• November 23, 2014

The Battle Over Zomia

Scholars are enchanted by the notion of this anarchic region in Asia. But how real is it?

The Battle Over Zomia 1

Standee Pawan, OnAsia

A woman of the Akha people goes off to harvest coffee berries in northern Thailand.

The region of Zomia had not been mapped for very long when people started quarreling over it. Political scientists, historians, geographers, anthropologists, and especially Southeast Asianists. Even a few anarchists weighed in.

Much of the most recent debate has been spurred by the Yale University professor of political science and anthropology James C. Scott, who describes the region in his latest book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009). In the preface, he anticipates the criticism that will come "bearing down" on him for his unorthodox take on the practices of the region's hill peoples: "I'm the only one to blame for this book," he writes. "I did it."

Two years later, the book's already considerable reach is being extended with new foreign editions. "I'm delighted with the attention it's gotten," says Scott. As for the criticism that keeps coming, in journals and at conferences, "I've got a thick skin."

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.

Scott admits to making "bold claims" about those hill peoples but says "not a single idea" in his book originates with him. He credits many other scholars, including the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres and the American historian Owen Lattimore, with influencing his thinking. Still, many find Scott's propositions startling.

He depicts an alternative past for the inhabitants of Zomia. The majority of the people who ended up in the hills were either escaping the state or driven out by it, he says.

It is how he interprets their behavior and motives that has both enthralled and antagonized his critics.

While others might describe the hill peoples as "primitive" because they did not have permanent abodes or fixed fields, adhere to a major religion, or adopt other modern practices, Scott turns that idea around. He argues that those many minority ethnic groups were, in a sense, barbarians by design, using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them.

As Scott develops his thesis, concepts that many scholars might hold dear vanish. Longstanding notions about the meaning of ethnic identity: Poof, gone. The idea that being "civilized" is superior to being uncivilized. Poof. The perception that absence of a written language signals a group's failure to advance. Poof.

Instead, Scott asserts, "ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources."

Over the past two millennia, "runaway" communities have put the "friction of terrain" between themselves and the people who remained in the lowlands, he writes. The highland groups adopted a swidden agriculture system (sometimes known, pejoratively, as "slash and burn"), shifting fields from place to place, staggering harvests, and relying on root crops to hide their yields from any visiting tax collectors. They formed egalitarian societies so as not to have leaders who might sell them out to the state. And they turned their backs on literacy to avoid creating records that central governments could use to carry out onerous policies like taxation, conscription, and forced labor.

Scott's thesis puts people who have been an afterthought in Asian-area studies in the spotlight. Moreover, he "manages to give them more agency than most scholars have been able to attribute to them," says Prasenjit Duara, a professor of humanities at the National University of Singapore.

Anne L. Clunan, director of the Center on Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School, calls The Art of Not Being Governed "a masterwork. It's a really brilliant book." An associate professor of national-security affairs, she is one of five scholars who contributed to a symposium on Scott's book that appeared in the March issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics.

Scott's argument that the purpose of state-making is about control of manpower, and not just territory, is one that will resonate a long while, she says in an interview, noting that she is expressing her own views and not those of the U.S. government.

"It is a necessary corrective to the predominantly benign view of state-building," she says. Scott's book demonstrates that "the state itself can be harmful and despotic."

Scott's depiction of the state as injurious to its subjects will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work. The state also played the villain in several of his other titles published by Yale, among them The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976) and Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).

With his approach, Scott, who directs Yale's agrarian-studies program and edits the press's Yale Agrarian Studies Series, meets the challenge he throws out to others who publish in that series: to produce "works of daring."

He spoke with The Chronicle from his small farm in Durham, Conn., where he lives and raises beef cattle, bees, and chickens. Their care, he says, is a welcome physical diversion that requires no more time each day than others might spend reading The New York Times. Lately he has been taking trips to Myanmar (formerly Burma), where he recently gave a lecture in his newly acquired Burmese.

Scott says he learned from his experience with The Moral Economy—after its publication he labored over a 60-page rejoinder to a criticto avoid adopting a defensive posture, lest that delay the next project. "I don't want to spend my time crossing swords with people who disagree about this and that," he says. But he does feel obligated to consider the arguments against his ideas and to respond at some point.

