Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia

(Note: Today’s scheduled post on language and nationalism needs more work and therefore its publication will be delayed).

On a map of the World Bank’s Human Development Index divided into the standard categories, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka*) is depicted as a land of “medium” development, better than central and north-central Africa, but worse than most of the rest of the world. Sri Lanka is an exception, falling instead into the “high development” category. This data, however, was collected before Sri Lanka’s recent economic melt-down. Presumably its HDI figure will decline.

When South Asia’s HDI rankings are broken down into finer categories and mapped in their regional context (one covering Burma and Afghanistan as well as portions of neighboring countries), several spatial patterns are evident. Here India, Bangladesh, and Nepal appear at a medium developmental level, and are flanked on the east and northwest by countries of lower ranking (Burma [Myanmar] and Pakistan & Afghanistan respectively). Bracketing “Greater South Asia” as a whole, one finds countries with much higher HDI levels (China, Iran, and Thailand).

These patterns vanish, however, when the larger countries of the region are broken down into their first-order administrative divisions (states, provinces, regions, etc. **). On this map, the borders between countries are hard to distinguish, and sometimes disappear altogether. China may have a much higher HDI level than India, but many Indian states post higher figures than the neighboring Chinese region of Tibet.

The rest of this post looks at parts of this Greater South Asia that have low HDI figures relative to the rest of the region. Later posts will examine areas with relatively high HDI, as well as regional developmental discrepancies.

South Asia’s most heavily populated area, India’s central Ganges Valley, is characterized low HDI. This region, consisting of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is home to some 312 million people; it would be the world’s fourth most populous country if it were independent. The central Ganges Valley is a generally flat area with fertile soils and plentiful water (especially in the east). It is also the historical heartland of South Asia civilization. Its economic and social development, however, lags behind the rest of the country. Not coincidentally, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also known for their high levels of corruption and their caste and religious tensions.

To the south of Bihar is the Indian state of Jharkhand, also characterized by low levels of social development. Ironically, it has India’s richest mineral deposits (especially coal) and has therefore been described as an example of the “resource curse.” Most of Jharkhand is a hilly plateau, and it has a large number of adivasis (“tribal people”). It has also been the site of numerous Maoist (Naxalite) attacks on governmental institutions.



Lower levels of human development are encountered in South Asia’s northwestern fringe. Both the western and eastern parts of Afghanistan, encompassing areas of both Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, post very low HDI figures. Significantly higher levels are found in central Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Across the country, HDI levels showed significant increases in the first two decades of the century. It will be interesting to see how they change with the Taliban back in power. Preliminary indications are not positive.

Very low levels of human development are also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the country’ largest and most mineral-rich province. Not surprisingly, the ethnically distinct people of this area (mostly Baloch and Brahui) have been in periodic rebellion for decades. Baloch insurgents have recently launched attacks on Chinese-financed infrastructural projects in their region, which they see as benefitting the rest of Pakistan rather than themselves. While Balochistan as a whole posts an HDI figure of only .48, some of its internal districts have much lower numbers still. According to one source, Awaran, known as Pakistan’s “oasis of dates,” has a shockingly low HDI figure of only .17 (2017 data). Outside of Balochistan, the same data source claims that Pakistan’s former FATA region (“Federally Administered Tribal Areas”) had a similarly miserable figure of .22 in 2017. In 2018, this previously largely unadministered region of Pashtun ethnicity was merged with the neighboring state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It still has one of the world’s lowest levels of female literacy. (Other sources give the dismantled FATA a substantially higher HDI figure of .46 [in 2019].)

Iran’s neighboring province of Sistan and Baluchestan is similar to Pakistan’s Balochistan in regard to its ethnic make-up and physical geography. Its HDI figure, .67, is, however, significantly higher. But Sistan and Baluchestan does have Iran’s lowest HDI figure, and by a sizable margin. It has also been the site of prolonged ethnic unrest.

Burma (Myanmar), although not conventionally classified as part of South Asia, also deserves a closer look. The country as a whole has a relatively low HDI figure despite its abundant resources and historical legacy of economic and social development (the noted historian Victor Lieberman thinks that Burma may have had the world’s highest level of literacy in the 1700s.) Intriguingly, Burma’s areas of particularly low development are not found in its marginalized, non-Burman, “tribal,” upland peripheries (more on this in the next most). The country’s profound “lowland/highland” and “Burman/ethnic minority” cleavages are not visible on this map.


