The geological tendency for rubies and sapphires to form in the borderland hills between Siam and French Indochina was matched in the late nineteenth century by a propensity for Shan and Burmese migrants to arrive in search of them. At Huay Xai on the northern bank of the Upper Mekong, and at Pailin in the Siamese-Cambodian borderlands, gem migrants known as kula (from the Burmese word for “foreigner”) were well-established by the turn of the 20th century.
Peripheries are by definition sites removed from centres of power. Yet upland gem tracts, because of the riches they hold, become much more than remote zones of refuge. The kula flight was prompted by state disorder in Upper Burma and the Shan States, but their time in the hills was by no means spent practising the art of not being governed (cf. Scott 2009). Quite the reverse; as sometime mercenaries, patrons of royal exiles, targets of colonial border-making, and autarkic overlords of their own state-within-a state, they were intensely political actors. The success of kula bids both to secure local power and finance political projects in their distant homelands rested on securing control of the miners’ labor, to thereby govern them and control the wealth in the hills. To get past the conundrum of the peripheral uplands – are they “refuges for the weak or sources of special power?” (Clarence-Smith 2010) – this paper looks to the corundrum.