Thank you all for coming today.
I just wanted to take about 15 minutes to review some of the major points of the dissertation, my major findings and argument, and some of my ideas for moving forward with the project; but, presented in a slightly different, maybe fresher way.
I am going to try and do so without too much reference to place names and ethnonyms, because the dissertation is chalk full of that already, and I’m sure you’ve all had enough of it!
Regarding the theoretical backbone of this dissertation, I think it is hardly surprising that what started out as a dissertation about autonomy and conflict resolution quickly became a dissertation first and foremost about nationality and ethnic identity. I started with the question: How do KCMZ self-determination groups frame and justify their political demands? But what I quickly found was that the major political discussions around issues of autonomy really revolved quite explicitly around questions of ethnic identity.
Which KCMZ subgroups, or “tribes” should and should not be included in various movements for self-determination? Which subgroups should or should not have separate autonomous powers because of their difference from other ethnic kin?
Indeed, it is exactly in the second part of my research question, namely “justify”, that I found the richest, most engaging data during my fieldwork. It was in the process of justification that the tensions and contradictions of KCMZ identity, as presented by SD groups, really came into focus.
The reality on the ground really necessitated, therefore, my treatment of nationalism as action, or, to be more clear, to think of nationalism as a set of ideas around a normative social order that then justifies collective action to bring those ideas into fruition.
In the KCMZ borderlands, these ideas about the social order are far more open, far more flexible than anywhere else I have seen. They are not only flexible on the margins, but really flexible all the way through. There simply is no center, no core. And yet, SD groups present, or try to present, a picture of themselves and the communities they claim to represent as an internally homogeneous and externally heterogeneous ethnic unit.
As I hope is painfully clear to you all, this is simply not the case. The reality is deeply diverse. Yes, they are all Christian, but denominational differences still matter. Yes, their languages are related, but they are rarely mutually intelligible. Yes, they can unproblematically be categorized as indigenous or autochthonous to Mizoram, Manipur, and Chin State, but they also rely on origin stories that place them far outside of these places to further distance themselves from what we might call the “mainstream” in India and Myanmar.
And yet, these terms of recognition, set by Indian and Myanmar institutional requirements, are central to the kinds of narratives put forth by SD groups to both demand autonomy from the state and to justify these demands. Of course, the process doesn’t stop here. These very same terms- religion, language, location- become the foundation of counterclaims put forth by other KCMZ subgroups or tribes to maintain, bolster, or establish their autonomy from more dominant ethnic kin.
And, then, of course, for this case study in particular, these political claims and counterclaims play out not just in the institutional arena, but carry on into the very names that these actors use to refer to their communities, and into the space or territory that they imagine as theirs. This being, as I say in the dissertation, largely a question of inclusion and exclusion with respect to ethnic subgroups.
Contributions: Empirical/Case Study
The major contribution that I think this dissertation makes is first and foremost empirical, by which I mean it presents an investigation into a case that has, in some sense, really never been dealt with before. There is simply no other work on KCMZ movements for self-determination that attempts to take on the whole of the KCMZ borderlands.
The issue of nomenclature , for example, has never had a comprehensive treatment, and just putting together the charts on these terms at the three different levels of usage was a massive undertaking. What analysis on ethnonyms that does exist relies more on historical emergence instead of a look at the underlying variables (i.e. relative power) that motivate the contemporary selection and usage of these terms.
While I am dealing with the issue of self-determination, mainly with regard to autonomy, the real lesson learned here relates back to nationalism and how we conceptualize it. We usually talk about the literature on nationalism as a question between primordialists and constructivists, and then divide constructivists down by causation, namely institutional incentives, modernization, hybridity, and so on. And, of course, the reality is that the primordialists don’t really exist today, and that constructivism is kind of a truism at this point.
Work within the study of nationalism tends to focus on origins, as well, often entirely missing what I consider the point: to understand the political actions motivated by nationalist ideology and the variables that motivate actors to present such ideology in the first place. To put it another way, nationalism is a meaning making endeavor- it allows human beings to conceptualize and categorize themselves and others.