The Art of Not Being Governed may be his last major work, he says, though he plans shorter publications to discuss Myanmar and what he finds useful in anarchist theory. "I'm getting on in age," says Scott, who is 74. "Ten-year projects are pretty chancy things."

He credits the controversy over the book not so much to his having introduced novel ideas, which he says he has not, as to the way he presents them. "No one's connected the dots in the way I have and put it all together. Most histories and anthropologies of hill peoples proceed as if these people were always where they're found today"—in the highlands.

Scott's book may have popularized Zomia, but the neologism was invented nearly a decade ago by Willem van Schendel, an Asian-studies specialist at the University of Amsterdam.

Van Schendel's 2002 paper in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space suggests that the development of area studies after World War II created "academic fiefdoms," some of which were "allowed to flourish at the expense of others." Peripheral areas, like the one he names Zomia, "always drop off the map," he writes. The name is derived from zomi, a term for "Highlander" in several languages spoken in Bangladesh, Burma, and India, he says.

The name itself adds to the intrigue.

"Zomia, like Shangri-La or Xanadu, is a catchy name," writes Jean Michaud, a professor of anthropology at Laval University, in Quebec, in a "Zomia and Beyond" issue of the Journal of Global History last year. "It may well stick with media and academic publishers, who have a penchant for the scent of mystery it carries."

Some of Scott's critics say it's not only the name that has a romantic ring; his very depiction of the hill peoples and their flight from state control is also romanticized.

Are they as egalitarian and as strategically minded as he portrays them?

"The general road map he is suggesting makes sense, to a degree," Michaud, a specialist on the Hmong people, says in an interview. But plenty of counterexamples among hill peoples, he says, "show that it doesn't really work at all." For instance, several highland groups have had hierarchical or feudal societies for centuries, effectively creating their own states. Among them were the Shan, in Burma; the Tay and Nung, in Vietnam; and the Zhuang, in China's Guangxi Province.

"He's really making a point by exaggerating it," Duara, of Singapore, says of Scott's idea that hill groups deliberately use state-evading strategies. Nor is evidence for some of Scott's other arguments all that cut-and-dried, Duara says. But "to some extent," he acknowledges, "an interesting formulation requires an extreme statement."

For Hjorleifur Jonsson, an associate professor of anthropology at Arizona State University and a specialist on a Southeast Asian hill people called the Mien, the fascination with Scott's book speaks to the American notion of the frontier as a place to seek freedom. The reaction builds on Western sympathies for peoples like the Tibetans, who are seen to be engaged in a struggle against oppression. "It's one of those romances at a distance," he says.

Though Jonsson says he considers many of Scott's propositions questionable, he also finds them "a lot of fun," given the lively debates they've engendered. He's read The Art of Not Being Governed several times and contributed to a debate in the Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania this year.

The idea in Scott's book that makes Jonsson most uncomfortable, he says, is "that there cannot be any beneficial political negotiation" between peoples and states. Scott seems to suggest that any such negotiations would undermine the authenticity of the group, Jonsson says. "In spite of Scott's intentions, it really sounds like the old tribal fantasy: What's exciting about people there is their total separation from the world we think we know."

Another argument that he finds troubling is the one that ethnic identity is politically crafted: "Who is a Western scholar to say identities of Southeast Asian people are all fluff?"

Jonsson suggests that Scott's vision may have been limited because his work has been concentrated in Myanmar, where ethnic minorities have fought the national government for decades.

Scott counters that what he has done in dissecting the hill peoples' identities "has been done for almost every other ethnic group, in terms of deconstructing their history and showing that ethnicity is a kind of positioning and a performance.

"It's usually a mistake," he says, "to imagine that there is a great deal of genetic and genealogical continuity."

His book, he insists, does nothing to diminish those groups' claims to autonomy, land rights, and recognition: "I think that every identity is historically constructed, and, in fact, you can argue that that is in a sense even more noble and worthy of recognition: the self-creation of an ethnic group."

