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Democratic Deservingness and Self-Reliance in Contemporary Myanmar.

What makes a community 'deserving' of government support? Can collective claims for state aid entrench contingent rights and inequality despite the transition to more representative modes of governance? Drawing on sixteen months of ethnographic and survey research conducted in central-east Myanmar since 2015, this article explains why communities that prove their 'self-reliance' become eligible to receive state poverty alleviation and development aid in contemporary Myanmar. Focusing on mechanisms and idioms of claim-making from the state, it analyses what community contributions to local development reveal about the politics of entitlement in Myanmar's nascent democracy. (1)

The military regime which governed Myanmar following the 1988 collapse of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was infamous for demanding corvee or involuntary labour from ordinary people in the construction of national and local infrastructure. The practice of forced labour has declined significantly in recent years, especially as Myanmar's transition to partial civilian rule has strengthened mechanisms of downward accountability and increased state spending on local development and poverty alleviation programmes. The result has been a reduction, though certainly not elimination, in the use of forced labour by state officials in the delivery of developmental public goods.

Despite the changing political and social context, however, community contributions to local development initiatives have continued. Indeed, they are now a major source of local public goods in both urban and rural areas of provincial Myanmar. This article argues that the ubiquity of 'self-reliance' initiatives in today's more democratic context highlights how a minimalist reconfiguration of state social responsibility has taken root in Myanmar's young democracy. Tracing case studies of local development initiatives and analysing household survey data from provincial Myanmar, it shows how communities that demonstrate their commitment to an ethic of 'self-reliance' are markedly more likely to receive government grants and schemes than their counterparts. A regressive notion of entitlement in which the poor bear a disproportionate burden for the provision of public goods is entrenched through these initiatives. Meanwhile, supposed 'democracy' activists question the right to social aid of those unable or unwilling to contribute to initiatives, revealing notions of 'unworthiness' with clear parallels to the neoliberal ideology currently dominant in austerity Europe and the United States. (2)

The article proceeds in two sections. Section One shows that the decline of 'forced labour' projects since the mid-2000s has occurred alongside an increase in projects of 'self-reliant' local development. These initiatives rely far less on physical punishment and often deliver clear benefits to participants, yet similarly solicit significant contributions in labour, cash and in kind from residents in the name of collective self-improvement. It then explores how the leaders of projects seek to hide hierarchies of wealth and elide the support provided by state officials in an attempt to construct an image of 'self-reliance'. Section Two shows how participants use these projects to make claims for development aid or poverty alleviation assistance from state officials. Drawing on household survey data and case studies, it sketches an idealized mechanism of eligibility and ineligibility to state aid in contemporary Myanmar. It then shows how requiring collective contributions to public goods inscribes an ideology of subsidiarity in which responsibility for development should rightly be shared by the sovereign state and its subjects and dispersed only to those who demonstrate their deservingness. The logic of competing to earn 'rights' or 'opportunities' for development justifies the exclusion of people unwilling or unable to contribute to local improvement from poverty alleviation aid, especially ethnic and religious minorities. The article concludes that even though the state has expanded spending on redistribution in recent years, moralized distinctions between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor are being reinforced in ways that perpetuate social and economic inequalities and legitimize exclusion in the name of democracy.

Section One: 'Self-Reliance' and Collective Improvement

Since 2010, Myanmar's military leaders have permitted the transfer from direct junta rule to partial civilian governance. In 2011, Myanmar's former dictator General Than Shwe handed power to a government led by former military leader Thein Sein and senior members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a pro-junta mass organization that became the military's favoured political vehicle. President Thein Sein's administration subsequently permitted political opposition and allowed for the liberalization of media and civil society. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) quickly re-emerged as an electoral force following its earlier victory in the 1990 elections, which senior generals of the military junta had annulled. Despite authoritarian suppression of branch activities weakening the NLD's party structure, abstract and morally imbued notions of 'democracy' circulated widely amongst elites and ordinary people throughout junta rule (see Houtman 1999, pp. 308-25). These ideals provided the normative basis for the re-emergence of the party as an electoral force in the 2012 by-elections (Stokke, Win Khine, and Soe Myint Aung 2015, pp. 25-27), and help explain why NLD candidates won almost 80 per cent of civilian seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament at the 2015 election (Thawnghmung 2016, p. 133).

Contrary to the classic Meltzer-Richard (1981) model of distributive politics, which assumes that elections create institutional incentives for political elites to implement policies in the interests of the 'median voter', elite notions of 'democracy' in Myanmar have not promised significant state social action. (3) Rather, the notions of political freedom enlisted by activists in campaigns since 2012 instead emphasize the importance of citizens exercising moral conduct by taking responsibility for themselves and collective social life. As political scientist Matthew Walton argues, freedom for many activists carries dual connotations of both liberation from "political or economic oppression or enslavement" as well as a Buddhist notion of "overcoming desire" (Walton 2016, p. 96). Drawing on interviews with predominantly ethnic Bamar Buddhist members of the democracy movement between 2012 and 2014, political scientist Tamas Wells shows how these inflections of liberty produce an understanding of democracy that emphasizes negative 'freedom from' constraints on moral conduct rather than positive 'freedom to' exercise individual entitlements to social or legal rights (Wells 2018, p. 4).

These understandings of democracy and the duties of citizenship have been borne out in government expenditure priorities since the transition to civilian rule. State spending on education and health has increased since 2011, as theories of democratization and redistribution predict. However, these core areas of social expenditure together comprised less than the total budget for defence in 2017-18. (4) Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (MoSWRR), the agency responsible for the bulk of individual social assistance schemes such as direct cash transfers, old age and disability pensions and unemployment insurance received only 0.09 per cent of government expenditures in the 2016-17 budget (Yaw Bawm Mangshang and Griffiths 2018, p. 13). (5) Outside of healthcare, for which households bore more than 74 per cent of costs in 2015 (Brennan 2017; see Inn Kynn Khaing et al. 2015), it has been difficult for scholars to study how increased state expenditure has impacted individual notions of entitlement or an abstract social contract. (6)

On a collective level, however, local development expenditures disbursed to support community infrastructure improvements or poverty alleviation initiatives have become a favoured tool of civilian decision-makers. Thein Sein's administration created a number of local development funds following liberalization, many run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation. (7) These schemes have provided new opportunities for interaction between state officials and local communities, and many have genuinely delivered improved infrastructure and rural livelihoods outcomes, especially in remote areas of the country (see Egreteau 2017; Griffiths 2016).

There is clear potential for state officials to use local development funds to secure electoral support or personal benefit. However, the selection process is also determined by whether and how a community proves its worthiness to receive state support. Indeed, a major factor on which communities are chosen to receive local development funds is their demonstrated willingness to assume significant burden for local development. Communities who perform their commitment to a democratic ethos of co-produced development are thus considered more deserving of state funds by state officials than those who have not. Prior to describing in Section Two how this mechanism of eligibility functions in both urban and rural contexts alike, it is necessary to historically situate self-reliance within the larger context of community infrastructure provision in Myanmar.

