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The “Moving” Frontiers of Burma

Maxime Boutry
p. 15-23
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les frontières « mouvantes » de Birmanie

Texte intégral

From the frontiers as an object to the frontiers as a method

1Anthropology of borders in its contemporary developments answers to the awareness of the radical changes bring by the drawing of national borders. Before the colonization, territories were seen by their populations differently, subjected to moving and relative relations of power regarding the hegemony of a State, a kingdom or a society. Even if Thailand haven’t been, strictly speaking, colonized, the work of Winichakul (2005) Siam Mapped, A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, exemplifies the artificiality of an ideological construction, the thainess, fruit of a national ideal which basis is mainly the territory and supposed to be shared by all its populations (this set of attributes constituting the nation’s geo-body). Such deconstruction of the totalizing concept of nation-state provides a better understanding of number of crisis (the confrontation between the red and yellow shirts or the recurrent conflicts in South Thailand for exemple). Regarding Burma, it allows to foresee differently a complex of societies, namely the Union of the Republic of Myanmar which limits separate it from other complexes namely Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos and Republic of China. Thus, several populations suffer from “nationality disorder”, experiencing the frontiers’ game: among others, the Rohingya are consequently stateless, the Karen are chased from one side of the border and personna non grata on the other, while some ethnic groups such the Wa or the Kokang administer their regions more or less independently on a traffics’ basis. And generally, the conflicts between the central government of Burma and its ethnic “minorities” partly, or totally, come under this new conception of territorial unity within which the central government is imagined as all-mighty and supreme in its decisions regarding the future of the populations as well as the use of the resources. The administrative borders of the nation-States put an end, somehow, to the multi-allegiances (Winichakul 2005) of some societies or political entities acting as “buffers” between the dominant schemes of power. However, should we consider the post-colonial situation as having broken away from the pre-colonial one?

  • 1 The concept of “Zomia” has been first used by Van Schendel (2002).

2There is at least one representation that went through time without being spoiled, that is the one opposing one center to its peripheries. From the mandala model (Wolter 1982) or the galactic polity (Tambiah 1976) used to described the politico-religious organizations of Southeast Asia to an ethnology of “ethnic minorities” and latter on the Scott’s Zomia1 (2009), the idea of centers producing peripheries and peripheries living apart from these centers is still well alive. Thus, the anthropology of borders’ role is to discover what the distance from the “center” covers in terms of social, cultural, religious and political implications, without neglecting the historical depth of the populations living the borders. Despite the territorial thus questionable dimension of Scott’s essay The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), this work promotes social strategies shared by several populations which haven’t simply been rejected to the peripheries. At the contrary, Scott shows the choice made by these populations to oppose the so-called peripheries to the states’ owned forms of governance and control. But the meaning of his analysis would be emphasized by asking why these “peripheries” are, or seem, necessary to the functioning of the nation-States, in maintaining their power and consequently understand the relations they keep with the centers. This idea supposes questioning the underlying representations of the term “periphery”: lawless zones, indeterminate and unproductive… results of a definitely ethnocentric view. Anthropology of borders’ main contribution is, at the contrary, to reconsider these zones and innovative potential regarding the social reproduction and change, regarding identitary dynamics and interactions between populations (Horstmann 2002, Newman & Paasi 1998).

3Nevertheless, there is still an underexploited field of researches that may show the anthropology of borders’ didactic value in understanding the contemporary societies by considering their “real” frontiers of societies; that is, the impulses and hinges allowing them to go toward change, negotiate in their own way the “globalization” consequences or resist, and reveal identitary clenching sometimes leading to conflicts; and then to make coincide this social reality with the geopolitical one that we must confess it conditions the future of todays’ societies.

  • 2 Brun and Miroschedji (1998-1999) in “social archeology” notably showed the interrelations between n (...)

4The idea of a panel entitled The “moving” frontiers of Burma, presented at the International Burma Studies Conference in Marseilles (2010) arose from these reflexions, leading to the present issue of Moussons. The title is obviously borrowed from Leach’s article The frontiers of “Burma” (1960). It still deserves our attention in the developing debate on borders and nation-states which became the smaller common denominator of a reflection on the globalization process in the postindustrial era. And implicitly, this is within this political framework and with regards to this process that most of the identitary issues of the societies making up the contemporary States (Godelier 2009). However, this is the anthropologist’s duty to identify the contemporary particularities of this process while resituating them in the exchanges’ dynamics that always existed between continents and societies2.

