Organized Panel Session
This paper examines how borderland people engaged with and rejected incorporation into lowland empires in the nineteenth century. It challenges the assumption that territorialisation in the highlands was purely a state-led dynamic. Scholars of territoriality often define it as techno-legal strategies which states use to bound, and control resources within, a territory (Sack, Scott, Vandergeest and Peluso). A historical approach complicates this picture, showing instead how multiple groups of actors displayed territorial ambitions, motivations, and methods, with more or less success. When lowland states attempted to penetrate and demarcate the upland Southeast Asian borderlands in the nineteenth century, diverse groups of local actors engaged in territorial strategies of their own. In the Wa country on the Sino-Burmese border, local groups asserted territorial control by engaging with states through diplomatic and military means. In the Burma-Thailand borders, on the other hand, local Lahu people chose ‘escapist’ strategies, opting not to engage with external states. These dynamics have had a lasting legacy on the varying degrees of borderland peoples’ autonomy.
This focus on territoriality provides an important critique to the ‘anti-state’ narrative of Scott’s work on Zomia. Groups which the state incorporated (e.g. Lahu regions in southern Shan State) may have been anti-state but had little power to check state consolidation, whereas Wa communities further north – often depicted as anti-state, highly autonomous zones – were actually empowered not through state evasion but through engagement with states. This provides a way of challenging the problematic binaries constructed between state/non (or anti-)state spaces.