Forced Labour and Myanmar's Public Infrastructure

Contributing labour or funds to public goods or state initiatives has a long history in Myanmar. The practice of corvee labour to construct pagodas, bridges, roads and irrigation was common during pre-colonial monarchies (Taylor 2009, pp. 43-44). However, after the 1988 uprising and transition to the junta-mediated capitalism of the 1990s and 2000s, Myanmar became globally notorious for the practice of forced labour (see Vatikiotis 1996, p. 48). Despite being a signatory to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention, reports throughout the 1990s detailed the use of forced portering in conflict zones and involuntary labour to construct infrastructure, especially irrigation aimed at improving national rice output (Horsey 2011, pp. 10-11). (8) Military officers or headmen of villages oversaw many projects and would often claim a portion of subsequent crop yield at a fraction of market rates, both to meet junta quotas and for personal benefit (Thawnghmung 2001, p. 247). If these requests were refused, or if labourers grew tired, beatings, imprisonment or fines were common (see Horsey 2011, pp. 4-5). Despite international outcry into the early 2000s, senior junta officials defended what they termed 'people's contributions' to infrastructure, arguing that they were coherent with Buddhist ethics and British colonial-era laws (Horsey 2011, pp. 11, 35).

In the early 2000s, the Myanmar military junta began to rely less on forced labour. Amid pressure from the ILO, the junta began to permit egregious cases of forced labour to be heard in Burmese courts, resulting in the sentencing of local government officials on charges of forced labour from 2004 onwards (Horsey 2011, pp. 1, 137-40). Though the practice continues to be documented in conflict zones, including Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States, state officials have reduced their reliance on forced labour for government construction projects, especially since the introduction of elections for local administrators in 2011 (Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2007, p. 246; Pursch et al. 2018, pp. 27-32). (9)

Though rural development projects involving corvee labour have declined, community contributions to public goods provision have not ceased. In early 2016 the author led a survey of 1,000 households in Taungoo township, Bago Region and Thandaungyi township, Karen State. The survey, which included 600 households in 28 villages and 400 households in 14 urban wards, found that 70 per cent of respondents in rural areas and 47 per cent in urban areas attributed local road construction to 'self-reliance' or a 'partnership' between 'the community' and the state (see Figure 1). (10) Though state-led corvee projects declined from the mid-2000s, local improvement initiatives framed by participants as 'self-reliance' appear to have increased. So, what distinguishes 'self-reliance' initiatives from forced labour?

'Self-Reliance' is a Descriptive and Normative Term

'Self-reliance' is a descriptive and normative idiom that denotes the need for individuals and households to take control of their own affairs. Aspiring to political and economic 'self-reliance' from foreign capital and markets was a primary objective for independence-era leaders from 1948 onwards. Both democratically elected Prime Minister U Nu and military dictator General Ne Win legitimized state-driven import substitution industrialization with reference to ideologies of collective labour and sacrifice (see Tharaphi Than 2013, p. 651; Maung Maung 1953, pp. 117-18; McCarthy 2018, chap. 2). Following the dissolution of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the post-1988 military junta subsequently abandoned Ne Win's socialism in favour of crony capitalism. Despite the shifting role of 'self-reliance' in state ideology and foreign relations, residents interviewed frequently characterized a 'self-help' outlook as 'practically' necessary to survive economic liberalization and the withdrawal of the patchy social support previously ideologically promised, though sparingly delivered, by the BSPP. (11) The subject or agent in idiomatic accounts of these periods almost always references 'oneself (ko), as in common idioms "stand on one's own" (kothu kotha), "rely on one's own strength" (ko ah koko) and "eat one's own rice" (kothamin kosa). As a former soldier and village tract administrator explained,
FIGURE 1 Attribution of who built road nearest to dwelling

                             Rural  Urban

Self-reliance                 52%    38%
Government (all)              20%    34%
Self-reliance and gov (all)   16%     9%
Village elder and other        5%     4%

Note: Respondents were asked "Who built the nearest road to your
house?", with multiple options permitted.
Source: Author's survey.

Note: Table made from bar graph.

After 1988, people started to develop a self-reliance/do-it-yourself
(kothu kotha) attitude as the government totally collapsed. So, people
developed the attitude that if they don't work for themselves they
won't have food to eat. (12)

As sources of contingent social aid, such as rations from BSPP food stores, ceased or were radically reconfigured, interviewees used the idiom of 'self-reliance' to describe the creative livelihoods strategies necessary for their survival. Yet many interlocutors also used 'self-reliance' to denote a 'normative' commitment to looking 'beyond the state' for aid, a significant shift in meaning from the post-independence promise of a modern welfare state achieved through collective sacrifice and autonomy. Though the 'self evoked in these idioms refers to the individual or the family unit, civil society activists, religious authorities and administrators engaged with during research also enlisted the earlier collective connotations of 'self-reliance' to encourage cooperation with village, ward or neighbourhood projects of improvement. (13) Accounts of these late 1990s and early 2000s initiatives by residents of provincial Myanmar emphasized the voluntary nature of contributions from 'the community'. Indeed, leaders of 'self-reliance' projects followed by the author often made careful distinctions between the labour provided by villagers, commonly in partnership with local religious authorities such as monks and pastors, and the coercive and 'unfair' deployment of forced labour by military officials to infrastructure projects after 1988. (14)

In the absence of in-depth accounts of local development projects in the 1990s and 2000s, it is difficult to assess the extent of organizational and interpretive overlap between what the state labelled as 'people's contributions', what international activists considered 'forced labour', and what ordinary people and local administrators now describe as 'self-reliance'. In 2015 and 2016, interviewees in provincial Myanmar described 'self-reliance' projects during junta rule as overwhelmingly small scale and locally oriented, often focusing on repaving high-use village roads with dirt and stone or digging drainage ditches to prevent flooding. The local focus of these initiatives appeared to cultivate a strong sense of ownership and benefit for many participants. (15) State officials were not always absent from 'self-reliance' projects, however. Interlocutors recounted local administrators, military-linked business people and even military commanders often leading or contributing to these initiatives through cash or in-kind donations. (16) Business people also recalled being encouraged by military officials to proactively contribute to local public good provision, organize fundraising campaigns and coordinate 'volunteer' labour in order to secure annual renewal of commercial licences (McCarthy 2018, chap. 3). (17)

Despite the role that authorities and commercial elites often played in these initiatives, the term 'self-reliance' attributed local improvements to the 'collective' efforts of all residents, rich and poor alike, regardless of their formal or informal associations with the junta. The contemporary discourse of 'self-reliance' thus rhetorically embeds local administrators, junta-linked business people and even military officers into notions of the 'self or community, an encapsulation of market actors into the 'collective' common in post-socialist contexts of state retrenchment (see Lai 2012). The fact that most projects are led by residents means that coordinators are able to solicit labour or cash from local residents far more willingly than forced labour projects. The household survey conducted by the author in 2016 found that participants at least retrospectively viewed their contributions to these initiatives as freely given. The freeness of contribution allowed Theravada Buddhists to view their actions as attracting the highest form of spiritual merit (kutho), thereby improving chances of ending the cycle of rebirth and achieving Nibbana. For instance, of those who said they had made contributions to local road construction, 97 per cent said that their actions or donations drew good karmic merit or grace as the projects contributed to the welfare of others. (18) Given that merit is widely seen to accrue only to actions taken or possessions renounced willingly (Kumada 2004, p. 5; Jordt 2007, pp. 101-2), these perceptions suggest a stronger sense of local ownership relative to the more coercive local improvement projects of the 1990s and 2000s. (19)