In this dissertation, I draw of picture of KCMZ nationalist movements as competing ideologies, all vying to be seen as the sole legitimate purveyor of a normative social order. What I mean by this, they frame the issues in terms that outline to whom and, by extension, where, autonomous institutions should be established. In other words, who deserves autonomy.
What this allows is for the real-time observation of the constructive process, the ways these stories about KCMZ identity are put forward, debated, and, most importantly for me, the ways they are contested and counter-narratives are put forth.
Contribution: Territory and Territorial Claims
Building on my approach to nationalism, I end up dealing with territory and territorial claims in several ways that I believe shed important light on the meaning behind territorial claims and starts to dismantle its frequent invocation as central to self-determination movements.
I argue that territorial claims in this region are not the primary concern of SD groups. Their open willingness to significantly modify these demands as well as the vague and hugely inconsistent demands that they present in the first place reveals as much. The impetus is clearly on the institutional incentives that territorial autonomy provides. But, more than that these pseudo-imaginary claims also work to remake how KCMZ peoples think of themselves and their connections outside of their immediate territory. Albeit with limited success, as my participant-mapping results highlight.
My participant mapping project really does make a contribution not only to our understanding of spatial conception in the area, but also to the method of participant-mapping in some way. Most of the participant-mapping projects that I am aware of in the social sciences make use of this data collection method by having groups of people participate in making a map. My project utilized more of a survey approach, with about 260 participants working on maps as individuals, across Mizoram, allowing me to compare across cases from a reasonably large sample.
Contributions: Area Studies and Borderlands
Yes, this is certainly an area studies dissertation, but it also challenges the status quo of area studies by breaking down the idea of a wholly separate South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, any review of the area studies literature would have one thinking the South Asia stops east at Bengal, and Southeast Asia at Mandalay, if not Bangkok! So, I really ended up in “no-man’s land,” simultaneously connecting and working outside of South and Southeast Asian Studies. In fact, it is really this critique of our contemporary regional borders that motivated van Schendel’s creation of the term “Zomia” in the first place. It was proposed as a space that transcends ideas of South, Southeast, and East Asia by connecting peoples and places by terrain, political culture, livelihood, and so on. And, its quite true that the peoples of van Schendel and Scott’s Zomia have more in common with each other than with the states and regions they find themselves placed in today.
Beyond this critique of area studies, I also bring in the literature of Borderland Studies to inform my analysis. Borderland Studies, while increasingly important in History, has little to no foothold in political science. This dissertation suggests that borderlands, that space that is both in-between and yet separate from the core regions, is an area where questions of identity and self-determination really come into their own. It is, really by definition, a space in which state power is both on its most ostentatious display and at its most variable. By virtue of being at the margins and always artificial and almost imposed the site of popular challenge to the state. KCMZ irredentist claims or transnational unification projects are one such challenge.
I do imagine turning this dissertation into a book project, because I really do think that I have something important to say about self-determination, ethnicity, and nationalism, and this case in particular deserves some attention.
To that end, I was considering three ways to strengthen the dissertation. First, I think that I could use a more thorough treatment of the role of religion. I do include religion and the role of Christianity at several points in the dissertation, but I think that a more thorough treatment of religion would round out the analysis. Churches are important public spaces in all three of the my fieldsites, and spaces where religious elites really have a weight in public discussions about identity and about difference, drawing distinctions between KCMZ peoples and surrounding Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.
Secondly, there is a regional puzzle to work out here. Namely, why is it that KCMZ SD movements display such marked contradictions as to effectively stop the emergence of a coherent national narrative? Why does this appear not to be the case with neighboring Naga and Kachin communities? Or, even if they haven’t, how have they managed to appear as if they have. With state-level institutions and borderlands being a constant, what might the variable be here?
Third, I would like to really tease out this idea of uncertainty, ambiguity, and anxiety. During my fieldwork, it really became apparent early on just how uncertainty played a role in the proliferation of narratives about KCMZ identity. Uncertainty seems to function like a causal variable, having a direct impact on how SD groups frame and justify their demands. Uncertainty allows for multiple narratives to exist, because there is no widely agreed upon core narrative that guides this conversation.
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.