Review of: Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar

By Shona Loong

Myanmar’s faltering political transition has been scrutinised from many angles, but hardly ever through the lens of the survivalist strategies of the country’s poor. This is where Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung’s book stands out. It offers a refreshing perspective on a tired topic; one that circumvents reading Myanmar’s political situation through the actions of an elite coterie of decision-makers, that is accountable to the size and diversity of Myanmar’s population, millions of whom eke out a living distant from the apices of power.

In Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung evokes how ordinary Burmese people get by in an environment hostile to their wellbeing. The book’s preface reflects on the tedious work the author has done in Burma, and her family’s struggles to make ends meet. With her biography comes empathy and access. She develops an emic list of coping strategies by engaging with more than three hundred research participants between 2008 and 2015. These are organised along two axes. One, the “LPVE” framework—for Loyalty, Passive Resistance, Voice, and Exit—typologises strategies vis-à-vis the structures that they confront. Do strategies accommodate these constraints (loyalty), escape them (exit), or exert a pressure for change (voice)? The second axis refers to the effect of individual strategies on society at large. Strategies are self-enhancing or self-defeating, depending on their impact on the individuals or households that deploy them, or they can be resilience promoting, geared towards improving one’s ability to weather economic stress.

The Introduction lays out these axes, while Chapter 1 discusses how Myanmar’s recent history, socioeconomic disparities, ethnic and religious identity, and geography affect the strategies an individual utilises. Chapters 2 to 6 catalogue these by way of ‘thick description’ (p. 177), organising them under five themes: frugal living (Chapter 2), supplementing income (Chapter 3), collective approaches (Chapter 4), psychological tools (Chapter 5), and political mechanisms (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 tallies the aggregated effects of these strategies on Myanmar’s transition. The author demonstrates the contradictions that inhere in many: while they alleviate economic stress in immediate terms, they prolong the longevity of Myanmar’s authoritarian regime and put individuals in a more precarious economic position. Ultimately, she contends, most coping strategies are self-defeating and anathema to fostering democratic outcomes.

Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung’s book is impressive in its broad, cross-sectional scope. It unites the political, economic, psychological, and social aspects of coping under a common framework. It therefore speaks to scholars across the board, who are interested in Myanmar and the interplay between resilience and precariousness more generally. Amongst the strategies that the author explores, some—to my knowledge—have gone relatively unremarked in Anglophone literature. Sections on borrowing and pawning (pp. 55-61), rotating credit associations (pp. 101-103), and the lottery (pp. 138-140) were refreshing. As the author points out however, the point is not to provide a list of “weapons of the weak,” but to address the political implications of ordinary folks’ preoccupation with the act of getting by. Such insight is critical to a country that is predominantly understood—in both academic and policy worlds—through the failures of its leaders, resulting in millions of foreign dollars spent on strengthening its democratic institutions. Everyday Economic Survival asks us to consider instead the relationship between the humdrum of everyday life and sweeping reform.

Although I enjoyed the book’s emphasis on breadth, this understandably diminishes its potential for depth. Two aspects of this trade-off left me wanting. The uneasy relationship between the individual and the collective remains underexplored throughout. The self-defeating nature of most coping strategies holds that what benefits the individual in the short term, ultimately recreates an environment that is hostile to society at large. Do people weigh their actions against the wider social fabric, and how do they explain whether or not this is the case? How does a ‘path of self-reliance’ chosen in response to the government’s failures (p. 73)— articulated by one of the author’s interviewees—shape one’s considerations for the collective in the midst of attempts to stay afloat? Secondly, the state is often brought up, yet feels sparsely examined. The state appears as an oppressive force, preventing people from expressing their discontent in more overt ways, but also in the form of neglect, as people make up for the state’s failure to offer basic services. Myanmar’s peace process also remains in the background even as, in my opinion, peacebuilding is integral to understanding political and societal transformations in Myanmar. A conception of the state that unites these would have provided for a more thorough understanding of state-society relations.

I offer these as points of reflection, underlined by an admiration for Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung’s extensive research. Everyday Economic Survival should be read for its glimpse into the socio-political context that ordinary people navigate, and its relevance to understanding Myanmar’s political situation as the country trundles towards the 2020 elections.

Image credit: Where 35th street meets the railway lines in Mandalay, Myanmar by Claire Backhouse/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0.