Southeast Asia

Whither Acehnese Autonomy?

Despite the attention that sensational natural disasters receive in the media, their long-term significance sometimes seems questionable. But when nature’s calamities do change societies, the consequences can be profound. The All Soul’s Day Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, for example, purportedly led many European thinkers to question whether natural calamities reflect the will of God, boosting Enlightenment skepticism and launching the science of seismology. The 2005 Kashmir earthquake, by contrast, is often said to have bolstered religious fundamentalism, with local Muslim clerics convincing many believers that their lack of piety had provoked God.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami may not have had similar ideological effects, but its political repercussions were significant; the disaster brought peace to the troubled region of Aceh in northern Sumatra, ending a three-decade old civil war. With more than 100,000 lives lost, the devastation was so severe and the needs for reconstruction so profound that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed to lay down its arms, just as the Indonesian government agreed to grant Aceh self-rule. Thus the “Special Territory” of Aceh came into being as an autonomous area within Indonesia, subject to its own laws. Election in the region soon brought former GAM rebel leaders to power.

The majority population of the region, the Acehnese, speak their own language and follow many of their own traditions. They are also reputed to be the most devout Muslims of Indonesia, adhering to a strongly orthodox version of the faith. Islam first entered Southeast Asia through Northern Sumatra, and the Acehnese have long maintained close religious and cultural connections with the Arabian Peninsula, particularly with the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. On gaining autonomy, Aceh instituted shariah (Islamic law), enforcing harsh penalties against drinking and the mingling of unrelated men and women. As in Saudi Arabia, “vice and virtue patrols” now have broad power to punish those who flout strict Islamic norms.

The granting of autonomy to Aceh raised concerns in other parts of the world. Some observers feared that with religiously inspired ex-militants coming to power, Aceh would become a haven for Islamist radicals. Dedicated Muslim militants, according to this line of thinking, would never be content with mere regional autonomy, as their ultimate goal is to create a unified caliphate that would bring all Islamic areas in Southeast Asia, and ultimately the world, under one government. Other experts countered that the rebellion in northern Sumatra was inspired more by Acehnese nationalism than by religious fanaticism, and that Aceh would probably not become a terrorist sanctuary.

Recent events in Aceh could be used as evidence by either school of thought. In March 2010, Indonesian authorities discovered and dismantled a major militant training camp in the region. The camp was reportedly used to train fighters for operations not only elsewhere in Indonesia, but also in the Gaza Strip. A number of anti-terrorism raids were subsequently conducted elsewhere in Aceh. Yet none of the people thus far killed or apprehended have any demonstrable connection with GAM, the former revolutionary movement that now helps run the government of Aceh. One former leader of the group has gone so far as to proclaim that “GAM, in fact, works with the military and police to hunt terrorists.” To the extent that this statement is correct, one must conclude that the Islamist militants of Indonesia have serious erred, misinterpreting what was actually a religiously inspired nationalist movement as a front for global jihad.

Christmas Island: Land Crabs and Detainees

Christmas Island is 52-square-mile rainforest-covered limestone and basalt platform several hundred miles south of Java. Most of the island is a national park, sheltering a limited and highly distinctive native fauna. It is best noted for its eponymous red crab, a land dwelling crustacean than lives in rainforest burrows – in staggering numbers. At the onset of the rainy season, some 120 million red crabs migrate to the sea to spawn, overrunning much of the island. Intriguingly, early accounts make scant mention of the unavoidable crabs. Some ecologists speculate that the red crab population had been kept in check by the endemic Maclear’s rat that once populated the island, also in large numbers. The introduced black rat, however, evidently infected the native rat with an exterminating disease, perhaps allowing the crab population to explode (although we must wonder why the black rat was not able to similarly limit the crab). Currently, crab numbers are declining due to the spread of the yellow crazy ant, a highly invasive “tramp ant” species. Supercolonies of yellow crazy ants have formed, killing an estimated 20 million crabs and reducing the populations of several bird species. Efforts to control the ants are now underway.