The sense of ownership that accompanies 'self-reliance' improvement projects appears to cultivate a perception that this is a fair or normatively appropriate way to achieve development. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) of respondents in the 2016 survey agreed with the statement that the local community 'should' bear some or all responsibility for construction of village or ward roads. Prior involvement in 'self-reliance' projects, and exposure to ideologies sceptical of state attempts to minimize its social responsibility, were strong predictors of support for an ideal of co-produced public goods; those who said road construction should be the sole responsibility of government were far less likely to have participated in these kinds of projects previously. (20) Beyond being a descriptive term used to collapse social hierarchies and promote collective responsibility for communal improvement, 'self-reliance' projects may thus cultivate a preference for social affairs being managed and resolved at the lowest level possible. (21) Contrary to expectations that the state will seek to take credit for local development support by government resources (see Sacks 2011), these ideals have not faded from village life with the expansion of state local development expenditure in recent years but have instead become a basis upon which communities compete against each other for government aid.

'Self-Reliance' Endures Expansion of State Social Spending

As the state has spent more money on poverty alleviation and infrastructure development since the transition to partial civilian rule in 2011, leaders of village and ward improvement initiatives--including government officials--continue to enlist idioms of communal 'self-reliance'. Many of these local improvement initiatives witnessed by the author since 2015 have been led by commercial elites with assistance from government officials in the form of funds or organizational and design support. Despite the significant role played by government officials and resources in these projects, however, project coordinators applied a moral veneer of 'self-reliance' regardless of who or how a local improvement initiative was delivered or supported.

Local administrators involved in improvement projects repeatedly stressed that it was "not good" to talk about the support an initiative received from government officials as it might foster perceptions of coercion and evoke memories of forced labour, thereby undermining the notion of contributions given by ordinary residents as volitional and meritorious. (22) Instead, the assistance of state officials in the form of funds, machinery or technical advice was repeatedly subsumed into the abstract notion of the collective 'self of the community. They often fused Buddhist idioms of giving (dana) and 'work for others' (parahita) popularized during the 1990s and 2000s with an adapted socialist discourse extolling collective problem-solving and 'unity' (sii lone hmu). (23)

Emphasizing collective self-reliance enables authorities to solicit disproportionate financial and labour contributions from poorer households. The amounts donated to projects by more affluent households often appear to be highly progressive; in some urban contexts surveyed, these contributions comprised between two and five times the amount donated by poorer households. (24) When the foregone wage value of labour contributions to 'self-reliant' initiatives are considered, however, the discourse of collective 'unity' enlisted in projects of local improvement may actually be regressive. Poorer households in the survey, for instance, were 8 per cent more likely to contribute labour for road initiatives than richer households and 12 per cent more likely than middle-income respondents (see Figure 2). (25) Moreover, when overall household donations to social and religious causes are calculated as a proportion of household expenditure, the amounts donated are almost equal between poor households (7 per cent) and more affluent households (10 per cent). The poor thus carry a larger burden for non-state provision of public goods relative to their wealth, use and role in their degradation or benefit from the improvement. Seen in this way, the discourse of 'self-reliance' as deployed in these initiatives morally legitimizes an unfair allocation of burden for public good provision. In so doing, they allow commercial elites to accrue reputations as community-minded benefactors despite contributing a similar proportion of their wealth than poorer residents to local improvement initiatives.
FIGURE 2 Types of contributions made to road projects by household

                     Poor & Poorest  Middle-income  Rich & Richest

Funds only                  2%             8%             8%
Labour and funds           18%            21%            33%
Labour and meetings        10%            16%            12%
Labour only                70%            35%            47%

Note: Respondents were asked, "Have you ever contributed to local road
construction?" and, if so, "What form of contribution?"
Source: Author's survey.

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Beyond hiding hierarchies of power and wealth, however, the idiom of 'self-reliance' also entrenches the expectation that communities assume the bulk of responsibility for local improvement and development. A case study of a village road-improvement initiative helps to tease out the practical, symbolic and strategic stakes of 'self-reliant' local development projects in contemporary Myanmar.

Seeking State Aid by Demonstrating 'Self-Reliance'

Many local administrators and ordinary people view 'self-reliance' as a central basis upon which resource claims can be made to authorities and decision-makers. A road project led by a local leader in a village on the fringe of a provincial town provides an insight into the perceived relationship between 'self-reliance' projects and eligibility to aid from the democratic state.

Kyaw Naing lives with his family in a small rural hamlet with around twenty or so other households about two hundred metres from a bitumen inter-town road connecting Bago Region with northern Karen State. A former Tatmadaw soldier now in his mid-sixties, he retired from active duty in the 1990s to this quiet agricultural area where he and his family could enjoy rural life as well as the benefits of proximity to schools and clinics less than a twenty-minute motorbike ride away. We first met in September 2015 at a small Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) campaign event held in the village prior to the November election, to which I was invited by one of the candidates.

After meeting a chatty group of locals, including Kyaw Naing, at the biriyani feast that followed the event, I was invited to return for the upcoming wedding of the local village administrator's daughter. I then became a regular visitor to the village before and after the November 2015 elections to chat about the national election campaign or swap local gossip. As I rode into the village on one of these visits in late January 2016, Kyaw Naing was sweeping the front yard of his small compound and invited me into his home. A few minutes after our first sips of tea, he passionately declared his admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi and informed me of his recent election as ten-house administrator--the lowest tier in the administrative structure of the Myanmar government bureaucracy (see Kyed, Harrisson, and McCarthy 2016). Repeatedly using the term 'democracy', he explained his plans to repave the hamlet laneway. I immediately grasped the value of the project, having been bogged on the same road a few months prior.

The road slated for repair led at one end through an adjacent hamlet to a bitumen inter-town road and trailed off into paddy fields at the other. Kyaw Naing had initially sought help from the village tract and township administrators, but they claimed to have spent all available funds until the next financial year. Convinced that 'doing it yourself was the only option in the short term, Kyaw Naing subsequently collected around US$20 per household for gravel and soil to cover the road. He insisted all financial contributions were entirely voluntary, though every household in the hamlet had contributed by the end of the project. When I returned on the day of the road construction in late February 2016, ten or so local men--their lungyis (sarongs) hitched up around their thighs--were shovelling stone from the back of a reversing truck on to the road where a group of jovial women with large pans were then disbursing the stones on to the muddy tracks of the road. Two household leaders who lent their labour expressed pride at the road improvements when I interviewed them later, emphasizing that their labour and financial contributions drew good grace. (26)

