Here is the first 1000 words of my dissertation introduction as it stands now. I think it is looking pretty good, all things considered.
The mountainous border areas at the intersection of India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar got a sudden boost in publicity with the publication of The Art of Not Being Governed, in which James C. Scott argues that the highlands of Southeast Asia, for which he borrows the term Zomia, was the world’s largest remaining non-state, self-governing zone until after the Second World War. This book, while perhaps more important to historians and anthropologists than mainstream political scientists, conceptualized hill peoples as “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys- slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labour, epidemics, and warfare (ix).” Scott goes onto say that “Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organizations, ideologies, and…largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positioning designed to keep the state at arm’s length (x).” However, Scott is the first to admit that none of this holds true for the period roughly after WWII, because the state is now free to advance into these mountainous shatter zones through major technological innovations that allow the state access to what used to be impassable and ungovernable terrain. Almost the entire globe is now “administered space and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant (324).”
What happens after the Second World War and the creation of independent India, Burma/Myanmar, and Pakistan/Bangladesh? When non-state peoples are thrust into a state dominated by the very peoples that Scott argues their cultures were designed to resist, what (political) directions are now available for escape? This is the conceptual territory, from which this dissertation starts. Escaping the state means very different things now than it does in The Art of Not Being Governed. Ethnic groups seeking self-government today are doing so in terms of the emerging right to self-determination, political-territorial autonomy, federalism, and other decentralized forms of government. Not surprisingly, it is still in Zomia that we find movements for self-determination at the center of the political discourse, closely and explicitly tied to developing ethno-national identities, insurgency movements, ethnic conflict, and the institutions designed to contain/control all three. Maintain political difference from the plains below remains the guiding precept of hill politics.
The people that call Zomia home continue to debate the terms of their incorporation into neighboring states. While independence movements have all but died away since the 1980s, movements for autonomy, statehood, or other federal arrangements to keep the state at bay continue to dominate the political landscape. The language of ethnic minority rights, nationalism, indigeneity and other forms of cohesive political identity are taken up with gusto as a way to force the state to concede to demands for self-governance and perhaps even attract some international pressure in the process. This language relies on self-determination seeking groups presenting themselves as representatives of long-established ethno-national communities. However, the picture on the ground is wholly different. Rather than established and identifiable ethno-national communities, many people in Zomia hold widely different views on how their chosen identity is inclusive or exclusive of other related communities, and what the terms should be for collaboration between them. This is true for many communities in the mountainous borderlands at the intersection of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh; however, movements coalescing around the the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zo(mi) supra-ethnic group are especially suitable for studying how national identities have been proposed, contested, and debated in contemporary Zomia, especially at the point in time where James Scott’s analysis becomes untenable. It is here that the process of building a coherent national imaginary is on-going, with little to no signs of a resolution in sight; yet, the political demands on behalf of ethnic groups that have not been entirely imagined or broadly agreed upon continue. Political demands for self-determination coming before a given political identity has even coalesced runs counter to many of the underlying assumptions in literature on autonomy (Safran and Maiz, 2000; Gagnon and Keating, 2012; Benedickter, 2007; Ghai, 2000; and, Weller and Wolf, 2005). It is almost always implicitly assumed that autonomy is granted to groups with at least some level of internal coherence, having passed through the process of nation-building and imagining, and emerging from the other side with political demands.
I argue that, contrary to the assumptions made by much of the literature on territorial autonomy, demands for self-determination do not necessarily proceed the creation of solidified, or broadly agreed upon ethnic or national identities. Rather, it is the process of making, framing, and justifying these demands that actually drives the process of debate and contestation over who is or is not included in the various possible ethnic groupings of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zo(mi) borderlands. The need to frame these debates around the institutional requirements of the state force communities to speak in terms of common languages, religion, ethnic origins, indigeneity, and racial categories, even when these terms are largely inappropriate to the reality on the ground. While the leaders of these diverse social movements might privately admit to the disconnect between their framing and reality, they are reluctant to publicly acknowledge the complexity and ambiguities on the ground. While previous research by James Scott and Willem van Schendel (2002), among others, has shown how these populations operated outside of the state previous to colonial intervention and decolonization, I show how these populations think about their contemporary political struggles, how they simultaneously accept and actively modify the political possibilities of the states they have been incorporated into, and how scholars can best conceptualize conflict and social movements in the new, non-anarchic Zomia.
This is a draft of an op-ed I was working on before winter break. It got lost in the shuffle, but I thought I would publish here for possible reference later.
