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.
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.