Organized Panel Session
Ethnic identity plays a crucial role in understanding civil war. A common typology for conceptualizing armed groups opposed to the state in Southeast Asia categorizes them as either ethnonationalist or ideological. The categories help distinguish ideological groups, often Communists, pursuing regime change with others aiming for autonomy or outright secession for a sub region.
The category of ethnonationalism points to the pivotal role of shared ethnicity as a basis for armed groups to mobilize support. This perspective is incomplete and leaves several questions unanswered. What are the means through which “ethnicity” functions as a basis for mobilizing support? What accounts for the proliferation of multiple armed groups of the same ethnicity in some areas places, but not in others? What accounts for membership of people of an ethnicity other than the dominant one in an ethnonationalist group?
This paper examines the roles of ethnicity identity in the mobilization of armed groups in Myanmar’s Shan State. The paper offers an alternative perspective arguing that efforts by leaders of armed groups to meet people’s strategies of survival served as a basis for mobilizing support and exercising social control. The deft employment of meaning-laden symbols of ethnicity that resonated with the population was part of the repertoires for attracting support. However, shared ethnicity was often not always enough. The provision of material benefits was another approach pursued by both armed organizations and individuals to mobilize support.