Phosphate-rich Christmas Island was annexed by Britain in 1888. Workers came from China and Malaysia; their descendants form the bulk of the island’s current 1400 inhabitants. The phosphate deposits are largely worked out, and efforts to establish the island as a gambling center and as a spaceport have not been successful. Prior to 1993, Christmas had postal independence, allowing it to profit by selling stamps to collectors. The booming business of processing and incarcerating asylum-seekers and thwarted immigrants is now the island’s economic mainstay.

Like Norfolk, Christmas Island is a geopolitical anomaly: in this case, a non-self-governing territory of Australia, located outside of Australia’s migration zone (see yesterday’s post). The island does have an elected advisory council, and its residents do vote in Australian federal elections. But in the end, Canberra runs Christmas. In recent years, the national government has decided to remake Christmas Island into a detention center for refugees and undocumented immigrants trying to reach the Australian mainland. In 2007, the island’s administration was transferred from the Department of Transport and Regional Services to the Attorney General’s Office, reflecting its prominent role in Australia’s fight to control immigration.

The increased population is straining the island’s infrastructure – some say to the breaking point. Both the local inhabitants and the detainees are highly concentrated, roughly on opposite ends of the island. The expanding population of Christmas Island has increased the cost of living of the local inhabitants. Housing especially has gone up, as outsiders have been brought in to staff the detention facilities. As one local reported, “Now the island is at breaking point, the sewage treatment plant can’t cope, the power station can’t cope, the health system can’t cope, and the school can’t cope…” The housing shortage eased recently when a number of immigration workers were moved into Christmas Island’s mothballed casino. The detainees, meanwhile, are kept in bleak compounds on the far end of the island from the settlement. According to recent reports, the compounds will soon be expanded.

Communist Insurgents and Ethnic Militias in Northern Luzon: The NPA Vs. the CPLA

The main focus of insurgency in the Philippines has long been the Muslim southwest. But as discussed in last Friday’s post, the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) remains active in remote areas throughout the archipelago. One of the NPA’s main zones of operation is the Cordillera of Northern Luzon, a rugged area divided into several provinces. Like Mindanao, the Cordillera long lay beyond the effective control of the Spanish colonial government. Until the 1880s, the culturally diverse peoples of the region (see map), collectively known as Igorots, retained tribal independence. They also kept their indigenous faith based on ancestor worship. Although Christianity spread widely in the 1900s, many Igorots remain proudly “Pagano” to this day.

The armed forces of the U.S. colonial government subdued even the most militant Igorot groups, such as the head-hunting Bontocs, relatively quickly during the first few years of the twentieth century. They did so through a combination of threats, reprisals, and rewards, with the crucial ingredient of treating indigenous culture with some respect. Surprising though it may seem, American administrators often favored tribal highlanders over Christian lowlanders, viewing the latter as having been corrupted by decadent Spanish culture and institutions while the highlanders remained hard-working, manly, and ready for American tutelage. Schools were established in many parts of the Cordillera, and to this day one can venture into some very remote districts and find elderly people fluent in English.

Tensions between the Cordilleran peoples and the Philippine government grew in the 1960s and intensified under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986). Dam-building, mining, and forestry projects in the highlands threatened ancestral land-rights, turning many Igorots against the government and inducing quite a few to join the New People’s Army. In the 1980s, a new military force emerged to complicate the struggle, the Cordilleran Peoples’ Liberation Army (CPLA). Founded by a former Catholic priest, Conrado Balweg, the CPLA based its cause on indigenous rights rather than the class struggle preached by the NPA cadres. It too engaged the Philippine state in armed conflict. In 1987, I interviewed Father Balweg (as he was still called by his followers), a process that involved multiple transfers between vehicles and a brief period under blindfold before meeting him under the watchful eyes of his armed guards. He assured me that he wanted only peace, but that peace was only possible if indigenous land rights could be guaranteed.