The small road improvement project was in some ways similar to rural development initiatives that enlisted forced labour during the 1990s and 2000s. Though violence was not used, the project was technically led by a local state official who 'encouraged' households--rhetorically and socially--to contribute both funds and labour. As with some 'forced labour' initiatives, the project also delivered a clear benefit to local residents--though the road came to an abrupt stop at the end of the hamlet and did not continue the extra fifty metres or so through the rest of the village and on to the main bitumen road to Taungoo. "That road is another administrator's responsibility", he explained to me when I asked why the improved road ended prematurely--a statement that highlighted the patchy salve 'self-reliance' initiatives often provide in rural contexts. Despite the limited efficacy of the project, however, for Kyaw Naing the project achieved strategic and symbolic as much as practical ends. He framed the project as a deeply political act that generated collective pride and set the standards for receipt of assistance from the NLD government elected in November 2015. The road repaving was an expression of 'self-reliance' that resonated with ideas of 'people power' evoked by Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD parliamentarians throughout the election campaign.
Really, this project is about pride that we don't have to rely on the
government. If I talk with the government I can be confident and have
pride, without feeling small. Now the government is elected by the
people, so by doing this work and sharing responsibility we are showing
we have power too. (27)

The emphasis on 'sharing responsibilities', 'collective pride' and 'showing power' resonated with discourses of morality and democracy that circulated throughout the 1990s and 2000s and recurred during the November 2015 election. Embedded within this demonstration of 'self-reliance', however, was also an expectation that when they learn of the village's efforts, representatives of 'the state' would view them as collectively worthy of government poverty alleviation and development aid. Kyaw Naing explained,
We are trying to influence the government by showing them we are
working hard. Once we lay the foundation for the road, then the
government could come later and do a better road.... When we do
self-reliance projects we can ask for more help from the government
because it shows we are organized and want to share responsibility. (28)

From Kyaw Naing's perspective, the small road repaving initiative demonstrated to state officials the willingness of the village to 'share responsibility' for development, obliging authorities to extend poverty alleviation assistance to the village in the future. Kyaw Naing's promise that the 'generosity' of residents would be more than reciprocated by state officials was not simply rural moralizing designed to eke free labour and informal taxation from local residents. Rather, he had good reason to believe that demonstrating 'self-reliance' could lure state aid to the village.

The following section examines how 'sharing responsibility' for development has become a primary basis for determining eligibility to expanding state aid, forming part of a strategy that political theorist Nikolas Rose (1999, p. 176) has termed "government by community". (29) Viewed through this lens, 'community' has become a useful tool "whose vectors and forces [are] mobilized, enrolled, deployed" by policy-makers (Rose 1999, p. 176).

Section Two: Democratic Deservingness and Inequality

'Self-Reliance', Rights and Government by Community

The notion that ordinary people carry considerable obligation and burden to advance the interests of the collective is a recurring feature of Burmese political thought. Drawing on the monarchical logics of pre-colonial Burmese kings, officials under Ne Win's socialist dictatorship often linked the contributions individuals made to collective projects of national or local improvement to their worthiness to receive legal or social rights. Scholar of Burmese legal and political thought Nick Cheesman (2015a, p. 107) highlights that during BSPP rule, the concept of 'rights' closely followed socialist legal logic (see Markovits 1978); rights were accrued to individuals or groups by virtue of their role in satisfying Ne Win's policy goals, and ultimately derived unilaterally from his goodwill (cedana). Individuals who sought redress--sometimes successfully--from BSPP officials would thus often emphasize the contributions they had made to Ne Win's project of socialism (Cheesman 2015a, pp. 107-9). Rights during BSPP rule were thus "conditional privileges paternalistically bestowed ... [upon] certain people who deserve them because they conform with the sovereign's vision for the community" (Cheesman 2015a, p. 109).

The logic of entitlement, in which possession of or withdrawal of 'rights' depended on the subject's performance of particular duties to the sovereign or state authorities, endured after the dissolution of the BSPP in 1988. SLORC/SPDC (30) officials outsourced obligations for social governance and redistribution previously ideologically promised (though inconsistently delivered) by the BSPP by encouraging 'self-reliance' in propaganda and disbursing commercial licences to clients who enacted this ideal locally (see McCarthy 2018, chap. 3). People who had engaged in forced labour, for instance, used participation in local improvement initiatives as proof of their worthiness to receive opportunities or chances from the state, or in the case of Muslims as proof of their right to 'have' rights (see Cheesman 2012, pp. 205-6 and 2015b, p. 139). Though the post-1988 junta dispensed with the pretence that it fulfilled parental functions for citizens, the vernacular notion of a 'social contract' remained "contextual and contested ... subject to one's ability to marshal other resources (symbolic, material, social), subject to luck or contingency ... state agent whim or risk profile, the extant political conditions in the country etc." (Prasse-Freeman 2015, p. 98). (31) As anthropologist Elliot Prasse-Freeman notes from research with contemporary activist networks, the word 'right' (khwint) as used in everyday language reflects this context, retaining a slippery, ungraspable texture--more commonly associated with contingent notions of 'permission', 'approval' or 'opportunity' than an entitlement or "demand for a restoration of what one already 'has'" (Prasse-Freeman 2015, p. 96).

With the transition to partial civilian rule and the development of alternate and more direct mechanisms of claim-making such as political parties, parliamentary committees and advocacy groups, we would expect more assertive forms of claim-making to emerge. Many have taken up these opportunities, especially since 2011. (32) Cheesman (2015a, pp. 227-37) analyses letters to authorities between 2004 and 2013, in which what he refers to as "citizen-complainants" asserted their entitlement to rights and redress, shifting from supplication to stridency when successive attempts to secure redress failed. Prasse-Freeman (2018, p. 412) similarly describes assertive claim-making amongst land-rights activists seeking restoration of land from which farmers had been dispossessed. Despite new opportunities for claim-making through various 'representative' institutions, the logic that rights accrue to people or communities who practise and possess virtues coherent with the sovereign's vision of political community is being reinforced rather than weakened with the transition to partial civilian rule. But does demonstrating commitment and contribution to the collective actually work in soliciting aid from the state? The next section shows that contemporary authorities are entrenching an ideology of co-produced public goods, legitimized with reference to democratic duty, by disproportionately awarding state poverty alleviation and development aid to communities that appear to be 'self-reliant'.

Self-Reliance, when Rendered Legible, Enables Eligibility

Local improvement projects have played a key role in determining eligibility to state aid since the transition to partial civilian rule in 2011. 'Self-reliance' initiatives enable a powerful claim to worthiness from the democratic state as they present the image of a 'community' unified and bonded across wealth and social hierarchies.

Data on the distribution of state-mediated local development initiatives demonstrates that Kyaw Naing has good reason to be optimistic that the hamlet road could render his village more eligible to state aid. The 2016 household survey of twenty-eight rural villages in Taungoo, Bago Region and the adjacent township of Thandaungyi, Karen State, found a statistically significant skew in a major government loan scheme, the Green Emerald Fund. Administered by the Department of Rural Development (DRD) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation since 2014, the scheme aims to create revolving funds at the village level to support entrepreneurial activities (Robertson, Joelene, and Dunn 2015, p. 24). Though township DRD officers recommended which villages should receive the project funds, the chief minister and director of the DRD in the state or region gave final approval (Robertson, Joelene, and Dunn 2015, p. 24).

