--Ralph Waldo Emerson
According to conventional understanding, hill tribe peoples in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia are seen as living museums of prehistoric life, the way we were before becoming civilized. The Virtual Hilltribe Museum Online, from whom I borrowed this photo of their staff members, describes them as immigrants, highland ethnic minorities who "have been entering Thailand for more than a century." But political historian James C. Scott, in a new paradigm-shattering book, argues that "wave" theories of migration have been discredited for lack of evidence and that these are non-state rather than pre-state peoples who have lived in a large region he calls "Zomia" for over two millennia in tension with the various dominant states. Most Thai, he says, are ex-hill people. "The "just-so" story of civilization confounds "civilization" with what was, in fact, state-making."
Civilization is not all it's cracked up to be, we learn in Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. The Yale professor has written numerous books about state formation and resistance to its predatory practices in which he stresses the agency, or choices, of the poor. In his latest book, he claims that "ethnic identity was more a political choice than a genealogical given" as people fled to safe upland refuges to evade incorporation into valley states. They became "barbarians by design." Once we accept that many people might decline to accept the blessings of servitude, taxation, forced labor, military conscription, and disease, "the standard civilizational story of social evolution collapses utterly." For Scott, today's named hill tribes -- the Wa, Hmong, Karen, Kachin, Lahu, Akha, Yao/Mien, Palaung, Lisu/Lisaw and others -- are political identities chosen in the past from a portfolio of cultural possibilities by fugitives fleeing oppressive states. These identities have come over time to acquire their own history, Scott explains. "The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism."
For most of known history, states were exceptions rather than the rule. "Living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition," Scott writes. States in Southeast Asia developed 3,000 years ago when the invention of wet rice cultivation in the valleys enabled the powerful to concentrate people and production in a small area where the surplus could be appropriated to support an elite. Rulers borrowed the trappings and rituals of their Chinese and Indic neighbors (what the author calls "cosmological bluster") to establish an identity and attempt to secure loyalty from their subjects. Scott cites extensive evidence to show constant flight from state cores due to the intolerable conditions that threatened to destabilize these early states. Since the region was land rich but people poor, states relied on warfare to seize captives, and slavery, "the most important 'cash crop' of pre-colonial Southeast Asia," to replace those who had run away to the hills where they could not be easily found. This picture is "radically at odds with older prevailing assumptions of a primeval population in the hills abandoned by those who moved downhill and developed civilizations..an aboriginal population that had failed, for one reason or another, to make the transition to a more civilized way of life."
"Zomia" is the name coined a few years ago by a Dutch scholar to describe the Southeast Asian massif above 250-300 meters which stretches from the Vietnam highlands to the Tibetan plateau and contains 80-100 million people. At 2.5 million square meters, it is the size of Europe, and was at one time, according to Scott, the "largest mosaic of relatively stateless people in the world," a region of "bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity." He calls it a "shatter zone" comparable to similar stateless areas in the Caucasus, Balkans, highland West Africa and South America, as well as Appalachia, the Great Dismal Swamp and the Iraq marshlands. These fugitives became non-sedentary by choice to avoid capture and came up with various escape strategies. First was the location in inaccessible terrain and second was mobility. For subsistence, they practiced swidden "slash-and-burn" agriculture and planted root crops that were easily hidden. Their social structures were small, dispersed, egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Religious practices were in opposition to the culture they had left, animist and Taoist rather than the Theravada Buddhism that legitimized the large states. Only a few tribal peoples have writing and most have legends about how they lost it. Scott believes the abandonment of literacy might have been one escape strategy when writing is seen as a form of state control and enforced orthodoxy. The Gypsies, he recalls, have no writing, history, shrines, ruins, anthems or monuments. "They are the ultimate bobbing and weaving people."
