by Brian Awehali
Last year, while traveling in East Asia, I read a fascinating book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott, a professor of Agrarian Studies at Yale University.
Scott’s book is essentially about a very large number of intentional Southeast Asian maroons or refugees–Zomians–and the book is making me re-think a lot of things, about the normal “advance of civilization” narrative and all that it assumes, presupposes, and omits. It’s also made me rethink my understanding of nation-states to include the surprising importance of elevation.
Tibetans are Zomians. They are are, as I think almost everybody knows, long-term resisters against the Han Chinese empire. The Tibetans are fierce and lovely people who wish not to be told where or how to live. Their monks are known for many things, including sparking militant protest, as they did in March 2008 in Lhasa (elevation: 11,450ft) :
The book is about the estimated 80-100 million peoples of Zomia, a region the size of Europe spanning seven Asian countries, who’ve escaped the realities of organized state societies: slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare. It’s a critique of state-making and those who intentionally avoid being subject to it. It posits that state-making is a form of internal colonialism.
Zomia does not appear on any official map, for it is merely metaphorical. Scott identifies it as “the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states.” Though the scholars who have imagined Zomia differ over its precise boundaries, Scott includes all the lands at altitudes above 300 meters stretching from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India. That encompasses parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma, as well as four provinces of China. Zomia’s 100 million residents are minority peoples “of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety,” he writes. Among them are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Mien, and Wa.
The Boston Globe Ideas section recently published a great piece called “The Mystery of Zomia” about the book. A short excerpt and link to the full piece, below:
What Zomia presents, Scott argues in his book… is nothing less than a refutation of the traditional narrative of steady civilizational progress, in which human life has improved as societies have grown larger and more complex. Instead, for many people through history, Scott argues, civilized life has been a burden and a menace.
“The reason why some people didn’t become civilized, why some people didn’t ‘develop,’ may not be a question of them not having the talent, or being backward and so on, but may be historically produced by their desire to avoid what they saw as the inconveniences of states,” says Scott.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has also weighed in recently with a great overview of various debates spawned by Scott’s book, including whether a Western scholar can claim, as Scott does, that many “ethnic” groups in the area he refers to as Zomia are actually just groups that fled state-making and became “ethnic” groups, and whether there’s any way for people wishing to remain self-determining to constructively engage state power.