The survey found that respondents in villages that had been selected for inclusion in the 'Green Emerald' loans scheme were 17 per cent more likely to have contributed labour or funds to road construction in the past than households in otherwise similar villages nearby that had not been selected. (33) Communities that had demonstrated their 'self-reliance' through local improvement projects were thus disproportionately likely to receive the scheme than communities where fewer households had engaged in these initiatives. This difference was not a treatment effect, as the scheme provided household-level loans to support enterprise development across the village and was not intended to fund construction of local infrastructure. Rather, headmen in villages that received the Green Emerald scheme recounted how their communities had been selected for inclusion because they demonstrated their ability to fundraise and contribute to local improvement through earlier road construction projects and other initiatives of local improvement. (34) Local monks or welfare activists often helped coordinate these initiatives, which interviewees commonly described using idioms of 'self-reliance'.

Achieving eligibility for government funding is not as simple as engaging in 'self-reliance' projects, however. Village headmen described how local administrators, monks as well as business people or state officials connected in various ways to the villages, then lobbied relevant government officials to support their eligibility for the scheme. State aid was not secured unless the community proved both neediness and 'self-reliance' to decision-makers. Bonds to wealthy commercial elites were particularly important in this process, given that business people tend to have strong ties to state officials at the village tract, township and, in some cases, state or national level, a legacy of decades of commercial deals in exchange for assisting with junta projects or objectives (see McCarthy 2018, chap. 3). Poverty and engagement in 'self-reliance' projects in the past could thus be considered necessary but not sufficient conditions for communities to be rendered state assistance. 'Self-reliance' is thus acted out by performance community leaders and residents for authorities and patrons at various levels. It is a mask that is used to convince authorities of collective virtue that simultaneously reinforces hierarchies of power and wealth and entrenches the role of patrons as intermediaries of development.

A zero-sum logic to 'self-reliance' is exposed in competitions between communities embedded in many local development schemes. For instance, the US$480 million National Community Driven Development Programme (NCDDP), funded by the World Bank and the governments of Myanmar, Italy and Japan, includes a 'multi-stakeholder consultation' after the majority of villages in a participating township have received and used the grant. (35) This competition is judged by local and regional authorities such as parliamentarians, both on the basis of the impact of the projects as well as community participation and contribution to the success of the project. After speeches, presentations and in some cases performances such as dances from representatives of each village, prizes for 'Best Village' as well as second and third place are awarded. Competition is fierce for these prizes, with significant time and resources expended on projects of local improvement, as well as rehearsals and so on. The villages that are recognized in these competitions are able to lobby for inclusion in other development schemes on the basis of their official ratification as 'self-reliant', as they believe it has proved them worthy to receive state aid. (36)

There is a clear link between performances of 'self-reliance' and the eligibility of a community to receive state developmental intervention. The mechanism linking self-reliance and eligibility is whether and how a community makes itself legible to authorities as collectively deserving. Here I draw on James C. Scott's (1998, p. 2) notion of state technologies such as cadastral maps and censuses that simplify complex social phenomena into readable, comprehensible or 'legible' domains for state intervention. As extensive ethnographic research across South and Southeast Asia demonstrates, 'legibility' to authorities can be a bottom-up achievement of the governed population as much as it is inscribed unilaterally by state officials and their practices of governance. Partha Chatterjee's (2004, p. 33) work on 'political society' in India, for instance, explores how community-based welfare groups use various strategies to assist squatters in Calcutta to "get themselves identified as a distinct population group that would receive the benefits of governmental programs". Andrew Walker (2012, p. 33) has similarly recounted how ritual performances of 'community' and 'local development' in northern Thailand "add potency in the form of visibility and moral authority" to claims of eligibility to state aid or subsidy (see also Vandergeest 1991, p. 433). Legibility may thus best be understood as a key element in what Tania Li (2007, chap. 1) terms the 'politics of entitlement'. Focusing on local community development projects funded by the World Bank in provincial areas of Indonesia, Li analysed how various technologies of measuring community 'cohesion' were utilized to make villages the possible subjects of intervention by state and development actors. When state officials and communities are searching for an agreed or legitimate basis on which to selectively disburse state aid, "the sacred context of collective endeavour" or 'community' provides a mechanism for "the mutual construction of both legibility and eligibility" (Walker 2012, p. 33). (37) 'Self-reliance' initiatives play a similar role in contemporary Myanmar. Yet, while 'legibility' of a community to authorities may render them subject to state intervention, 'eligibility' does not mean that government agencies take full responsibility for the provision of public goods.

Eligibility to State Aid Requires Co-producing 'Development'

Even when eligibility to receive state aid is established, state-supported initiatives often require households and communities to co-produce 'development'. Willingness to co-contribute to projects in the form of funds or labour was a key selection criteria cited by a representative in the Karen State parliament who had helped coordinate more than sixty state-funded development initiatives between 2010 and 2015. He explained that many government grants and rural development schemes explicitly stated in project guidelines and consultation workshops with prospective communities that villages willing to contribute funds or labour "voluntarily" would be favoured over communities unwilling to make these contributions. (38) He argued that this criterion allowed government funds to "go further" and have a wider impact than would be possible if workers were paid. According to a consultant on the World Bank's NCDDP initiative, villages that are "more emphatic in their display of volunteer spirit" during the 'multi-stakeholder consultation' are similarly favoured in that scheme also. (39) Communities that demonstrate a track record of 'self-reliance' initiatives and a willingness to co-contribute to local improvement initiatives are seen as more worthy of these schemes than villages that do not make themselves legible as virtuous in the same manner.

There are other ways to view the absence of self-reliance initiatives. In her examination of local development initiatives in the Philippines, anthropologist Hannah Bulloch (2017, chap. 7) notes that the failure of villages to contribute to improvement projects could also signal the need for a community to receive 'more' and not less assistance from the state. Making 'self-reliance' the basis of eligibility to state aid thus institutionalizes a logic of deservingness to development aid in which poor communities must compete with each other to 'share' responsibility for development in ways that can legitimize an unfair and ineffective allocation of state aid.

I simplify the three broad stages whereby a local improvement initiative translates into eligibility to receive development support in Figure 3, noting that deservingness implies an ongoing responsibility to co-produce development. Implicit in this process of legibility and eligibility is both a minimalist conception of governmental responsibility for the welfare of citizens and a zero-sum logic in which communities must compete with each other on the basis of 'self-reliance' and the work they can do for authorities in order to be deemed worthy of state aid.

Democracy Justifies Exclusion of the Undeserving Poor

Embedded in the distinction between 'eligible' and 'ineligible' communities are hierarchies of deserving and undeserving poor. As Tania Li (2011, p. 117) recounts from her study of community 'cohesion' and development initiatives in Indonesia, hierarchies of collective virtue justify the exclusion of poor communities "whose failure to perform ma[k]e them ineligible for assistance". Communities that have not engaged in 'self-reliance' initiatives nor demonstrated a willingness to 'co-contribute' to state-supported improvement projects are placed at a distinct disadvantage as authorities see them as justifiably ineligible or unentitled compared with communities who accept 'government by community' as the basis of democratic entitlement. This pathway of illegibility, and thus ineligibility or weak entitlement, is visualized in Figure 4.

