Elizabeth Rhoads reviews Ardeth Thawngmung’s 2019 book on the politics of quotidian survival strategies in Myanmar.
Ardeth Thawnghmung’s new book, Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar is an engaging read, particularly for those working in livelihoods or microfinance in the INGO sector, for international donor agencies creating strategies for lending, grants, or programming in Myanmar, or for anyone interested in Myanmar’s informal economy. Thawnghmung’s focus on the coping strategies employed by everyday Myanmar people across the country draws on Kerkvliet’s ‘everyday politics’, Scott’s ‘everyday resistance’, and Thawnghmung’s earlier work. Thawnghmung uses Hirschman’s (1970) framework of loyalty, voice, and exit and an adaptation of Scott’s (1985) passive resistance (“indirect, frequent, and often uncoordinated acts of resistance”, p. 11) to frame and analyze various coping strategies found in Myanmar. She calls this the LPVE framework (loyalty, passive resistance, voice, and exit).
Yet, her approach is multidisciplinary, incorporating political, economic, social, and psychological coping strategies, turning the focus from politics to survival. For those familiar with her earlier work on authoritarianism and state legitimacy (2004) and the politics of “quotidian matters” (2011), by turning to the study of everyday survival, Thawnghmung is yet again pushing our conceptions of “the political” in Myanmar. Thawnghmung’s work emphasizes that the ways in which people make choices and decisions about how to make ends meet is integral to the functioning of politics and authority.
Thawnghmung defines and categorizes coping strategies as those “implemented by individuals to overcome formal, institutional barriers as well as the informal and environmental constraints that militate against their economic survival” (9). The strategies that she identifies include living frugally by cutting expenditures, working on the side, psychological mechanisms (often through religious practices or meditation), accommodating (by not challenging the status quo), resisting, exiting (leaving Myanmar), and reliance on networks, community and external aid.
Each of the six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, are devoted to one of the coping mechanisms identified by Thawnghmung. Each chapter begins with a slightly longer vignette telling the story of an example of the coping mechanism discussed in the chapter. In the Introduction, Thawghmung sets up the premise of the book – that changes in governance since 2011 have not made the whole country politically active as the majority of people are still struggling to get by, and rely on coping strategies in order to do so. As Thawnghmung writes: “The opening of political space in Myanmar has allowed ordinary citizens to join opposition parties and rights-based organizations…. most are concerned with surviving another day, another week, another year” (p. 3).
In Chapter 1, ‘Variations in Coping Strategies’, Thawnghmung addresses how coping strategies have changed and evolved in Myanmar in response to different government and economic policies as well as different positionalities. For example, she posits that “voice” strategies through formal channels (courts, lobbying government agencies and authorities) and informal channels (human rights groups, use of media, protests, lobbying influential people) are used with more frequency since 2011 as the political situation allowed for more organizing and public claims-making. The author also makes clear that one’s available coping mechanisms are highly dependent on “one’s religious or ethnic identity, the nature of relations between the central government and one’s ethnic group, and one’s political and economic situation” (p. 19).
In Chapter 2, ‘Living Frugally’, Thawnghmung explores how Myanmar residents stretch their incomes or adapt to make ends meet by cutting expenditures, borrowing, and depleting reserves (p. 47). Chapter 3, ‘Working on the Side’, includes a discussion of the myriad of activities used for income generation, which Thawnghmung describes as “self-enhancing” coping strategies. In Chapter 4, ‘Networks, Community, and External Aid’, Thawnghmung discusses the types of social support available to people in Myanmar from informal lending to humanitarian aid and development assistance. In Chapter 5, ‘Boosting Morale’, Thawnghmung discusses the various psychological coping mechanisms, including gambling, astrology, religion, and supernaturalism. Chapter 6 is ‘Accommodating, Resisting, Exiting’, or the strategies people in Myanmar use to deal with more overtly political issues, including acts of passive resistance such as concealing income or activities, negotiating with state authorities, exiting – often by leaving the country – and accommodating by not disrupting the status quo. The most oft-repeated example of accommodation strategies is ma-loke (don’t act), ma-shote (don’t make things complicated or rock the boat), ma-pyoke (don’t get fired) or otherwise, don’t disrupt the status quo and you can keep your job.
Thawnghmung’s overall argument has two essential components: 1) that Myanmar residents have shown extreme ingenuity and resourcefulness in coping with hardship, and 2) that the act of coping and the multiple strategies employed by residents may have in turn prolonged dictatorship or increased the lack of accountability of the government to the people. Coping strategies enabled a certain level of acceptance of the status quo, allowing people to become accustomed to shortcomings and hardships by accommodating or exiting to try to avoid the difficulties of making ends meet in Myanmar. As Thawnghmung explains, “Everyday activities that involve patron-client relationships, compliance with the authorities, and exchanges within established networks tend to reinforce class and status differences and help perpetuate a system in which inequality, dependency, and cronyism are endemic” ( p. 7).
The book draws heavily on Yangon, but covers the entire country, including coping strategies employed by minority ethnic and religious groups. Thawnghmung also integrates recent research and statistics from INGOs and donors to give more context to individual testimonies of economic survival. Her choice of anecdotes and her analysis reflects Myanmar’s shifting landscape, including coping strategies from a wide range of informants and situations.
The book is very accessible for readers and is well-suited for anyone working in Myanmar and attempting to understand livelihoods and how people make economic and social choices. Thawnghmung made the choice, which I think works, to interweave hundreds of informants’ choices, stories, and situations together so that the book reads not as one person’s experience but as more generalizable to everyday economic survival in Myanmar, as the title states. I personally would have liked to follow several of the informants for a long period of time, rather than have snippets of their lives and economic choices presented in quick anecdotes alongside others. However, the vignettes do convey the sheer extent to which people in Myanmar are engaged in the types of activities Thawnghmung illustrates, and my personal preference may reflect a disciplinary difference.
The most poignant moments of the book are when Thawnghmung reflects on her own experience growing up in Myanmar before and after 1988. She details what she did to get by as a young student, and how she herself employed some of the strategies she studies in her book to finance her studies in the United States. Like many of her informants, Thawnghmung herself relied on networks, working on the side, and eventually exiting Myanmar. I found at times that I wished to hear more of Thawnghmung’s personal experience, in addition to longer vignettes of others’ stories. What I appreciated most about the sections drawn from Thawnghmung’s personal life was that due to the time covered and the autobiographical details revealed, the reader got a greater understanding of why she chose the coping mechanisms she used and how they impacted her life. However, by the end of the book, I understood her choice – the book is not so much about the effects of the coping mechanisms Thawnghmung identifies on individual livelihoods, but about how these mechanisms may have contributed to prolonging authoritarianism.
Thawnghmung eloquently argues that coping strategies developed during authoritarianism continue to be in use, although they offer little support for democratic values or processes. Furthermore, if the populace has to spend so much time and effort on their own individual survival, they have little time for engagement in the democratic process. While Thawnghmung sees protests and issue-based campaigns as enhancing democracy, she ends the book with a warning that identity-based mobilizations, particularly those focused against a particular group, will undermine democracy.