- Burmese Lives: Ordinary Life Stories under the Burmese Regime ed. by Wen-Chin Chang and Eric Tagliacozzo
The theme of this book — everyday lives of everyday people — is taken up with enthusiasm, sympathy and nuance in its ten (excluding the introduction) chapters. The narratives are sometimes poignant, and often compelling, providing us a glimpse into the lives of men and women who have had to negotiate the often inexplicable and unpredictable currents of wider political and economic forces.
This book is a timely and welcome contribution to Myanmar studies, a field that has until recently focused on broader themes such as the military, the political struggle for democracy, ethnic armed conflict and peace negotiations. Where there have been accounts of individual lives, they have tended to be biographies of the elite or well-known individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi, F.K. Lehman, Ne Win, Than Shwe and U Nu. When we do encounter the lives of “ordinary” people, these have often been presented as collective voices amalgamated into harrowing accounts of human rights abuses and suffering. Undoubtedly, these themes and personages play a fundamental role in advancing our understanding of Myanmar and its people. Nevertheless, these studies only document certain aspects of the diversity of experiences.
This book achieves the goal of presenting the everyday lives of people in Myanmar in three distinct ways.
First, it examines the lives of Burmese people within the context of wider political events, such as the 1988 demonstrations and the Saffron Revolution of 2007. This is elegantly done by the authors, who describe the ways in which personal lives are woven into and [End Page 285] play a part in major political upheavals experienced in the country. It was fascinating to read about certain aspects of well-known political and economic events and about the ways in which they affected the various chapters’ protagonists. For example, the devaluation of the currency under Ne Win and the appropriation of bank deposits by the government had a huge and lasting impact on U Thein Aung, as described in Hsin-Chun Tasaw Lu’s chapter. The impact of government policies on the everyday lives of people, and how they had to cope are testimony to the resourcefulness, creativity and tenacity of these “ordinary” people.
The second aspect of the book that makes it a success is the way in which the nuances, contradictions and complexities of individual lives are vividly captured. These are exemplified in Hsin-Chun Tasaw Lu’s description of U Thein Aung’s refusal to perform in public as a protest against attempts to commercialize and politicize music; James C. Scott’s chapter on Dr U Tin Win, who finds escape in film and uses it to frame meaning in his life; and Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung’s account of the political career of Karen activist Maung Sin Kye.
Moreover, many of these narratives show us the way in which individuals have forged their own paths against what appear to be overwhelming odds. Pascal Khoo-Thwe describes the hardships and joys of his mother’s life, Ma Thida writes about her determination to live democratic ideals through medical practice and writing, Eric Tagliacozzo introduces the experiences of Muslims who have undertaken pilgrimages to Mecca despite quotas set by the Burmese government, and Wen-Chin Chang details the setbacks and travels of two Chinese traders.
The third exciting feature of the book is the description of people’s lives as embedded in social relations. Mandy Sadan’s narrative of her mother-in-law, Maran Ja Bang; Maxime Boutry’s chapter on the Burman and Moken living on islands off the southern coast; and Karin Eberhardt’s account of the agricultural contributions of Sara Brang Awng in northern Shan State speak to the importance of situating individuals within their communities. In particular, Bénédicte Brac [End Page 286] de la Perrière’s chapter on her research assistant/informant reveals the way in which the divide between ordinary people and those who...