was living in Pegu city. a young Myanmarese sailor in Yangon postponed his departure date for his new job assignment by one month. which . it was already getting dark by the time she arrived back to her home in Pegu with the appropriate offering.” very broadly defined. which she brought directly to the pagoda. astrologers or advice from religious figures to help them prepare for unforeseen misfortunes or to deal with their existing difficulties.
19 In addition to relying on supernaturalist literature as a source of hope and inspiration. and a collection of a handful of rice each week from each family of a church congregation to give to destitute members of the population. 114). shelter. (5) feeding a group of monks.1965) see esp. relatives. and their local communities as a valuable source of spiritual and emotional support based on traditional notions of mutual social obligations. (2) sponsoring a novice monk. 19 Myanmar Times. which covers a wide range of broadly “supernatural” subjects including ghosts (references to which were censored by the government until seven years ago). 18 17 . Manning The Golden Road to Modernity. and informed them about the uses of traditional herbal medicine as a supplement to Western medicine. Although gift-giving to laymen is considered the least important way of earning merit in Myanmarese Buddhist religious practice. p. One mokehinka vender. courage. 2008. who conducted anthropological studies in villages in Myanmar in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 20 The hierarchy of meritorious acts of self-sacrifice aimed at earning kutho or merit in Myanmarese Buddhist society runs as follows: (1) building pagodas. (3) building a monastery and donating it to a monk.”18 In an opinion survey accompanying the article.20 A few examples include a rotating credit association among the fish sellers in Upper Myanmar. clans.654 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung deals with supernatural and spiritual issues. and made them appreciate the “power and glory” of the Buddha. readers of gambia literature commented that the material gave them useful tips on finding peace. individuals look to families. January 11–17. (New York: Wiley. there is a strong tradition of volunteer work and private gift-giving to friends and relatives. 25. and tranquility amid the difficulties of life. (6) feeding and giving alms to individual monks. and people for whom they are patrons. increased their awareness of religious issues. The influence of Buddhist religious practices (which are mixed with local cultural practices) and supernaturalism on the lives and activities of Myanmarese is fully discussed by Manning Nash and Melford Spiro.17 A story in the Myanmar Times in 2008 points out that gambia literature has become popular because it fits in with existing Myanmarese culture and social practices and provides a convenient outlet for people who have become bogged down in “worldly problems. spirits. Others claimed that this material taught them how to calculate the appropriate days for taking certain actions. and financial assistance to their economically worse-off relatives. and my own account of a dog meat seller who was given food by his fellow vendors when his daughter was sick and could not go to work. for instance. (4) donating a well or bell to a monastery. and Buddhism. martial arts. traditional medicine. told me that a distant relative paid for her children’s tuition fees. and (7) feeding and giving hospitality to laymen. friends. Families who are better off provide education. astrology. Nash. 25. neighbors. 2008. Myanmar Times. January 11–17. Nakata is categorized as gambia literature. these informal networks largely substitute for the lack of a formal organizational structure and often provide emergency assistance in a place where the state’s resources are lacking.
we can better appreciate the multifaceted role of the political dimensions of life in authoritarian states. and development. is by no means comprehensive. some individuals or whole families use “exit” strategies (that is. the new Myanmar government introduced a series of economic reforms aiming to address some of the deficiencies mentioned in this article. CONCLUSION The survey of informal adaptive strategies adopted by citizens in Myanmar provided here. Understanding the causes and consequences of a variety of informal strategies adopted by ordinary citizens helps us re-conceptualize politics by incorporating previously marginalized viewpoints and neglected issues into broader debates about national and global politics. A few examples include the formulation of programs to alleviate poverty. In a seminal survey conducted by Brian Heidel in 2006 on the growth of civil society in Myanmar. or they move to cities to search for jobs in construction. tea shops. they leave for foreign countries in search of better employment or job opportunities. Other exit strategies include alcoholism and suicide. religious and ethnic-based organizations offer humanitarian assistance to their communities by providing education. or domestic service). the greatest number of community-based organizations (CBOs) (236 or 52% of the total surveyed) reported working in the religious sector (on the construction of buildings for religious purposes). restaurants. With these tales. In addition to serving as venues for worship and cultural preservation. greater lenience on the media. training. health-care services.The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-First Century Myanmar 655 Furthermore. and a crackdown lotteries and gambling. micro credit. many ethnic and religious organizations have been formed to address the spiritual and emotional as well as the social and humanitarian needs of their members. and others in massage parlors. Some young girls end up working as prostitutes. via a set of fragmentary discussions of different realms of life. In addition. In addition to the methods introduced above. POSTSCRIPT Beginning in early 2011. karaoke clubs. Myanmarese citizens may obtain support from local and international NGOs that provide services of various kinds to the poorest sections of the population. the break up of a few import monopolies. By examining everyday politics we can better address the roots of Myanmar’s challenges and be better attentive to the needs of the populace. policy. While many of these well- . and other support services. factories. The stories and overviews of types of activities provided above illustrate the complicated practices in the everyday lives of citizens living under a system where large political issues predominate social and political discourse.
and Lex Rieffel for their helpful comments and suggestions. Ashley South. Karin Eberhardt. James Scott. Ken Maclean. it is too early to assess the outcome and magnitude of the reforms. Daniel Smith. . Aili Tripp. Acknowledgement The author would like to thank anonymous reviewers and Mary Callahan. Matt Desmond.656 Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung intentioned efforts move in the right direction. Ben Kerkvliet. David Dapice. Merilee Grindle.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.