For Whose Benefit? Distributive politics, inequality and informal institutions in Myanmar's transition

There are few advocates for state-mediated redistribution and social welfare in contemporary Myanmar. Social, economic and political reforms since 2012 culminated in the transfer of power in March 2016 to a government led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Elite and popular demands for state-led redistribution or social assistance have been rare during Myanmar’s transition from military rule, however. This runs contrary to comparative expectations that democratisation forces politicians to appeal to the ‘median voter’, prompting increased state-mediated economic redistribution.
Based on 16 months of ethnographic, survey and archival fieldwork in 2015 and 2016 in provincial central-east Myanmar, this seminar seeks to explain this puzzling trajectory of political development. Drawing on a growing literature focused on how informal institutions shape welfare regimes, the seminar will look back at the political economy of the 1990s and 2000s and then explore how these legacies continue to shape distributive politics in civilian-led Myanmar. Four key concepts developed in the dissertation will be explained: authoritarian welfare capitalism; moral kinship; moral legibility; and public patronage. The dissertation argues that despite civilian rule, these notions, networks and practices which emerged from the 1990s and 2000s now animate preferences for private redistribution and welfare provision, render ‘rights’ contingent on ‘self-reliance’ demonstrated through physical and symbolic labour, allow oligarchs to defend their wealth and ultimately perpetuate inequality and exclusion in a more democratic context.

About the Speaker
Gerard McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at The Australian National University and associate director of ANUs Myanmar Research Centre. Gerard holds Bachelors in Economic & Social Sciences (Honours I) from the University of Sydney and studied political theory and post-conflict governance at Georgetown University. He has advised and consulted for a range of agencies including International Growth Centre Myanmar, United States Institute of Peace and The Carter Centre and his writing has been published in outlets including Journal of Contemporary Asia, Frontier Myanmar, The Myanmar Times, The Guardian, New Mandala, Lowy Institute for International Affairs and Yusof Ishak Institute of South East Asian Studies. He was a visiting scholar at St Antony’s College University of Oxford from May till August 2017, and throughout 2015 was an Australian Government Endeavour Visiting Scholar at University of Yangon’s Department of International Relations.

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