Within Burma, a particularly low level of development is found in coastal Rakhine state. Known historically as Arakan, this area long formed an independent kingdom. The Arakanese people speak a language (dialect?) that is very closely related to Burmese. And like the Burmese-speaking ethnic Burmans, most of them follow Theravada Buddhism. Their lands have rich agricultural, marine, and forestry resources. But owing in part to its low levels of development, Rakhine is a restive region. The nationalist Arakan Liberation Army has recently ramped up its attacks on the Burmese state. The Arakan Liberation Army is also hostile toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, which until recently lived in the northern part of the region (vast numbers of Rohingya have been violently expelled from Burma).

Burma’s eastern Shan state posts an HDI figure lower than that of Rakhine, coming in at just over .5. The Shan state covers an upland plateau with some rugged topography and remote locales. It is not, however, a “tribal” area in general. The Shan themselves are a Tai-speaking people who also practice Theravada Buddhism. They were historically organized into small but military potent principalities. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burma and Siam (which became Thailand) competed over gaining control of this sizable area, with Burma eventually coming out on top. In the late twentieth century, it became a focal point of the narcotics trade. For a time, the insurgent Shan State enjoyed effective independence. In the late 1900s, however, the Burmese government defeated the Shan military, made possible by its alliance with the drug-running United Wa State Army. (The Wa are a “tribal’ people living in the northern part of Shan state.). The entire region is still noted for its narcotics trade and ethnic conflicts.

*The Maldives, another South Asian country, is excluded here due to its very small population. Like Sri Lanka, it has a relatively high level of human development (HDI of .74).

** The provinces of Afghanistan have been amalgamated into larger informal regions by the data source used here.

Dams and the Ignored Ethnic Conflict of Northern Burma

Map of Dam Sites in Northern BurmaRecent news reports have trumpeted Burma’s (Myanmar’s) decision to suspend construction of the massive, Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in the northern reaches of the country. The Economist magazine, for example, claims that the cancellation provides “mounting evidence that the new government in Yangon is serious about reform.” That assessment may well be on-target, although confidence is not inspired by the “government in Yangon” tag; since 2005-2006, Burma’s seat of government has been located not in Yangon (Rangoon), but rather in the new city of Naypyidaw, located 320 kilometers to the north.

Most articles on the suspension of the Myitsone Dam concentrate on Burma’s close but now potentially fraying relationship with China, as well as on the country’s “nascent stirrings of democracy” (as the New York Times frames the issue). The important ethnic dimension of the controversy, focused on the grievances of the Kachin people, has generally been downplayed if not ignored altogether. The Economist article referenced above merely notes that “There had been strong opposition to the dam from environmentalists and local Kachin people…”, while the New York Times piece cited above fails to mention the ethnic issue.

Map of Recent Kachin Battles in Burma, from The Irrawaddy A markedly different and far more comprehensive view of the conflict is found in the webpages of The Irrawaddy, an anti-government newspaper published by Burmese exiles living in Thailand. As multiple Irrawaddy articles demonstrate, the Burmese military is currently engaged in a small-scale but brutal war against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a well-armed ethnic militia with some 10,000 fighters. Although the Burmese military has apparently routed Kachin forces in recent weeks, the war presents a headache for the Burmese government that could potentially destabilize the country. From Burmese independence in 1948 through the 1980s, multiple ethnic insurgencies controlled much of Burma’s hinterlands and occasionally threatened the government’s hold on power. In the 1990s, ceasefire agreements were signed with most rebel armies, including the KIA, which gave a measure of stability to the troubled country. Renewed ethnic insurgency, however, jeopardizes Burma’s tenuous economic standing as well as its tentative movement toward political openness and reengagement with the United States and the European Union. Removing one of the main sources of Kachin discontent, the Myitsone Dam, thus has important security ramifications for the Burmese state.