After the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986, the new Aquino government began negotiating with the Cordilleran Peoples’ Liberation Army. The deal that was eventually reached was similar to that made with the Moro National Liberation Front. A Cordilleran Autonomous Region was to be created, joining the several highland provinces. Once the initial agreement was made, the CPLA essentially ended its armed struggle, even through the agreed-upon autonomous region was never actually created. The left wing of the Cordilleran people’s movement rejected the proposal as too accommodating, the various ethnic groups of the mountains quarreled over its political arrangements, and as a result inadequate support was gathered in two plebiscites. The only structural change was the emergence of a non-autonomous Cordilleran Administrative Region (see map above). But as the aggressive land-taking policies of the Marcos administration were generally abandoned, local animosity toward the government declined in most areas.

As the CPLA made peace with the Philippine government, it increasingly found itself fighting against its erstwhile comrades in the NPA. It is widely believed that the NPA assassinated Conrado Balweg in 1999. After Balweg’s death, the Cordilleran Peoples’ Liberation Army underwent several splits. As Bulatlat News reported in 2002, the NPA hotly denied rumors that it had entered a truce with the CPLA, labeling it a terrorist group that had engaged in “a long series of crimes against the revolution and the people.” The CPLA increasingly allied itself with the government, yet remained independent. In 1999, it shocked the Philippine government by sending fully armed troops into Baguio City, the former American hill-station (and second-home base for the national elite), after cowing a contingent of the Philippine National Police. A thoroughly embarrassed national government tried to force the CPLA to fold its command structure into that of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but to no avail.

War continues to be waged in the Cordillera. On February 7, 2010, the Philippine Star reported that fourteen soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines had been killed in the region as the government intensified its operations against “remnants of communist elements.” The NPA also continues to battle the still-independent CPLA. In a recent letter to the editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a spokesperson for the allied Cordillera Peoples’ Democratic Front accused the CPLA of being “in the same sinking boat as the infamous Ampatuan private army … equipped and coddled by the military and the Arroyo regime… [The] purported new and reformed CPLA… must be immediately disarmed, disbanded and punished…” One must wonder who the author thinks should disband this army. The same Philippine military that his side is fighting against?

Indigenous militias often make common cause with leftist insurgents, but their aims generally remain distinct. While Communist forces usually seek to take over states, indigenous forces typically want to separate from them. In a word, the two groups foresee fundamentally different political maps.

Autonomy and Insurgency in the Southern Philippines

Last Friday’s post on the Maguindanao Massacre in the southern Philippines linked the event to a combination of Philippine electoral politics and privatized military forces. Deeper roots are found in centuries-old imperial conflicts and religious rivalries. Islam was spreading northward through the Philippines when the Spaniards arrived in the late 1500s. Although the Spanish colonial regime successfully introduced Christianity to the northern and central islands, Islam remained entrenched in the southwest. Despite Spanish claims to the entire archipelago, the Muslim sultanates of Mindanao and the Sulu islands resisted colonial power. Spain maintained strongholds, such as Zamboanga on the southwestern tip of Mindanao, but never effectively ruled most of the region. As can be seen on the map above, Islam and animism dominated the southern Philippines in 1890, with Christianity largely limited to the northern and eastern coastal zones of Mindanao.

When the United States gained control over the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, it too had great difficulties subduing the south. But by 1913, Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were effectively under American rule. This set the stage for the southward migration of Christian Filipinos. With Philippine independence in 1946, the migration stream intensified. As the second map above shows, the dominant language across most of Mindanao is now Cebuano, originally from the island of Cebu in the central archipelago. As Christians moved into formerly Muslim or animist areas, ethnic tensions heightened. Entrenched poverty in the Muslim-majority areas contributed to anti-government sentiments. By the late 1960s, the southwestern Philippines was again in open rebellion, now under the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Peace initiatives between the Philippine government and the MNLF began in the late 1970s. For years, both sides offered limited concessions, but a settlement remained elusive. In 1981, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) split from the MNLF, objecting to its compromising approach. Peace between the government and the MNLF finally came in 1986, with the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM; see map above). The more intransigent MILF rejected the deal as offering too little territory and inadequate autonomy. As can be seen on the map, key areas in the historically Islamic southwestern Philippines are excluded from the region, including the city of Cotabato, ARMM’s ostensible capital. But effective local autonomy is still strong enough that the central government has to work with armed local allies, thereby empowering such clans as the Ampatuans (see last Friday’s post).