The ascendency of the NLD to Myanmar's civilian government in 2016 has strengthened rather than weakened distinctions between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The entrenchment of these categories is not the result of continued military control over these domains of the bureaucracy, as all ministries relevant to rural and local development are led by officials appointed by Myanmar's democratically elected civilian government, with the exception of the General Administration Department. (40) Despite this, national as well as local members of the NLD legitimize the co-production of public goods with reference to moral notions of democracy. At public events since 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly urged citizens, "Think of what you can contribute for the development of your country, not what benefits you can have from your country.... Only demanding rights without assuming responsibility and accountability, which are wholly left to the government, does not comply with democracy standards" (Suu Kyi quoted in Callahan 2017, p. 2). The constellation conjoining democracy with 'self-reliance' recurred in campaign events in the months prior to Myanmar's historic November 2015 elections. At a village meet-and-greet attended by the author in provincial Myanmar, one of the NLD candidates explained to villagers how 'development' would work if the NLD was elected:
[After the election], you will be able to ask for your rights (akhwint
aye) and try to develop your village.... We can cooperate and work
together. The NLD needs to know the needs of the village. But the
village also needs to discuss and cooperate with us to lead
improvements here. (41)

The notion of communities securing 'rights' by 'cooperating' with the state and leading improvements was notably absent of promises--such as funding for specific projects or initiatives in exchange for votes, a hallmark of clientelistic politics across the region (see Aspinall and Sukmajati 2016). Instead, candidates echoed the emphasis Suu Kyi herself places on democratic 'responsibility' or 'duties' to further entrench the notion of 'deserving' citizens.

Exclusion is easily justified in this understanding of democracy. If self-reliance is the basis of entitlement to aid from the democratic state, those who do not fulfil the 'responsibility' or 'duties' envisaged by Suu Kyi's moral notion of free political community are considered less worthy of state aid. State and regional NLD parliamentarians interviewed in September 2016 about the exclusion of communities who had not contributed to local development strongly agreed with this sentiment. They acknowledged the need to support communities in marginalized regions such as Chin State, the poorest province of the Union, where initiatives of local improvement are far rarer than in lowland central Myanmar. Yet they repeated Suu Kyi's formulation of reciprocal duties as a requirement of liberty, explaining that communities who had not engaged in local improvement initiatives were distinctly less deserving of state funding as "democracy needs people to take responsibility" for themselves. (42)

The contingency of this vision of entitlement is congruent with BSPP-era legal reasoning. Whereas eligibility to possess rights could previously be claimed by virtue of sacrifices made for Ne Win's objectives, and later in support of the minimally redistributive state-building strategy of the SLORC/SPDC, social aid can now be earned by demonstrating commitment to a political philosophy of subsidiarity and 'responsibility'. The claims of entitlement possible on the basis of forced labour during the junta-era and self-reliance today are thus categorically similar. In a deeply clientelistic understanding of social rights, both enable claims to "a delimited right tied to reciprocal duties" of ordinary citizens to assume significant burden for welfare and development (Cheesman 2015a, p. 109; see also Wells 2018; Berenschot, Hanani, and Sambodho 2018).


This article has examined how contingency and exclusion are enduring despite an expansion of state social spending in contemporary Myanmar. By focusing on local development initiatives, a key area of Myanmar's state expenditure in recent years, it has examined how hierarchies of worthiness are being institutionalized as communities compete to render themselves worthy to receive aid from the state. Rather than eligibility to assistance implying government leadership in local development, however, the animating logic of democratic deservingness envisions responsibility being shared by the state and its subjects.

The distributive imaginary reinforced through this politics of entitlement is cruelly optimistic (see Berlant 2011). It frames development and progress as achievable through the unity and generosity of community members alone, with minimal support from institutions of the state. Residents concerned about their inaccessibility at times of emergency or the spread of disease from openly flowing effluent are encouraged not to expect the state to respond, even though municipal governments and central state agencies now have more resources than ever to do so. Instead, citizens must first engage in practices of private redistribution by cultivating bonds across wealth and social hierarchies, and then make these bonds legible to authorities so as to prove themselves worthy of state aid.

There are multiple dimensions of inequality to this politics of entitlement. Less affluent households shoulder an unfair share of the burden for 'self-reliant' projects relative to their richer neighbours. Yet the poor tend to benefit far less from the provision of these public goods than commercial elites, who are disproportionately responsible for degrading the local infrastructure in the first place. Meanwhile, the competitive logic of democratic rights justifies the exclusion from state aid of people and communities unable or unwilling to stand on their own due to poverty or historical grievances against the state and its vision of political community. Failure to participate or co-contribute to public goods provision could logically signal the need for 'more' and not less assistance from the state. Yet the competition required to have 'rights' that is encouraged by distinctions between 'deserving' and 'undeserving poor' legitimizes withholding aid from the poor and lends itself to further excluding already marginalized ethnic and religious minorities. For instance, the imaginary of rights as zero-sum and competitive recurs in increasingly violent demands to exclude minorities such as the Rohingya and Muslims from any form of right and opportunity afforded to citizens. Narratives that have framed Muslims and South Asians more broadly as disproportionately wealthy and better resourced than average Burmese people (see McCarthy and Menager 2017, p. 406) circulate alongside state propaganda that has gradually excised Rohingya and other minorities from notions of 'national races' (taingyintha) (see Cheesman 2017). When these conceptions of citizenship are combined by state or ethnic elites, they lend powerful ideological content to campaigns aimed at violently excising minorities from territory and political community based on their 'unworthiness' to compete with 'legitimate' citizens for the finite resources or opportunities of the democratic state (see Davies 2018, pp. 145-57). The zero-sum nature of deservingness leads many to view the extension of state aid or due process to marginalized groups as coming at the cost of people or communities more deserving of state aid. The tragic fragmentation of solidarity with society's most vulnerable is borne out in the support many Burmese people expressed on the streets and on social media in support of Suu Kyi's civilian government and the Myanmar military after a campaign of state violence expelled over 720,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh in 2017.

Economic development and the planned expansion of more individualized state social spending in Myanmar over the coming years may cultivate more substantive ideas of 'entitlement' to social rights from the state (see MacLean 2011). Yet there is good reason to be sceptical. The role of patrons and moral criteria in determining deservingness, and the substitution of 'social rights' for virtues of 'self-reliance' and voluntary philanthropy, bear striking resemblance to the distributive politics of neighbouring countries such as India, Indonesia and Thailand, as well as more established democracies such as the United States and austerity Europe. Across these contexts, ideologies legitimizing state retrenchment or absence amid market reform have sought to uproot notions that state-mediated social protection and redistribution of wealth is "a matter of entitlement" rather than a generous 'gift' from authorities or patrons (Nickel 2018, p. 63; see also Kohl-Arenas 2016; Skocpol 2016; Muehlebach 2012). The endurance of a competitive logic of rights in Myanmar exposes how notions of deservingness predicated on 'self-reliance' can be embedded in democratic regimes, entrenching socially and economically detrimental inequality and exclusion despite electoral incentives. As xenophobia and austerity find their way into the heart of politics in democracies across the globe, the need to bury the myth of self-reliance and reimagine a fairer politics of democratic deservingness has rarely been so urgent.


