Where is Zomia?

Conventional geographical units of any kind often lead the imagination along set pathways. Originality of thought can therefore be be enhanced by the creation of novel regionalization schemes. One of the more intriguing new regions to be proposed in recent years is Zomia, a term coined by historian Willem van Schendel in 2002, and expanded upon by James C. Scott in his recent book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. As Scott’s title indicates, Zomia denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.

In one sense, injustice is done to the very concept of Zomia by delineating it on a map with precise boundaries. Premodern Southeast Asian states themselves were not spatially bounded, let alone this anarchic hill country. Still, it can be useful to map the general area of Zomia, which I have done above.

My map is a little different from that of James Scott, on which it is based. I include a bit less of northern Thailand, and substantially less of upper Burma and of Assam, as these areas were important centers of state formation in the pre-colonial era. (I probably should also have excluded the Indian state of Manipur, as it too was the site of a significant, if usually ignored, indigenous state.)

One of the advantages of the concept of Zomia is the fact that it cuts across the boundaries of South, East, and Southeast Asia. While these world regions have their utility, they can also restrict the scholarly imagination. One cannot do justice to the societies of Zomia if one examines them only from the perspective of Southeast Asian studies.

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