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 roughly 100 million fugitives from state formation in Southeast Asia, who fled to the higher elevations– a region Scott calls Zomia that spans at least seven Asian countries and formed primarily oral, highly mobile cultures in which the fluid transformation of ethnic identities was commonplace.
Tibetans are Zomians. They are are, as I think almost everybody knows, long-term resisters against the Han Chinese empire. The Tibetans are, among other things, 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 goes into a lot of details about people who escaped the realities of organized state societies: slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare, and it’s an instructive angle from which to view state-making and those who wish to avoid insofar as possible being subject to it.
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.