The author acknowledges the invaluable feedback of Nick Cheesman, Renaud Egreteau, Mike McGovern, Australian National University Bell School Writing Group and two anonymous reviewers on earlier versions of this article. He also acknowledges the financial support of the Australian Government Research Training Program and International Growth Centre, Myanmar.


(1.) Throughout this article the author refers to Myanmar's regime type since early 2011 as 'partial civilian rule'. This term is used to signal the more representative form of governance that has existed since the military junta held the November 2010 election. Though not openly contested or considered free and fair, that election resulted in the formation of a reformist government largely led by civilianized former military officers who then held a more openly contested election in November 2015. In March 2016, power over civilian administration was then formally transferred to an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. However, as Myanmar's military retains twenty-five per cent of seats in the legislature, formal control over the Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs, and a veto on constitutional reform by virtue of the 2008 Constitution, it continues to refer to governance after the November 2015 election as 'partial civilian rule', albeit a more democratic form of it. For a useful critique of the teleological bias of literature on political 'transition' in Myanmar, see Girke and Beyer (2018).

(2.) Olken and Singhal (2011) highlight the commonality of redistributive systems such as taxation to be regressive yet still deliver valuable public goods. Regressive in this sense refers to a system of public goods provision in which the poor contribute a larger proportion of household income or labour than the wealthy.

(3.) A growing body of literature highlights that regressive systems of redistribution often endure despite democratic electoral incentives (Shapiro, Swenson, and Panayides 2008; Haggard and Kaufman 2012). Political scientists have increasingly focused on the mechanisms that enable inequality to persist despite democratization, particularly how authoritarian-era coalitions of economic elites legally protect their assets from redistribution upon transition (Albertus and Menaldo 2013; Ansell and Samuels 2014). For a fuller discussion of distributive politics in Myanmar and the path-dependence of authoritarian-era informal institutions on contemporary democratic practice, see McCarthy (2018, chaps. 1-3).

(4.) The combined budget for education and health comprised 13 per cent of the 2017/18 budget, compared with that for the defence ministry, which totalled nearly 14 per cent (see Nyein Nyein 2017).

(5.) As of early 2017 the ministry had a total of 4,935 staff, the majority of whom are assigned to pre-school education roles. For background, see Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (n.d.).

(6.) According to the World Bank, out-of-pocket expenses accounted for 74 per cent of all healthcare expenditures in Myanmar in 2015, compared with 60 per cent for Nepal and Cambodia and 48 per cent in Indonesia (see World Bank DataBank n.d.).

(7.) The most prominent schemes at the time of research in 2015 and 2016 were the Poverty Reduction Fund, Rural Development Fund and the Green Emerald Fund, along with the Constituency Development Fund and the Ministry of Cooperative's Agricultural Loan Programme (Robertson, Joelene, and Dunn 2015, p. ii). The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation administered the first three of these schemes, along with initiatives that now extend to much of the country, such as the World Bank--funded National Community Driven Development Project (NCDDP). Constituency development funds, meanwhile, were managed by a Union central committee and a township-level committee comprised of parliamentarians and public servants (Robertson, Joelene, and Dunn 2015, pp. 10-11). The scheme, established in 2013, provides 100 million kyat (US$75,000) to parliamentarians across Myanmar's 330 townships to fund basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, clinics and schools. Reflecting experiences in similar regional contexts, political scientist Renaud Egreteau (2017, p. 13) notes considerable scope for constituency development funds to be expended in a 'pork-barrel' manner to secure electoral support of specific voters or constituencies. However, as the 2015 election was effectively a 'referendum on military rule' for many voters (see McCarthy 2015), intermediating local development projects for political benefit won little loyalty for parliamentarians and appeared to have little impact on their re-election prospects. Less than 13 per cent of parliamentarians elected in 2010 were re-elected at the November 2015 election (Egreteau 2017, p. 16).

(8.) In most unirrigated rice growing regions in the 1990s, only two harvests were made a year. The push towards increased irrigation was thus indicative of the junta's campaign to boost agricultural productivity (Vatikiotis 1996, p. 48). Rural development projects relying on forced labour thus increased significantly after 1988, apparently resulting in an increase in the total irrigated area of Myanmar from 2.5 to 4.1 million acres between 1991-92 and 1994-95. The scale of the push to rural irrigation was evinced in US Embassy reports which placed the value of new irrigation works between 1993 and 1995 alone at around 100 million kyat, compared to 126.7 million kyat for the entire thirty-one-year period between 1962 and 1992 (Thawnghmung 2001, pp. 246-47).

(9.) For reports of alleged forced labour in recent years, see Fortify Rights (2016).

(10.) Over 60 per cent of respondents in the sample townships reported personally contributing to the construction of local roads--92 per cent giving labour, 27.5 per cent donating funds. Middle-income and rich households were much more likely to have contributed financially. Researchers in other regions of Myanmar have also noted significant community participation and contribution to local public goods provision in recent years (see Griffiths 2017; Okamoto 2017).

(11.) The BSPP had assumed a significant role in disbursing quotas for basic household goods and foodstuffs in service of the party state's notion of distributive justice. A system of cooperatives, quotas and food stores were operated by state officials, stocked by quotas which required farmers to sell their agricultural produce to state enterprises at fixed, below-market prices (Brown 2013, p. 140). Research from the early BSPP period suggests that many fanners collected quotas of rice and other foodstuffs from government stores while simultaneously selling their best rice on the black market and delivering poor quality rice to state enterprises (Mya Maung 1970, p. 543). Historian Robert Taylor notes that the system of cooperatives, mass organizations and food stores served to ensure many farmers at least ritualistically adhered to the language, symbols and ceremonies of the BSPP state (Taylor 2009, p. 373).

(12.) Interview, 8 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(13.) For a discussion of self-reliance and self-help as a practice of everyday resistance "between passivity and open, collective defiance" (Scott and Kerkvliet 1986, p. 1) against the state during junta rule in Myanmar, see chapter four of Mullen (2016).

(14.) See Prasse-Freeman (2012, pp. 385-86) for a fascinating discussion of what ninety-five Burmese people, who wrote letters to Than Shwe in the late 2000s, viewed as 'fair' and 'unfair' forced labour.

(15.) Research from this period suggests that the extent of benefit to participants was a key determinant of how contributions to improvement projects were perceived. Thawnghmung (2001, p. 251) argued that perceptions of labour contributions to irrigation projects varied amongst farmers according to "how it affected their lives, whether they are paid or not, and the season in which they were drafted and called upon". She cites an interview with a farmer who was initially "very angry when he was ordered by the authorities to construct a small-scale irrigation network adjacent to his village. In retrospect, however, he was very grateful for the leadership of the military regime and the local political and civilian officials made summer paddies possible" (cited in Thawnghmung 2001, p. 251). Thawnghmung (2001, p. 251) concludes that those who received a clear benefit from irrigation in the form of higher yields on their land nearby had a more positive perception of involuntary labour and financial contributions than those who accrued little or no benefit.

(16.) Interview, 8 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(17.) Interview with traders, 3 and 8 August 2015 and 6 May 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(18.) This association of work on public goods projects with good merit or grace was consistent at over 95 per cent across both townships and across all major religious communities with more than fifty respondents surveyed (Buddhist, Christian and Muslim). These associations suggest that the social and cosmological interpretation of 'work for others' has been embraced by both non-Buddhist and Buddhist communities alike in the survey areas.