The relation between valley and hill people invariably involved a to-ing and fro-ing. "Lowland states have always existed in symbiosis with hill society," Scott writes. "It is crucial to understand that what is being evaded is not a relationship per se with the state but an evasion of subject status." From the beginning of state formation, states captured and coerced some people while others got away. Each group, however, depended on the other for trade in valued commodities. While valley systems were centripetal, gathering people together, hill systems were centrifugal and fragmented them, multiplying identities as they pursued different varieties of escape strategies. As Scott writes several times for emphasis: "Ethnicity and 'tribe' begin exactly where taxes and sovereignty end." Scott's work will make it harder to ground histories in nation-states, and even in regions like "Southeast Asia" without considering cross-border ecological and social relations, and his radical construction view of ethnic identities no doubt will trouble anthropologists.
The entities represented as "tribes" seldom exist with anything like the substantiality of state imaginings. This misrepresentation is due not only to the official identities cooked up by the state but also to the need of ethnographers and historians for social identities that can serve as a coherent object of description and analysis. It is hard to produce an account of, let alone govern, a social organism that is continually going in and out of focus.Scott is not the first to invert the "civilization/barbarism" binary opposition and show the ideology behind it; environmental philosophers like John Muir have used it to score points against the destructive dominant culture. But the charge that hill people are backward still carries weight in Thailand. Nan, who comes from a northern province where many live, often in resettlement villages, believes they are dirty and deal drugs (some supported themselves by growing opium poppies, a practice now outlawed and relatively controlled). I am sure this is what she has been taught. During the Vietnam War, many hill people were killed by Thai troops looking for communists and homegrown liberals who had fled into the hills from Bangkok after bloody anti-government demonstrations in the 1970s. Because Thai identity is predicated on loyalty to King, Buddhism and the nation, hill people (as well as Muslim insurgents in the South) are excluded from most definitions of "Thainess." They are sometimes classed with migrants and refugees, housed in camps and denied the all important identification card required for most national services. Even when included as citizens, their schools and infrastructure do not receive equal funding. As Hjorleifur Jonsson pointed out in Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand (a book Scott considers an influence on his work), hill people nevertheless revere the King, play football, celebrate Thai festivals and worship the same pop icons as their valley counterparts, while retaining some traditions that distance themselves from full control of the state.
The history of Zomia and those who got away ends after World War Two, Scott admits, when states embarked on a conscious strategy of engulfment and eventual absorption of the hills. To extend control completely to its geographical borders, states employed "distance-demolishing technologies": railroads, surfaced roads, bridges, airplanes and helicopters, telegraph and telephone, forest-felling, defoliation, modern weapons, satellite photography and GPS, as well as the internet. Thongchai Winichakul's insightful Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, tells the story of how the imaginary nation of Siam became geographically solidified. The "entire globe," Scott writes, is now "administered space." The future, he says, lies in the "daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it."
Scott's work has been criticized for the usual reasons, over-generalization and use of secondary resources in English to buttress his arguments. One thorough critique is by Mandy Sadan from the School of Oriental and African Studies whose research focus is the Kachin people. She sees the book as a paradigm for thinking rather than an accurate history about the hill people. Because of it, "it will be impossible to discuss the uplands of Southeast Asia in the same way again, and some who had never discussed them before will be discussing them for the first time." She will be a participant and Scott will be the keynote speaker at a conference in Chiang Mai next November on "Enclosure, Interaction and Transformation," sponsored by the Asian Borderlands Research Network, which takes it's theme from Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed. I'd like to attend.
Almost all graduate schools ask their students in history to choose a field of study from a nation state or a region composed of several states, a requirement that can hold them back from exploring interconnected issues in politics, agriculture and history, as Scott does. I hope (but doubt) his challenge will be heard by university history departments. Finally, his work denaturalizes the state (Benedict Anderson did the same with the nation state in Imagined Communities), and it should no longer be possible to blindly assume that this method of exercising power and organizing people is the final stage of social and political evolution. The only alternatives now to the nation state are cross-border associations and regional governments like Catalonia, and they should be investigated. Anarchism today, or what might be called coordination and cooperation without the hierarchy of a state, no longer seems possible under the prevailing regime of control. Civilization, in its national and ethnic guise, reigns supreme.
Gandhi, when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied: "I think it would be a good idea."