According to a September 28, 2011 article in The Irrawaddy, recent fighting near the dam site has been intensive: “Civilians have fled in terror as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) loses its major stronghold.” Irrawaddy reporters maintain that thousands of soldiers on both sides have been engaged in combat, and that “at least 15 battalions of the Burmese government army are relentlessly shelling rebel-controlled areas with 120mm, 105mm and 80mm artillery fire.” Kachin refugees have reportedly tried to flee across the border into China, only to be rebuffed by Chinese authorities.

Map of Ethic Groups in Northern Burma, Highlighting the KachinAnother article in The Irrawaddy details alleged human rights violations that have accompanied the military struggle. A recently released 20-page report issued by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (“Burma’s Covered Up War: Atrocities Against the Kachin People”) accuses “Burma’s regime of displacing over 25,000 villagers and deliberately targeting civilians in killings, torture and sexual violence during the past four months of fighting.” The Irrawaddy admits, however, that it has been unable to independently verify the report’s numerous allegations. The article goes on to note that an organization called the Thailand Burma Border Consortium claims that “the Burmese regime has destroyed more than 3,000 villages and displaced over half-a-million civilians in eastern Burma” since 1997. Many of these would have been Kachin.

The term “Kachin” actually refers to a complex array of related ethno-linguistic groups in northern Burma and adjacent areas on China and India. The largest single ethnic group within the category, the Jingpo, numbers well over one million. A traditionally animist people, the Jingpo have more recently embraced Christianity to a substantial degree. Both Christianity and animism distance the Jingpo and other Kachin groups from the country’s dominant and strongly Buddhist-identified Burmese-speaking population, as well as from the Burmese state. The Kachin are usually indentified as a “tribal” people, implying the lack of complex social hierarchies and indigenous state-level political organization. Yet as Edmond Leach’s pioneering 1954 study Political Systems of Highland Burma showed, traditional Kachin socio-political structure contained tremendous variation, with some communities functioning essentially as small-scale states.

Map of Cease-Fire Armies in Burma Tension between the Kachin people and the Burmese state goes back to independence in 1948. As the British colonial regime was preparing to depart, ethnic leaders pushed for the creation of a federal system that would have granted autonomy to the Kachin and other minority groups. Such desires were frustrated, and in 1961 warfare broke out between the newly formed Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military. Sporadic fighting continued for decades. A 1994 ceasefire accord allowed the KIA to retain its arms, provided that it no longer challenged the government of Burma. That agreement broke down in 2010 after Burmese officials attempted to place the KIA under national military command. Kachin leaders refused the offer, and again pressed for the creation of a decentralized, federal state. In April 2010, three bombs exploded near the dam site, killing several people and wounding many more. Overt fighting between the KIA and the Burmese army broke out again in June 2011, but peace talks were soon initiated. Negotiations remained stymied by a variety of unsettled disputes, with the Myitsone Dam—which would displace 10,000-20,000 Kachin villagers—figuring prominently. The suspension of the project could thus lead to a new round of negotiations, and perhaps even the eventual generation of a solid peace in northern Burma. Many observers, however, have little faith in the new, supposedly reformed Burmese government, and thus expect the conflict to simmer for years to come.

Burma Takes on the United Wa State Army

United Wa State in Purple

As recently mentioned in this blog, James C. Scott’s new book The Art of Not Being Governed is essential reading on the history of state-level sovereignty. As Scott brilliantly shows, pre-colonial states in Southeast Asia, and much of the rest of the world, actually governed relatively small areas. Our conventional historical maps are thus highly misleading, as they tend to show traditional kingdoms ruling over vast areas that remained well outside of their actual spheres of power.

Scott may occasionally err, however, in attributing too much power to contemporary states. “[U]nambiguous, unitary sovereignty,” he contends, “is normative for the twentieth century nation-state…(p.61).” Is this really true? Even in the United States, “unambiguous, unitary sovereignty” is compromised, if slightly, by the existence of Native American tribal sovereignty, as the U.S. government recognizes certain groups as forming “domestic, dependent nations.” Even in France, “unambiguous, unitary sovereignty” is compromised by the existence of urban “no-go zones” (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), which are rarely penetrated by the police and other governmental agents. (Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to end this policy, but it is not yet clear whether he has succeeded.)

