Dissertation Project

Sumprabum, Kachin State

Why do politically non-dominant ethnic groups develop a sense of attachment to the state?Existing answers to this critical question are rooted in power-sharing, nation-building policies and the politics of providing public goods and services. In contrast, my research highlights interpersonal interactions between ordinary citizens and street-level bureaucrats as an important driver of minority-state  relations. 

This project is situated in Myanmar. While Myanmar is home to a few well-known cases of protracted armed conflicts between ethnic rebels and the central government, it is also home to ethnic minority groups with whom the central government have a relatively peaceful relationship. Thus, situating this research in Myanmar allows me to examine if everyday encounters with the state have an ameliorating effect on the typical as well as the most challenging cases. 

I employ a mixed-methods approach, consisting of individual and focus group interviews with ordinary citizens, civil servants and local experts, recently available administrative data, as well as survey and experimental data. The survey was implemented in 35 townships with substantial Chin and Kachin population. The survey experiment was implemented in Hpa-an, Kalay Myo, and Myitkyina townships. 

The dissertation consists of three main empirical sections. In the first section, I examine the relationship between power-sharing and ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state. I find that descriptive representation lends little explanatory power regarding ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state in Myanmar. I also find that perceived representation in the military and the local government—the former thought to be the most powerful state institution in the country and the latter being the state institution with which ordinary citizens most frequently and directly encounter—is associated with stronger attachment to the Myanmar state. In the second section, I examine how everyday encounters with the state improves minority-state relations. I find that ethnic minorities who have had positive encounters with street-level agents of the state express higher national pride and stronger attachment to the state, regardless of conflict status. I also find that ethnic minority street-level bureaucrats and clients exhibit positive in-group biases, and when the ethnicity of bureaucrat and client match, ethnic minorities’ experience of everyday encounters is better. In the third section, I explore how residents of rebel-controlled areas continue to encounter street-level agents of the state. 

These study makes several important contributions. First, it provides a micro-level explanation for ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state. By focusing on micro exchanges between citizens and state, this study highlights active agency of the state in improving minority-state relations. This study also underscores the need to focus on local governance and street-level bureaucracy in the national reconciliation process.  Finally, this study offers micro-foundations for a more precise theorizing of how power-sharing and representation might be linked to minority-state relations. 

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