Precarity, Territory, and Identity Politics Panel



Identity and Inequality in Southeast Asia

Identité et inégalité en Asie du Sud-Est


Friday, October 22, 2021


13:45 – 15:30

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Drawing on original data from Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, this panel explores themes of identity and inequality in the provision of public goods and services in Southeast Asia. In recent years, many countries in the region have faced ethnic conflict and abuses of state power. However, some democratic openings and policy reforms have also created windows for wider representation of marginalized citizens. The ability of reforms to expand representation and equality may depend on the design of local institutions and the identity of decisionmakers. This panel presents new evidence demonstrating how specific dynamics of state-society relations and local governance shape citizens’ perceptions of the state and the distribution of public resources. Two papers on Myanmar explore issues of state-society relations pertaining to the experience of ethnic minorities and non-state welfare provision respectively. A paper on the Philippines demonstrates how female mayors implement reproductive health policies in strongholds of the Catholic Church. Finally, research from Indonesia shows how inclusive budget consultations increase the representation of women’s preferences and decrease the clientelistic distribution of COVID-19 cash transfers. Together, the new evidence presented in these papers showcases persistent challenges and emerging opportunities for equitable development in Southeast Asia.

Convenor/Animateur: Eitan Paul, University of Michigan

Chair/Président: Amy Liu, The University of Texas at Austin

Discussant/Intervenant: Amy Liu, The University of Texas at Austin; Meredith Weiss, University at Albany

Event poster


Can Encounters with the State Improve Minority-State Relations? Evidence from Myanmar

Jangai Jap, George Washington University

Why and how do members of politically non-dominant ethnic groups develop an attachment to the state? Using qualitative and quantitative data (election data, an original survey conducted in 2019, and a survey experiment conducted in spring 2021) from Myanmar, this paper examines the effect of ethnic minorities’ everyday encounters with the state (i.e., interpersonal interactions between citizens and agents of the state in local government offices) on their attachment to the state. It also tests whether everyday encounters with the state have an ameliorating effect in a conflict prone setting as well as the effect of power-sharing on improving minority-state relations. Attachment to the state is defined in my research as an emotional bond an individual feels toward their country of citizenship. Existing explanations for minority-state relations focus on macro-level factors such as power-sharing, nation-building policies, and public goods provision. In contrast, I propose a novel theory that highlights the role of interpersonal interactions. I argue that ordinary citizens’ attachment to the state is informed by their most tangible experiences of the state, which tend to occur in local government offices. Ordinary citizens in much of the developing world visit local government offices for routine matters. There at the office, citizens encounter street-level bureaucrats who provide privileged contacts with the state. Ethnic minorities who had positive encounters with the state develop stronger attachment to the state.

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

Gerard McCarthy, National University of Singapore

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.

Woman vs. Church: How Female Mayors Implement Reproductive Health Policies in Strongholds of the Catholic Church in the Philippines

Nina McMurry, WZB Berlin Social Science Center; Nico Ravanilla, University of California, San Diego

We evaluate the success of female leaders in implementing reproductive health policies in strongholds of the Catholic Church after the passage of the Reproductive Health Law (RH Law) in the Philippines. While many women were strongly in favour of the law, the Catholic Church staunchly opposed it. Using regression discontinuity and differences-in-differences approaches with fine-grained data on local government spending and vital statistics, we find that female elected leaders differentially increased spending on reproductive health after the law’s passage. However, the relationship does not hold in localities that are bastions of the Catholic Church. Formal institutional reforms help female leaders effectively implement their preferred policies, but only where they are not constrained by other prevailing traditional institutions.

Raising Representation? Inclusive Participation in Indonesian Village Budgeting

Eitan Paul, University of Michigan

How can capture by male elites be overcome to expand the substantive representation of women’s interests? While pursuing institutional reforms to make policymaking more inclusive is a common approach, these interventions often do not meaningfully expand the participation or representation of women and other marginalized groups. To improve representation, several districts in Indonesia enacted regulations in 2016–19 requiring separate forums, called musyawarah inklusif, for women and other marginalized groups to submit proposals for village development plans and budgets. This paper uses original data from surveys, survey experiments, and village planning documents to evaluate the effects of this novel reform. Overall, the reforms succeed in amplifying the voices of female community leaders but fail to shift actual spending towards women’s priorities. The analysis shows that inclusive consultations increase the representation of women's preferences in non-binding village development plans. However, inclusive consultations do not shift spending priorities towards women's preferences in binding annual budgets. Moreover, improvements in female representation lead to development plans that more closely resemble the preferences of pre-existing female community leaders than the preferences of ordinary women in the village. A survey experiment with village heads confirms that village heads do not change their policy priorities in response to information about women's preferences. Collectively, the evidence suggests that political power and elite capture—not a lack of information and participation—can be the key obstacles to improving the substantive representation of ordinary women's interests.

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