Understanding Recent Survey Data on Kachin’s Heterogeneous Attitudes Toward Myanmar

Jangai Jap explains findings from a recent public opinion survey of Kachin in Myanmar.

What are Kachin’s attitudes toward their country of citizenship? To what extent do they feel attached (Burmese: Tan yaw zin, Jinghpaw: Myit magyep kap ai) to it? These questions about ethnic minorities are relevant not just to the Kachin, but instead, underlie larger issues of national unity in Myanmar. The answers to these questions reveal the doubts and mental reservations that Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, such as the Kachin, feel about the political community they belong to.

Between 2018 and 2019, I conducted qualitative interviews and collected original survey data to answer these questions about Kachin’s attitudes toward Myanmar. The data reveals that the answers depend on understandings about how inferences are drawn, the limitations of utilizing quantitative and qualitative data, and how different types of data might complement one another.

Most surprisingly, I found that qualitative interviews and survey data produced differing results. According to my interviews with several Kachin activists, religious leaders, and Baptist youths, Kachin feel a relatively weak attachment and harbor, more or less, unfavorable attitudes toward Myanmar, perhaps due to the renewed armed conflict with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the recent increase in Kachin ethnonationalism. In contrast, according to the survey data, Kachin exhibit relatively high national pride in being citizens of Myanmar and a relatively strong attachment to Myanmar. How can we make sense of these divergent answers? I suggest several explanations that reveal the limitations of my qualitative and quantitative data. Ultimately, my analysis suggests that the divergence most likely resulted from limitations in my qualitative approach, which glossed over diversity within the Kachin community.

Methodology

Before explaining the divergence, it is important to first describe how the survey data was constructed. With the aim of creating a sample representative of Kachin living in the government-controlled areas in Myanmar, my research team travelled to 19 townships with substantial Kachin populations during the early months of 2019— 13 townships in Kachin State, 4 in Shan State and 2 in Mandalay Region. Because the government has not made subnational-level ethnic data from the 2014 census available, the sampling frame for this survey was constructed based on the township report compiled by the General Administration Department (available on www.themimu.info).

The survey interviews were conducted face-to-face by Kachin enumerators. Respondents who were fluent in Jinghpaw were interviewed in Jinghpaw while the rest were interviewed in Burmese. There was a total of 282 Kachin respondents in the sample.

To assess national pride, the respondents were asked: “how proud are you to be a citizen of Myanmar?” To assess their overall feeling of attachment to Myanmar, they were asked the extent to which they agreed with the following statements: “Myanmar is my country,” “I often support Myanmar sports teams when they play against other countries,” “I would support Myanmar even if it is in the wrong,” and “I would rather be a citizen of Myanmar than any other country in the world.” The index attachment to Myanmar is the combined average of the rating of the four statements and the national pride question combined. Higher numerical ratings of national pride and attachment to Myanmar are interpreted as positive attitudes toward Myanmar.

 

National Pride

Attachment to Myanmar

2.0 out of 3

1.7 out of 3

(Note: Kachin public opinion based on an original survey collected in early 2019)

Based on this survey, Kachin’s average rating of national pride in being citizens of Myanmar and attachment to Myanmar are 2.0 and 1.7, respectively. Considering that the highest possible rating score is 3, these averages are fairly high, much higher than what I expected based on the interviews mentioned above.

Making sense of the data

There are a number of reasons why the survey estimates might differ from our expectations. The first is response bias— the tendency to give untruthful answers. The high ratings might result from the respondents’ tendency to give affirmative responses. For example, when they are asked the extent to which they agree or disagree with a statement, they would respond “agree” even if they do not necessarily agree with the statement. This tendency may result from an unwillingness to reveal negative opinions about the state due to fear of retribution by the government; this may be fueled by Myanmar’s authoritarian past and incomplete regime transition.

Another reason for the respondents’ tendency to give affirmative responses could be rooted in a-na deh culture in Myanmar, rather than in its authoritarian past. Respondents might shy away from asserting their opinion, especially if it is contrary to the affirmative statements the enumerators read to them. If there is a severe response bias in the data, Kachin’s real national pride and attachment to Myanmar is likely to be lower and weaker than what the survey data suggests.

The second is biases in our priors. Those in the mainstream Kachin society as well as researchers like myself tend to assume that Kachin generally have unfavorable views regarding the Myanmar state. However, it is possible that this view emerges from an echo chamber, rather than a reflection of reality. Some of the loudest voices in the Kachin community might highlight the political alienation of Kachin and generally negative views of the state on various social media platforms. Other Kachin might in turn, become more prone to express unfavorable views of the Myanmar state and the government when they are in groups discussing current affairs, affirming each other’s negative views. However, when they are alone (like when they are interviewed alone), they might express their own views, which are more positive than the ones amplified in group settings. If there is a severe bias in our priors, Kachin’s real national pride and attachment to Myanmar are likely to be higher and stronger than our expectations.

The third is the diversity of socio-political views within the Kachin community, which consists of six ethno-linguistic groups: Jinghpaw, Lachid, Lhaovo, Lisu, Rawang, and Zaiwa. Though Jinghpaw is generally thought to be the dominant group, most of the Kachin ethno-linguistic groups are politically active— meaning the group has mobilized either an armed organization and/or a political party that claims to represent its interests. Thus, members of different ethno-linguistic groups may hold varying views of Myanmar. Kachin respondents’ attachment to Myanmar as indicated by the survey may be high because some segments of the Kachin community have much more favorable attitudes toward the Myanmar state compared to others.