As fighting continues in Rakhine State, Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis has achieved remarkable international attention. Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State have been denied government services and citizenship, subjected to massive violence at the hands of the Myanmar military and Rakhine/Buddhist nationalists. Many in Myanmar accuse the group of crimes ranging from illegal immigration, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and the rape and molestation of Buddhist women. Recent bombings in Rakhine State have reignited violence in the state, resulting in massive flows of Rohingya refugees in India and Bangladesh. Despite close linguistic and religious connections with Bangladesh, especially so with Chittagong, where most refugees have settled, their position in the state is precarious at best. Many have also sought refuge in India, where they have had better access to relief services, but are still in a precarious position, largely unwelcome, with many calling for their immediate repatriation, despite no signs of improvement in the situation their places of origin.
While the Rohingya crisis is certainly a major tragedy, with strong genocidal undertones and a disturbing glance at the future of ethno-religious politics in a transitional Myanmar, the conflict has not been confined to the dyadic relationship between Rakhine nationalists and Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine state is also home to a significant Chin population. In the past two days, over 1200 Chin refugees from the northern Arakan Hills have entered Mizoram through Lawngtlai, capital of the Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC).
These Chin refugees are fleeing violent clashes between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army, one of the few insurgent groups in the country that hasn’t signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, or been active in political negotiations between Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the military, and the government.
Chin communities in Rakhine State are ethnically closely related to Mizos, and even more so to the Lai communities of Lawngtlai District, seat of the LADC. Despite religious connections through a shared Baptist-Christian faith and linguistic similarities, Chin refugees have not always been welcome in Mizoram. Major clashes have broken out twice in the past two decades, with far-right, conservative elements in the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Student Association (Mizo Zirlai Pawl) accusing refugees of rape, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Both clashes included the distribution of “Quit Mizoram” notices, a slogan also used by the Mizo National Front during the insurgency period from 1966 to 1987. Recently, relations between Mizos and their ethnic kin in Myanmar have improved dramatically, with the creation of TV documentaries highlighting the similarities between the two groups, and exchange programs encouraging interaction and communication across international borders. However, Chin civil society leaders remain unsure about how long this improvement will last. The LADC has historically been welcoming of Lai/Hakha refugees, but that acceptance has never been tested in so intensive a way.
At present, the Union Minister of India has instructed the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, to allow the refugees to stay in Mizoram, and the LADC has been preparing food and shelter arrangements. However, moving provisions in this extremely mountainous state often takes days, even in the best road and weather conditions.
Beyond logical limitations, the influx of refugees comes at a particularly difficult time for the Mizoram state government, which has been dealing with its own refugee crisis in the western part of the state. Over the past couple months, protests have been breaking out against the state’s growing Chakma population, many of whom are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Although many Chakma in Mizoram are indigenous to the area, their is an undoubtable influx of refugees and other types of migrants from the restive CHT. Chakma speak an Indo-European language, far closer to Bangla than the Tibeto-Burman languages of Mizoram. They are also Theravada Buddhists, marking them for extra suspicion in the strongly and reactively Christian state. Tensions between the communities have slowly simmered since the influx of refugees during the flooding of huge swaths of traditional Chakma territory by the Pakistan government with the creation of the Kaptai Dam in 1962, and the insurgent movements in the CHT from 1977 to 1997. This year, tensions took on a more aggressive tone, with calls for massive anti-immigration drives and the immediate forced repatriation of Chakma asylum seekers. Prompted by the inclusion of one Chakma student from Mizoram for a position in the state university, the YMA and MZP have organized protests and threatened violence for what they see as a reduction in the rights of Mizo youth for a population whose residence in Mizoram is commonly seen as illegitimate.
Earlier this year, reports of hundreds of refugees entering Mizoram through Siaha, capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC) just southeast of Lawngtlai, marked the connection between the Rohingya crisis and Mizoram. While Muslims have been fleeing for the relative safety of Bangladesh, Chin communities caught in the crossfire are fleeing to Mizoram in unprecedented numbers. The LADC has noted that the refugees are settling just on the other side of the border, and that the local police and Assam Rifles are working closely together to patrol the border, with the likely aim to both control the influx of refugees and ensure that the Mizoram does not become a safe haven for the Arakan Army.
The crisis in Rakhine State has far greater repercussions than the already sufficiently tragic circumstances of the Rohingya population. While fighting has more or less ceased in Chin State, Chin peoples in Rakhine find themselves in the crosshairs and cross fire of a conflict that really has nothing to do with them. The repercussions of their fleeing to Mizoram may have pronounced effects on politics in a state that already prides itself on not being welcoming to refugees. Indeed, President Trump’s anti-immigration message is extremely possible in Mizoram, where populist messages and fears of being over powered by outsiders ring true, even if taken outside the US context.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.