Mai Na M. Lee, an assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who joined Jonsson and others at a conference in Madison, Wis., in March on a panel titled "To Zomia or Not to Zomia," is ethnically Hmong. When she started reading The Art of Not Being Governed, she says, she was captivated. "My initial reaction was, Wow, this is a really, really radical work," the first to attempt to do an overall history of the Southeast Asian highlands. "Nobody has done that."

As she read on, she says, she "became a bit disillusioned," finding Scott's thoughts regarding state-evasion too simplistic. Her own research on the Hmong during the French colonial period, she says, showed not that they evaded states, but rather that they strategically engaged with them in a way that would allow the Hmong to retain cultural autonomy. "Hmong leaders needed legitimation in order to be perceived by the Hmong population as leaders," she says. And they sought that from the state.

The chapter with the thesis that Lee and many others find most far-fetched is one that Scott, in a nod to his own doubts, numbers 6&frac;. In it he suggests that in many cases, hill peoples are not "nonliterate" but "postliterate," having rejected writing to make themselves nonlegible to the state. "The absence of writing and texts provides a freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines," he writes.

Many of the upland groups have legends about how they "lost" their writing systems, he observes. Relying on oral traditions allows them to reinvent themselves "without much fear of contradiction."

Jonsson responds, "To assume that writing is a way to trap you into subjugation is very problematic. I don't believe it."

The Hmong have a few legends about how they lost their written language, none supporting the idea that literacy was deliberately rejected. In one version, they tried to carry their books on their heads as they crossed a river to escape the Han Chinese, and the books floated away.

But, says Lee, secret societies were supposed to have preserved the writing system and passed it down. Women hid the letters in their needlework. "For the Hmong, there's always been an aspiration for literacy," she says. "It's an essential component of the Hmong finding their kingdom." Over the past century, several competing writing systems have been developed for the Hmong language.

Lee believes that Scott's work sets down a challenge for her field: Climbing hills should not be left to the anthropologists. Historians need to leave the shelter of libraries, break free of an overreliance on texts from the colonialists and dominant cultures, and go up to the highlands themselves to discover the past of the hill peoples, even in the absence of written indigenous accounts.

For all the fault they find with Zomia, Scott's critics would like to be able to explore the region to see if it is as he describes. And yet, by the end of his book, Scott makes Zomia vanish as neatly as he made it appear. Since World War II, he says, states have engulfed the highland peoples by sending lowlanders into those areas. Technology and transportation, too, have diminished the distances between the hill peoples and the states.

To Jonsson, this seems like saying that once they are not in isolation, the people of Zomia are no longer interesting. And yet those are living cultures, he argues, not to be dismissed because they have changed.

Clunan, of the Center on Contemporary Conflict, has a different concern about Scott's stamping an expiration date on Zomia. "It's too easy for him to say that his argument doesn't apply to the 20th and 21st centuries," she says, "because if it did, it would incorporate a whole bunch of pretty nasty actors," among them insurgents, human traffickers, and terrorists.

Objections to the fading away of Zomia represent one of two criticisms of his book that Scott says he takes seriously. Academics are even now trying to make the case that the conditions he sets up for state-evading peoples may still apply, not only in Zomia but also among Myanmar's Sea Gypsies and some groups in Africa. "There are people busy working on other Zomias, if you like," Scott says.

The other mistake he thinks he may have made is to leave some readers with the impression "that there is some general staff of hill peoples that meets underground in some bunker and makes decisions about, Well, shall we swidden? Shall we do this? Shall we do that?" Scott says. "I make it seem more deliberate than I meant to."

His reconsideration of the issues may eventually make their way into a new preface for the book, he says. But until that appears, and probably for a long time afterward, researchers will be poking at his hypotheses to see if Zomia exists as he's imagined it or needs to be reconfigured.

Scott's proposition, Duara says, "suddenly becomes a perspective that you cannot escape anymore if you're working on those relations between the states and mountain people."

Ruth Hammond is a senior copy editor at The Chronicle who has written extensively about the resettlement of Hmong refugees in the United States.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.