To better understand the diversity of attitudes toward the Myanmar state in the Kachin community, the respondents in the sample are distinguished into two groups: (1) those who identify as Kachin and speak Jinghpaw and (2) those who identify as Kachin but do not speak Jinghpaw. The first group accounts for 81 percent of the sample and the second group, 19 percent. The first group is likely to consist of Kachin from an array of ethno-linguistic groups, because many Kachin speak two or more Kachin languages— typically, Jinghpaw and another Kachin language, and the second of Kachin belonging to non-Jinghpaw Kachin ethno-linguistic groups.

JP speakers Non-JP speakers
1. How proud are you to be a citizen of Myanmar? 1.9 2.4 (+29%)
2. “Myanmar is my country” 1.7 2.2 (+29%)
3. “I often support Myanmar sports teams when they play against other countries.” 1.7 2.1 (+22%)
4. “I would support Myanmar even if it is in the wrong.” 1.2 1.4 (+24%)
5. “I would rather be a citizen of Myanmar than any other country in the world.” 1.8 2.1 (+19%)

Note: The second column reports response averages for Jinghpaw speakers and the third column reports response averages for non-Jinghpaw speakers. The percent in the parentheses indicates how much more favorable non-Jinghpaw speaking Kachin are towards Myanmar and the Myanmar national identity compared to Jinghpaw speaking Kachin, controlling for age, gender, urban residency, and level of education. These results are based on a series of linear regression analysis (OLS). The survey questions are adapted from existing survey protocols used by researchers and global research projects, such as the World Value Survey, to gauge attitudes toward the state-defined national identity, attachment to the state, and other related concepts. Possible responses to question 1 are: “not at all proud” (coded as 0), “not proud” (coded as 1), “proud” (coded as 2) and “very proud” (coded as 3). Possible responses to statements 2 to 5 are: “strongly disagree” (coded as 0), “disagree” (coded as 1), “agree” (coded as 2), and “strongly agree” (coded as 3).

The table above indicates how much more favorable the non-Jinghpaw speaking Kachin are toward Myanmar and Myanmar’s national identity compared to Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin. According to the table, non-Jinghpaw speakers rated pride in being a Myanmar citizen (second row) 29 percent more positively compared to the Jinghpaw speakers.

It is not surprising that of all the townships in the sample, Putao, Chipwi and Moegoke— the townships with predominantly Lachid, Lhavo, Lisu and Rawang local population who do not speak Jinghpaw— have the highest township-level averages of national pride in being Myanmar citizens.  (It is also important to mention here that all the respondents in the qualitative interviews I mentioned above were Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin.)

Understanding the heterogeneity

These differences between Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin and other Kachin are substantial and significant. They indicate that Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin exhibit less pride in their Myanmar national identity and weaker attachment to the state compared to other Kachin. It is possible that the disparity between our expectation regarding Kachin’s attitudes toward Myanmar and the survey data is due to our priors being based solely on a subset of the Kachin community, specifically the Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin, rather than on the entire Kachin community. It is also likely that there is heterogeneity within the Jinghpaw-speaking Kachin population itself.

This discussion of Kachin’s attitudes toward Myanmar underscores the need to disaggregate broad, sweeping claims about any one ethnic group, because no ethnic group or community in Myanmar is monolithic. It also calls for the need for precision and accuracy in design and for care in interpreting quantitative and qualitative data. Finally, this discussion points to an exciting line of future research: to conduct a deeper examination of why and how varying socio-political views emerge within a given ethnic group. With regard to the question of pride in being a Myanmar citizen and attachment to Myanmar specifically, exploring the underlying heterogeneity could help us better understand determinants of positive minority-state relations as well as if, and how, Myanmar can win the hearts and minds of its ethnic minority citizens.

A broader conversation about public opinion surveys in Myanmar

Public opinion surveying is a tool that can help us measure the public’s views regarding a particular or series of topics. Given its authoritarian past and self-isolation from the international community, public opinion survey data from Myanmar is scarce. However, since Myanmar’s transition in 2011, there has been a significant increase in public opinion survey research in the country. Asian Barometer Survey (ABS), a well-known cross-national research project, was implemented in Myanmar for the first time in 2015. Since then, another round of the ABS survey was implemented in 2019. The International Republican Institute also conducted surveys in 2017 and 2019. In addition to survey firms and international organizations, a number of graduate students and budding researchers have either implemented or are preparing to implement original surveys in Myanmar.

These changes are a good thing for Myanmar. Survey data can confirm or, as my discussion has shown, challenge our claims and assumptions. The unexpected findings from survey data should be seen as an opportunity to evaluate how our claims were constructed in the first place rather than be dismissed as “rubbish.” Doing so can help us better understand and better research Myanmar. Additionally, survey data can help community activists, NGOs, and political parties to become more effective. They can also help the Myanmar government and the international community to make evidence-driven policies.

That said, how confident can we be that the existing survey data from Myanmar reveals  “the truth?” Of course, survey data cannot reveal “the truth” per se, but with rigorous methodology, sound research design, and careful interpretation, they can reveal something close to the truth. Conducting survey research in Myanmar presents many unique challenges; we are still figuring out what works and what does not. Obtaining high-quality data from Myanmar will require information and insight sharing between researchers. It will also require greater access to administrative data from the government (for proper sampling) and cooperation from the local officials. I am hopeful that the Myanmar government will do its part in fostering a vibrant and robust public opinion research community in Myanmar.

(Featured Image by Hkun Lat)

Jangai Jap is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at the George Washington University and holds a B.A. from Yale University. Her research interests include ethnic politics, national identity, and street-level bureaucracy, with a focus on Burma/Myanmar. Her dissertation research aims to explain factors that shape ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state and why the state has been more successful in winning over members of some ethnic minority groups than other ethnic minority groups.