Relations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have showed some recent signs of improvement. Talks about having talks are now underway. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on February 19, 2010, the MILF is willing to negotiate as long as any agreements made with the current administration remain binding on future Philippine governments. It also demands more extensive powers for the autonomous regional government, calling for the creation of a “sub-state within the Philippine state.” If this were to happen, the Philippines would become a federal country, which in turn would probably require an amendment to its constitution.

Even if a comprehensive deal can to be reached with the MILF, the insurgency in the southern Philippines will probably not end. The most violent and radical Islamist group in the region is Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked organization that shows no indication of wanting to make a deal. Although recent reports emphasize the military losses that it has recently suffered, Abu Sayyaf retains the capacity for violence. On February 27, 2010, its militants attacked the village of Tubigan on the island of Basilan, killing 11 people. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, “The attack on Tubigan came barely nine hours after authorities rescued the two Chinese nationals that [the] group had abducted in November, along with a local. The local, Marquez Singson, had been beheaded.”

The Andaman Islands: Cultural Extinction, Paleolithic Survival, and Modern Naval Warfare

In February 2010, a number of major media outlets reported the death of Boa Sr, the last speaker of Bo in India’s Andaman Islands. Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the extinction of Bo; a language disappears somewhere in the world roughly once a month. Some 500 languages are spoken by fewer than ten people, and half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear by 2100.

Yet the indigenous peoples and languages of the Andaman Islands deserve special attention. Until pried open by the British in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Andaman Islands were a world apart, occupied by a group of linguistically diverse societies successfully resisting contact with everyone else. The Andamanese seemed to have retained cultural and genetic characteristics that marked the first migration of modern human beings out of Africa and into coastal Asia some 50,000 years ago. Like the equally isolated Tasmanian Aborigines, they allegedly had no knowledge of making fire, carefully preserving burning embers for future use.

When the British arrived, so did epidemic diseases, ravaging the indigenous population. Some scholars think that British administrators set out to exterminate certain Andamanese groups, which were noted for their extreme hostility toward outsiders—and for their skill with the bow. By 1900, only some 600 people still spoke languages in the Great Andamanese group, the largest linguistic family in the archipelago. With the extinction of Aka-Kora in late 2009 and of Bo in 2010, only one of the ten original Great Andamanese languages remains. Just fifty people speak it, a number too small to ensure survival.

The Ongan language family of the southern Andaman Islands has done better, with roughly 200 people speaking one of its surviving languages and 100 speaking the other. The 250 or so inhabitants of North Sentinel Island may also speak a language that belongs in this family, but that is mere conjecture, as Sentinelese remains an unexamined tongue. To this day, outsiders who venture onto the island are attacked and driven away. North Sentinel may be internationally regarded as Indian territory, but that means nothing to the island’s inhabitants, who remain effectively independent not just of India but of the modern world. In 2006, when helicopters arrived to retrieve the bodies of two fishermen who had trespassed into their waters, Sentinelese archers harassed them with arrows.

The rest of the Andaman archipelago, by contrast, has been integrated with the modern world for some time. The first connection seems to have come in the seventeenth century, when the Marathas of India established a temporary naval base in the area. By the mid 1800s, the British had conquered most of the archipelago. They soon built a notorious penal colony, which was heavily used after the Indian rebellion of 1857. Subsequent migration streams brought people from different parts of South Asia, resulting in a multilingual and relatively cosmopolitan population of some 300,000 today.

