- Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar by Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung
With the past decade’s flurry of global attention on Myanmar’s political economy, detailed understanding of people’s daily lives has often been missing from such discussions at the level of international policy. Or even worse, economic studies or experiences in other places are assumed a basis for knowledge projected upon Myanmar’s economic actors. With extensive, nuanced surveys of people in Myanmar, the political scientist Ardeth Maung Thawngmung’s exciting new book, Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar, represents a vivid, readable step toward correcting the aforementioned aporia in studies of the country’s political economy, and in doing so, giving voice to how local people consider value and their own political futures.
Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar consists of eight chapters, including a meaty introduction and conclusion. The total text is just over 200 pages. The six body chapters are as [End Page 329] follows: (1) “Variations in Coping Strategies”; (2) “Living Frugally”; (3) “Working on the Side”; (4) “Networks, Community, and External Aid”; (5) “Boosting Morale”; and finally (6) “Accommodating, Resisting and Exiting.” Before chapter 4, there is a series of sixteen photos, a worthy photo essay in and of itself, visual depictions of the kinds of economic livelihoods and grinding—though often quirky—realities that frame people’s lives in Myanmar. These include petty vendors, construction workers, and teashop kids and many, many others. Importantly as well, these economic transactions are not necessarily commodified (labor assistance is often reciprocal), nor are they considered salaried occupations.
As such, it could be incorporated into classes on Southeast Asian studies, political economy, and development studies at either the undergraduate or (post)graduate level. The discussions of coping and accommodation strategies used by people in Myanmar are brought into challenging conversation with theories such as James Scott’s Moral Economy of the Peasant, and in exploring how many peoples’ daily lives start with a certain accommodation of the status quo, we can question the extent to which explorations of ideas of resistance are reflective of peoples’ dreams and desires. Where acceptance is seen as a strategic end of accommodation (and therefore enduring) the powers that be, the age-old question returns: whether the dominant culture has created a resilient culture of complacency, alienation, or investment in future civic engagement. Perhaps much like her many subjects, Thawnghmung has left this question up for debate. Following decades of military rule and ongoing armed separatist movements, land grabs, and citizenship controversies, survival is certainly a worthy priority. The very situation does, however, raise the question whether accommodation has led to undue exploitation and vulnerability of some populations in Myanmar over others.
In tandem with her discussion of material strategies, Thawnghmung describes some of the various ways in which economic survival is as cultural as recourse to religion and the supernatural might be seen as—in her words—“resilience [End Page 330] promoting” (p. 14). While so embedded in the local constraints of the material, in the twenty-first century, it seems apt to revisit the relationship between Buddhism (along with other religions in the country) and economic behavior. Whereas Melford Spiro’s pioneering essay on the subject based on ethnographic research from the late 1950s compellingly argued that thrift is neither practical nor virtuous in a Burmese Buddhist context, in Thawnghmung’s subjects we can see how they make use of such practices as methods for psychological coping. There is the point, and again, returning to the concept of the accommodation, that some religious cults, in their very offers of placating and mitigating misfortune, are possibly finding or creating new markets in this vulnerability.
Furthermore, and while Thawnghmung’s surveys offer insight into the working lives of people throughout Myanmar, there is sharp attention not to conflate these with economic survival of the majority Bamar group alone. Important legacies— and ongoing conflicts—surrounding some of the separatist groups and the ways in which sovereignties and national identity are still in flux are discussed as well. The paradigmatic and material shortcomings of the government...