(19.) The notion that working on village roads could draw merit also contrasts sharply with research conducted during the 1950s that suggested that labelling contributions to public goods provision as 'meritorious' was highly contentious. Anthropologist Melford Spiro, for instance, recounted a village elder in the 1960s who "contrary to most of the villagers, insisted that public works for the common good--for example, the repair of roads--was also dana, which would confer merit on the volunteer worker" (Spiro 1982, p. 464).

(20.) A complementary explanation for this data is that people unwilling to assume responsibility for local public goods tend to withhold their support for self-reliance initiatives in the first place. Rates of participation in initiatives were higher in the lowland context of Taungoo (70 per cent) and significantly lower (60 per cent) in Thandaungyi, where the Karen National Union (KNU) has criticized military infrastructure projects and encouraged villages to withhold support from such initiatives for decades. Variations in participation rates thus correlate with exposure to ideologies critical of state attempts to outsource social responsibility. However, greater community involvement is also a strong predictor of normative support for 'self-reliance', with respondents who viewed self-reliance as the preferred form of road provision in both contexts having a markedly higher social capital score marked out of an index of 20: 8.4 in Taungoo and 7.5 in Thandaungyi, compared with a mean of all respondents of 8.1 in Taungoo and 7.19 in Thandaungyi. The twenty-point index combined a series of variables focused on interaction and contribution to public goods and to other ethnic or religious communities, weighted in order to ensure the relevance of the index to both urban and rural contexts, where reciprocity practices take differing forms.

(21.) There were good reasons for residents and local administrators to embrace the ideal of 'self-reliance' during junta rule, as it allowed communities to avoid interaction with higher authorities. Political scientist Ardeth Thawnghmung's research (see Thawnghmung 2003, and 2004, chaps. 4 and 5) on perceptions of legitimacy in rural Myanmar in the 1990s, for instance, highlights that headmen who strategically managed junta officials in ways that maximized benefits for locals and kept state officials at bay were considered to be the most effective and 'legitimate' by villagers.

(22.) Field notes, 3 and 5 April 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(23.) Field notes, 12 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(24.) In one urban ward road improvement project in which the municipal government itself was privately contracted by a ward committee to renovate and repave ward roads and drainage ditches, commercial elites donated the equivalent of US$200 compared to US$40 for poorer households (Field notes, 12 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar).

(25.) Eighty-eight per cent of poor households reported contributing labour and/or funds to local road improvements, compared with 80 per cent for richer households and 76 per cent for middle-income households. More affluent households, in contrast, were 6 per cent more likely to have solely contributed funds than poorer respondents.

(26.) Interviews, 8 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Interview, 8 February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(29.) Rose argues that as the market reforms of the 1970s and 1980s prompted attempts to retrench state welfare schemes in many developed democracies, policymakers increasingly framed 'social' problems such as unemployment "in terms of features of communities and their strengths, cultures, pathologies" (Rose 1999, pp. 135-36). The social task of government shifted, reframing issues such as joblessness or migrant integration from issues requiring the state to provide material aid or support to individuals or regions impacted by economic and social change to enabling, animating and facilitating 'community' as "a self-generating formation capable of governing itself (Li 2011, pp. 101-2). Solutions to problems imagined as rooted in 'community' were seen to require interventions that "encourage and harness active practices of self-management and identity construction, of personal ethics and collective allegiances" (Rose 1999, p. 176).

(30.) The SLORC was reorganized into a more hierarchical structure of military administration in 1997 and renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

(31.) The military state passed orders and laws that, as anthropologist Elliott Prasse-Freeman notes, "delineated actions that were forbidden without creating any reciprocal 'rights' allowing subjects to make claims against the state" (Prasse-Freeman 2015, p. 98). The one-way flow of 'rights' reflected pre-colonial monarchical understandings of power as 'self-justifying', in which kings governed their subjects on the basis of performances of divine authority and a system of natural law derived from Buddhist cosmology (Myint Zan 1997, pp. 49-69).

(32.) Aung San Suu Kyi's Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee, for instance, received 11,259 submissions in 2012-13 alone. Of these, 3,600 concerned the executive and 3,466 land confiscation cases. Many claims made in these and other letters referenced notions of a 'just' rule of law, claiming an entitlement to fair and impartial treatment and redress for past wrongs. See Cheesman (2015a, pp. 227-37).

(33.) A total of 300 respondents were surveyed in 14 villages of each township, of which 7 villages (150 respondents) had received the Green Emerald scheme and another 7 villages (150 respondents) in the same village group that had not received the scheme. A total of 600 rural respondents across 28 villages were surveyed in the 2 townships. There was a statistically significant difference in road construction assistance rendered by respondents in Green and non-Green Emerald villages (p-value of 0 per cent). Eighty-one per cent of respondents in villages selected to receive the Green Emerald initiative in 2015 or 2016 had contributed previously to local road construction, compared with 64 per cent of respondents in non-Green Emerald villages--a robust 17 per cent difference. On other relevant indicators such as poverty rates, however, there was no statistically significant variation between the villages, as the treatment and non-treatment villages were otherwise in the same village group.

(34.) Field notes, November 2015 and February 2016, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(35.) The initiative has been expanding since 2013 and aims to fund local development initiatives identified by a committee of local residents in at least one village in every village group of the participating township. Whilst poverty rates are the "primary criterion for selecting the participating townships", below that, level projects are selected from within village groups through a 'planning and consultation process'. The World Bank's Q&A about the scheme cites the aim of including "at least 63 townships across the country" by the end of the rollout period.

(36.) Thanks to an anonymous researcher and consultant on the scheme for this description of the competition process within NCDDP. Personal communication, 19 September 2017.

(37.) Walker links this legibility to the broader dynamic of rural agricultural subsidies, noting the importance of symbolically constructing an entity legible as 'community' that can be "an eligible participant in the new fiscal relationship that has emerged between the subsidizing state and the rural economy" (Walker 2012, p. 185).

(38.) Interview with MP, 21 April 2016, Karen State, Myanmar. Conversely, the author also encountered a number of cases where communities spent more than the allocated government budget for a project and then raised additional funds through donations from the local community.

(39.) Personal communication with consultant for NCDDP, 19 September 2017.

(40.) Albeit one which ultimately requires budgetary approval from the military-controlled General Administration Department within the Ministry of Home Affairs. At the time of writing, the military commander in chief remained responsible for appointing the ministers for Home Affairs, who led the General Administration Department (GAD). The GAD provided ultimate budgetary approval for most local expenditure by central ministries. In late 2018, plans were announced to transfer the GAD to the Ministry of the Union Government Office headed by a civilian. For more background, see Kyi Pyar Chit Saw and Arnold (2014), and Frontier Myanmar (2018).

(41.) Field notes, 20 September 2015, Bago Region, Myanmar.

(42.) Ibid.


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Gerard McCarthy is Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS--Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore and Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Centre, Australian National University, 130 Garran Road, Acton, ACT 2601, Australia; email: gerard.

DOI: 10.1355/sj34-2d
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Author:McCarthy, Gerard
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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