The hottest recent developments in the Andaman Islands are related to regional geopolitics. In February 2010, India announced a major expansion of military installations in both the Andaman and the neighboring Nicobar islands. According to a February 7, 2010 article from the Hindustan Times, local airstrips “were being extended from 3,200 feet to 12,000 feet to support all types of aircraft, including fighters. … [while] the army was planning to beef up its brigade-level deployment (around 3,000 soldiers) with three more battalions and support units.” The local command has recently obtained such naval equipment as a large Landing Ship Tank (LST), which can hold more than 200
 armed troops, six trucks, ten main battle tanks, and twelve infantry combat vehicles, according to the Indian news outlet DNA.

India’s military build-up in the Andaman Islands comes in reaction to Chinese naval forays into the area. China has apparently constructed some sort of military intelligence facility in the Coco Islands, a Burmese outlier just to the north of the Andaman Islands (see map). Although both China and Burma (Myanmar) deny the allegation, Indian officials are convinced that it is designed to monitor their naval activities as well as the Indian Space Research Center, located on the Andhra Pradesh coast.

Southern Thailand: A Kratom-Fueled Insurgency?

“Four Killed in Insurgency-Plagued Thai South,” reads an all-too-typical Reuters headline from February 15, 2010. The war in southern Thailand’s Pattani region is little noted in the U.S. media, but it continues to generate significant casualties – totaling almost 4,000 deaths over the last six years – as well as major human rights abuses. The Malay-speaking, Muslim, and relatively poor inhabitants of Thailand’s southernmost provinces feel marginalized and often oppressed, giving rise to an insurrection that targets not just the Thai state but also Thai-speaking Buddhist civilians. Hundreds of teachers and low-level civil servants have been attacked, many beheaded. Critics claim that the government has responded with almost equal brutality, fanning the flames of the insurrection.

Thailand’s Muslim, Malay-speaking holdings resulted from Siamese imperial expansion aimed at controlling the Strait of Malacca in the 1700s (see 1855 map above). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Britain stripped Thailand of most of its Malay lands, but not Pattani. Pattani’s residents never fully accepted Thai power. The current rebellion, which began in 2004, remains shadowy. No specific group, let alone leader, has taken responsibility for the acts of violence, and no concrete demands have been made.

Many young men of Pattani have gravitated to an oppositional subculture marked by heavy drug use, and hard-core Islamists reportedly recruit drug-addled youths as terrorists. Although hardly noted for their Muslim piety, these young men usually avoid alcohol in favor of substances that are not explicitly banned by the Quran. Recent reports from southern Thailand highlight an unusual element in the struggle: 4 X 100, a psychoactive cocktail consisting of cough syrup, tranquilizers, carbonated soft drinks, and a tea made from the leaves of the kratom plant (Mitragyna speciosa). As Asia Times recently reported, “one captured low-level insurgent interviewed by a Thai TV reporter said that almost every youth attached to the movement … regularly used 4 X 100.”

Thai authorities think that the indigenous Southeast Asian drug kratom contributes to the problem. Kratom is illegal in Thailand, and raids are regularly carried out. It is far from clear, however, whether kratom itself is particularly dangerous, as 4 X 100 contains other ingredients as well. As one young man from Southern Thailand reported, “I’ve heard of people adding mosquito repellant or a substance from a neon light bulb…” (Media Awareness Project: Kratom Juice Cocktail the Rage with Young Muslims).

Kratom is legal in the United States – an internet search yields many sales offers – although the DEA classifies it as a “drug of concern.” The Wikipedia describes it as a “medicinal leaf” that may help in the treatment of opiate addiction. It further states that kratom is mildly addictive itself, and that it is “paradoxically a stimulant and a depressant, used to aid work and also able to contribute to sleep and rest.” One can only conclude that more research is needed. Meanwhile, kratom merchants are not only developing high-potency cultivars, but are juggling the percentages of the various mind-altering alkaloids. As the PureLand Ethnobotanicals sales catalogue notes, “Genetic differences between varieties, or strains of kratom, give rise to the formation of indole alkaloids (like mitragynine) and oxindole alkaloids in varying proportions, thus making kratom an interesting research study.”


January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”


Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.

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.

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.

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

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.