In much of the world, as this blog seeks to demonstrate, state sovereignty is far more limited. Consider Burma (Myanmar), which has never fully controlled the area that is depicted as forming its territory on our political maps. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Burma did indeed defeat its major “domestic” adversaries, the main ethnic armies associated with the Shan and Karen peoples. It was able to defeat the Shan, however, largely by allying itself with the ethnic group known as the Wa. Since that time, the Wa have formed a virtually sovereign state within Burma (“Special Region 2”), which they have defended with their own militia, the powerful United Wa State Army. The Wa state has hardly been a tribal paradise, as it has supported itself largely through the narcotics trade, gambling, and human trafficking, but that is beside the point. Whatever its merits or lack thereof, the Wa state has remained outside the grasp of Burma, contrary to what our maps and our general model of the world tell us.

In mid-2009, Burma figured that it had grown strong enough to take on the Wa and other ethnic militias and thus extend its power to its internationally recognized boundaries. It ordered militia commanders to fold their forces into the Burmese Army or face the consequences. In August it routed the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese militia allied with the Wa. Thus far, however, it has done little more than threaten the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army. On December 25, 2009, however, the Shan Herald reported that “The United Wa State Army (UWSA) and [its allies forces] the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) are purchasing thousands of protective suits against possible chemical warfare by the Burma Army, according to sources close to the said ceasefire groups. The buying spree was prompted by intelligence reports that the Burma Army was planning to destroy Wa and Mongla’s defenses ‘by using airpower, firepower and chemical weapons.’”


Perhaps the defeat of the Wa state and the incorporation of its territory into Burma is inevitable. I would not, however, be willing to bet on it.

The Plight of the Rohingyas

The standard linguistic map of Burma/Myanmar (below) reveals a significant number of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it also conceals much of the country’s diversity, as a number of separate peoples are joined together into composite ethnic categories, while others are simply ignored. The most important group in the latter category are the Rohingyas, a distinct people some 700,000 strong who appear on few maps of Burma. In the map on the left, the Rohingyas are marked, but in a manner that effectively erases their identity: the two triangles in far western Burma indicate Rohingya areas, but label them as “Indians and Pakistanis.” This erasure of Rohingya identity is in keeping with official Burmese policy, which has denied almost all of them Burmese citizenship.

The Rohingyas speak an Indo-European language closely related to Bengali. Like most eastern Bengali speakers, they follow Islam – the main reason for their persecution by the resolutely Buddhist Burmese state. According to Rohingya history, their ancestors began moving to their current homeland as early as the 7th century; Burmese historians contend that they did not arrive until after Burma was conquered by the British, and that they came largely through British connivance. As a result, hard-core Burmese nationalists insist that the Rohingyas be regarded as citizens of Bangladesh, not Burma. Bangladesh, not surprisingly, rejects this interpretation.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been going on for some time. In 1942, after Japanese forces expelled the British from Burma, mob violence took an estimated 100,000 Rohingya lives. In the late 1970s, renewed harassment sent another 250,000 to Bangladesh, where many have continued to languish in wretched refugee camps. Rohingyas continue to flee Burma, even though they have no place to go. In early 2009, the Thai military reportedly towed a number of boats crammed with Rohingya refugees into the open sea, where large numbers perished in storms.

Bangladeshi authorities reject Rohingya migration, arguing that all Rohingyas who entered their country after 1991 are simply illegal immigrants. Tensions between Burma and Bangladesh mounted in the fall of 2009, focused both on the Rohingya issue and on the maritime border between the two countries. The offshore area contains significant energy resources that both countries wish to exploit.

In late December 2009, the two countries reached a provisional agreement that involved the “repatriation” of Rohingya refugees. Burma agreed to accept 9,000 out of the estimated 28,000 residing in refugee camps (an additional 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas currently live in Bangladesh outside of the camps). But few of the refugees are eager to return. The journalist Nurul Islam, reporting in Media Matters, quotes one Rohingya man as saying, “we don’t have any rights in Myanmar. … If we go back, the armed forces will use us as bonded labour. Many will be sent to jail. There are still curbs on practising our religion or movement from one place to another without the army’s permission” (see http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/70036).

All in all, few of the world’s peoples have suffered discrimination as severe as that experienced by the Rohingyas. Yet their plight rarely gains attention in the U.S. media.