Precarity and Polarisation: Political Identity and the Politicization of Pandemic Response in Pre-coup Myanmar

Gerard McCarthy, National University of Singapore


Identity and Inequality in Southeast Asia


In the wake of the pandemic, Myanmar’s elected government announced a limited stimulus package to support formal companies and some poor households. Yet in a context where the informal sector is more than half the economy and pre-pandemic government social safety nets were patchy at best, state support often failed to reach the neediest. Informed by analysis of a national political and economic survey of 1,500 respondents conducted in January 2021, supplemented by interviews with ordinary people, civil servants, and political candidates before and after Myanmar’s November 2020 election, this paper examines how political identity and the pandemic combined to exacerbate political polarization in the run up to Myanmar’s 01 February 2021 coup. We find that weak targeting of government aid allowed for claims of corruption and politicization of state aid by minority party supporters ahead of the 2020 election, exacerbating pre-pandemic grievances around the majoritarianism of Myanmar’s political system in the months ahead of military takeover. With government aid sparse and poorly targeted, and most local welfare groups facing a shortage of donations, regardless of partisan affiliation many households were forced to take new credit—often at predatory rates—to survive the pandemic; a situation which has worsened considerably since the economic implosion caused by the coup. The paper concludes with reflections on the role of the pandemic in exacerbating political polarization ahead of the 01 February coup and argues for rapid investment in state-led safety nets and debt forgiveness once civilians return to power.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |