Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung Uses Citizen Researchers to Help Target Food Aid

Political Science Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung at a reception for the publication of "A Long, Long Time Ago in Southeast Asia" Image by Tory Wesnofske
Political Science Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung, seen here at a UML Center for Asian American Studies event, is doing research to aid people in Myanmar.

By Katharine Webster

Political Science Prof. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung won a Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship in early 2020 to do research on internal migration by job-seekers and victims of conflict in her native Myanmar. She was all set to work with and support the country’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population.

But first, her field research was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in February 2021, a military coup made it impossible for her to work in Myanmar, and the Fulbright was canceled. 

So Thawnghmung figured out a novel way to do research that would help the people of Myanmar, which is on the verge of economic collapse.

Since June 2021, with funding from the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT), which is managed by the United Nations Office for Project Services, Thawnghmung has recruited two dozen citizen researchers living in communities across the country. They report on local economic, health and security conditions, and Thawnghmung distills their reports into briefings that LIFT personnel in Myanmar can use to better target food assistance and other aid.

Recently, Thawnghmung spoke about her research, the current situation in Myanmar, and Soe Myint, co-founder of the now-banned news organization Mizzima Myanmar News and Insight. Myint, the 2022 UMass Lowell Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, was nominated by Thawnghmung for the position.

Q: What inspired your current research?

A: After a decade of research and a book on how ordinary people in Myanmar use creative strategies to deal with political and economic challenges, I turned to studying migration in 2019. But after the coup last year, I wanted to refocus on people’s coping strategies and offer my feedback to the policy community.

“The current political violence and humanitarian crisis are the worst I’ve ever seen.” -Ardeth Thawnghmung
I went through the 1988 nationwide protests against the military government headed by General Ne Win – I saw college students being beaten up and shot – but the current political violence and humanitarian crisis are the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like 1988 replayed, but with a higher level of violence. Now, the war is going on everywhere, all the time. Now, a bomb can explode anywhere, at any time.

And Myanmar is facing multiple crises. Right after the military coup came the military repression. Thousands of government workers left their jobs to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), including doctors and nurses in government hospitals – and then Myanmar was hit by the third wave of COVID-19. Health care collapsed. My uncle in Myanmar, who was always very healthy and athletic, died of COVID. 

Because of government workers joining CDM and people refusing to pay electricity bills, the electricity sector has collapsed. Under international sanctions and government restrictions, the banking sector has collapsed. Transportation has collapsed, so in some places you have a surplus of food, and in others you have nothing at all.

UMass Lowell Political Science Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung and Ph.D. student Naw Moo Moo Paw give the three-finger that signals opposition to the military coup in Myanmar Image by Tory Wesnofske
Thawnghmung and Global Studies Ph.D. student Naw Moo Moo Paw signal their solidarity with the civil disobedience movement in Myanmar. Southeast Asians protesting oppressive regimes have widely adopted the gesture from "The Hunger Games" books and movies.
I was able to convince LIFT, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in Myanmar, with a focus on food insecurity, to fund my research into conditions in various local areas.

Q: How are you doing that research? And is it dangerous?

A: Researchers need to be creative in coming up with new research methods in a crisis, so I came up with a new approach.

I recruited about two dozen community researchers from all over the country and from all walks of life – professionals, college students, government workers, people in high-conflict areas, people in lower conflict areas. Most are women, and all are paid for their work.

These researchers know very well the people and the situation where they are living. Every month, they answer the same list of questions, such as, “What is the political situation where you live? Are there food shortages, and what is unavailable? How many people are out of work? What are the challenges facing people, and how are they coping with multiple stresses? What are the prices of fuel and basic food items such as rice, cooking oil, and meat?” 

They submit a written report based on their observations and their conversations with people. I’ve told them, “Nothing is worth risking your life, and if you cannot answer particular questions, don’t raise people’s suspicions by asking too many questions.” 

I analyze and condense the information, and the community researchers meet with me once a month online to provide updates and feedback on my summary and to tell me how I can improve the research. After that, we meet online with the LIFT personnel. 

The LIFT people love it – they get the most up-to-date version of the situation in areas all over the country – and so do the researchers. Simple local researchers meet with big U.N. guys who listen to them. It’s very empowering. What we do really matters.

Q: You’re also getting information about what’s happening in Myanmar that is otherwise almost impossible to obtain because of a government ban on independent media. Speaking of media, how do you know Soe Myint? And why did you nominate him?

A: Soe Myint and I were classmates at Rangoon University, where we were in the first group of international relations majors. We were nearly 100 students from all over the country, and we had classes together and hung out together 24/7, from freshman year until the university closed over the 1988 protests. We were a very close-knit group; we loved each other. And we thought we were going to change the world.

Soe was one of the top students, but he was very quiet, very pensive. I never thought he would become political.

In 1988, we all went out into the streets, and when Soe saw that students had been beaten and killed, he changed. He was very passionate, and he became an activist before fleeing to the border area. He hijacked a plane with a friend in 1990, using a fake bomb, to bring attention to the crisis in Myanmar, and by the end of the flight, nearly all the passengers sided with the hijackers. [Myint was later acquitted of hijacking charges in India.]  

We lost touch until recently. I came to the United States, and Soe founded Mizzima News. As the Greeley Peace Scholar, he can talk about media freedom, dictatorship, hate speech, generational differences between 1988 and 2021 and his efforts to bring democracy.