AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 187

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Session 187: Everyday Politics in Burma

Organizer: Wen-Chin Chang, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

Chair: Vincent G. Boudreau, City University of New York, City College, USA

Discussant: Vincent G. Boudreau, City University of New York, City College, USA

In contrast to conventional political studies that interpret power relations basically from the perspective of the authorities, the concept of everyday politics, insightfully developed by James Scott, Benedict Kerkvliet and Vincent Boudreau, stresses looking into the everyday life of the popular realm in order to explore common people’s reaction against prevailing rule and order and unequal allocation of resources. The focal points are not the elite class or organized political movements, but more individual activities (sometimes in a collective form) that challenge the disparities of class and power relations. As Burma has been ruled by successive suppressive military regimes since 1962, this approach to everyday politics has particular relevance. It not only helps to dig into the intricate socio-political conflicts tied to ethnicity and state legitimacy as seen against the backdrop of its people’s long history of resistance to external rules, but also to consider their adaptive strategies in everyday life management. This panel includes participants from the fields of political science, anthropology and ethnomusicology. Based on their various disciplinary interests, the participants examine different domains of everyday life in Burma—economy, education and music—in order to bring out voices from inside this country and to assess the broader implications of these practices in relation to its current situation.

The Underground Trade by the Migrant Yunnanese Chinese since the 1960s in Burma
Wen-Chin Chang, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

During the period of the Burmese socialist regime from 1962 to 1988, General Ne Win implemented the nationalization of trade and industry that quickly brought the country into economic recession and created a scarcity of essential goods. This in turn led to the growth of a black-market economy. More than 80 percent of consumption goods were smuggled from Burma’s neighboring countries, especially Thailand. And among the smugglers, the migrant Yunnanese, located in the borderlands of Shan State and northern Thailand, were the predominant group. This paper explores the theme of the everyday politics in Burma seen from the intricate relationship between this contraband activity and the suppressive politico-economic rule. The paper draws on many informants’ narrative accounts that disclose their fear as well as economic agency in the face of this authoritarian governance. While on the one hand the prevailing smuggling may be interpreted as a form of resistance in people’s everyday life against the ruling regime, in effect it also enhanced and prolonged the corruption of the regime, legacy that continues today.

Childhood and Everyday Forms of Agency
Mary P. Callahan, University of Washington, USA

In much of Myanmar, childhood is defined by exploitation, discipline, duty and fear. Government neglect of health, education and welfare, as well as the ever growing economic desperation of poor families across the country, leaves many children with neither protection nor much in the way of life prospects. Aggregate statistics are appalling: One-third of children under five experience malnutrition. About 110 of every 1,000 children die before they reach age five. This figure is double the regional average. The “public” education system is neither public nor educational. Parents pay more than the GDP per capita in informal-yet-compulsory “supplemental” school fees, the bulk of which are never accounted for. Rote instruction dominates instructional style, with very little consideration of educational psychology, pedagogical alternatives or child development theories. However, a number of parents, organizers and community groups recently have begun rethinking “childhood” as one of several agendas for social transformation and empowerment. Still small-scale, a scattered set of initiatives is under way to embrace child-centered theories of education, not just for school reform, but as one way to reshape institutions and practices of power. For the most part, this rethinking of childhood is a grassroots initiative, one not approved by any officials in Naypyitaw, but also has not as yet been disallowed. This paper will explore how early childhood education has become a site for everyday forms of political agency.

The Politics of Everyday Life in Twenty-first Century Myanmar
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, USA

This article discusses the strategies adopted by ordinary citizens in contemporary Burma/Myanmar to cope with their daily lives, and assesses the diverse impacts of their activities on a range of issues including the nation’s long-term economic prospects and political practices. Ben Kerkvliet characterises these adaptive activities as 'everyday politics,' since they are focused on the distribution of key resources. While many of these informal activities have produced autonomous and self-governing spaces and have led to policy changes with positive outcomes for society, others, particularly those that support the status quo, may serve to prop up authoritarian regimes and undermine democratic efforts in many countries. No systematic or comprehensive analysis has yet been carried out to assess the ways in which the coexistence of these two contradictory aspects of ‘everyday politics’ have impacted on the society, polity and economy of Third World countries. My paper attempts to fill this gap by identifying individual and collective activities that create products, provide services and promote social capital (trust, community support and networking) and also highlights those factors that undermine them. I argue that not all locally initiated strategies aimed at immediate survival and the addressing of individual and collective needs create goods, deliver services, or promote autonomous spaces and collective welfare. Most of these efforts are responses by individuals, groups and organizations aimed at managing and taking advantage of constraints and opportunities that are often specific to local areas, and they may have long-term detrimental effects on the wider society, polity and economy.

Cohesion and Collision: The Politics of U Tin Yi’s Bi-Musicality Performance in Burma
Tasaw Hsin-chun Lu, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

U Tin Yi is a highly influential exponent of violin music in modern Burma. Reared both in Western and Burmese musical classics, he cultivated bi-cultural musicality in violin arts. Molding his musical styles and identities closely to the ideologies prioritized at different times has created and maintained his great renown. It is this self-reflective turn that makes it possible for him to amend his musical representation to fit into the social changes. Today, in everyday propaganda for national unity, U Tin Yi is often politicized with extreme national pride as a musician of the thachìn gyì, a court-derived musical heritage. Whereas, in the commercial domain, he is unquestionably a popular Western classical violinist, performing in TV commercials, as well as film and pop music industries. This paper unveils that, nonetheless, he does not thus compromise his creativity with Burma’s nationally and industrially constructed norms. Rather, moving beyond the two classical arenas, he undertakes experimental innovation in his musical production by integrating Western principles into Burmese musical tradition. Under different ruling powers since 1962, his has developed divergently new Burmese musical forms, which serve as an enactment of his autonomy in challenging Burma’s then popular ideologies of the thachìn gyì violin playing. In the long run, his experimental music was found to collide with the public taste, neither creating a lasting musical style nor expanding the audience for such music. Yet he has “elevated” violin music in Burma to an individual art form, and also brought him international fame.