Zomia - Asia's anarchic religion

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Battle Over Zomia

The Chronicle Review

Ruth Hammond

September 4, 2011


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."
Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou
Poof, gone? How did that happen? There are two population groups whose ancestral lines have split "over the past two millenia": the hill people and the lowlanders. The cultures are different and with no written language, the brains will be wired different and become increasingly different over time.