5To answer these findings, it is advisable on the one hand to give particular attention to the States’ borderlands in order to detect the identitary dynamics and representations of the populations that live, build and make these territories “breathing” (Ivanoff and Jianxiong, this volume), either by choice (Boutry this volume) or under duress (Horstmann this volume). On the other hand, what we are able to observe at the nations’ borders must be re-contextualized to realize that these processes’ characterization can help analyzing another type of frontiers, here in the sense given by Leach: “a border zone through which cultures interpenetrate in a dynamic manner” (1960: 50). It consists in perpetuating the impulse given in the 1960s through the “Burmese” studies by Leach or Lehman, aiming at considering the societies as complex systems in perpetual movement rather than static objects and cast its explicative value on the contemporary dimension of increasingly globalized identitary issues.

6These frontiers can coincide geographically speaking with the States’ borders: this is, for example, the case of the Tenasserim, in southern Burma, where a new “intermediary social space” (Ivanoff 2010) is set up between, and structured on, a complex of administrative and sociocultural borders which common essential purpose is the new economy of marine resources (Boutry this volume). But, more often, these frontiers are inner ones and their scales are interlocked between the social, economic, cultural and politico-religious spheres. Leach attempted on this basis to define frontiers between different forms of social organizations existing among the “Valley People” and the “Hill People”, respectively the Shan and Kachin. He thus partly answers a question which core can be considered paradigmatic in any anthropological approach: “After all, the Hill People and the Valley People are racially the same and languages are very easily changed, so what is it that keeps the two groups apart?” (Leach 1960: 65). The counterpart of this question is the consistency that may be found in networks and interactions between populations that yet everything seems to differentiate (linguistically, in their agrarian practices, social organization) as François Robinne (this volume) shows in emphasizing the notion of “social landscape”.

7Thus, what we intimate here by the term of Burma applies both to a territory where the Burmese civilization developed and progressively led to the present Republic of the Union of Myanmar through historical facts, and the building processes of a social landscape of Southeast Asia, combining a great diversity of populations. The “moving” nature of the frontiers we are looking for is linked to the historical identitary construction processes revealing frontiers of a time, answering contemporary issues and moving accordingly.

  • 3Espace social restreint” and “espace social étendu” (Condominas 1980).

8Of course, we must take into account the different time scales in which evolve our objects. The “time” of the ethnic groups, as explained by Ivanoff (this volume), whose identities are constructed in general on the long term and go on transforming themselves, is not the time of the Burmese migrations toward the south of the country (Boutry this volume) neither the one of the cosmopolitan dynamic of Yangon during the colonial period (Lewis this volume). The identitary dynamics of the “limited” and “diffuse” social spaces3 must be distinguished as well to unravel the peripheries’ “burmization”, from the ethnic essentializing and identitary resistance of the Kachin (Robinne 2007) against the government, the social segmentation of the Burmese pioneers in the appropriation process of the Mergui Archipelago from the identitary recomposition of the Moken nomads (Boutry & Ivanoff 2008). However, studying the frontiers as inter- or trans-ethnic (Robinne this volume) spaces of cultural interpenetration, spaces of negotiation and social change, allows to put in light some “windows” common to these scales, the contact point between different spheres (economic, politic, ethnic, social, etc.). Consequently, from a scientific object, the anthropology of borders becomes an analytic tool for understanding societies. And thanks to this tool, we aim to show that Burma, despite a recent and relative enclosing, is still crossed by identitary and historical processes keeping on shaping both its societies and the interrelations between them, within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and beyond its borders. Thus, studying the frontiers becomes a method for the anthropologist who need to see his object in motion. In doing so, is it possible to find processes common to the “Burmese” frontiers and suggest a new look on this country amongst the less known ones of Southeast Asia?

The frontiers as “laboratory” of continuity

  • 4 Karen National Union.

9Talking about Burma without talking about the ruling military junta and its “isolation” from the rest of the world today seems inconceivable. However, we must take into account, on the one hand, its exacerbation by the media regarding the non-alignment with the West a choice made by U Nu in the 1950s and perpetuated until nowadays in more and more tensed relations with the westerns powers (Egreteau & Jagan 2008: 13). On the other hand, this isolation is slightly relative knowing that since its independence, Burmese rulers always took care to maintain more or less cordial relationships with the emerging neighboring powers, with China in the lead but also India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia (these last three countries being the most important investors among ASEAN) and also Israel, North Korea, Ukraine, Slovakia and Yugoslavia (ibid.: 14, 23-24). It stands to reason that the Burmese government yet cause some problems, particularly to its bordering partners. The events that caused in 2009 the flight of thousands of Kokang refugees towards China, as much as the conflict between the central government and the KNU4 armies leading hundreds of Karen to find refuge on the Thailand side each year are among the most obvious examples (Horstmann this volume). That being said, the economic and military co-operation between these countries still exist and the east-west development corridors, notably the one going through Thailand and the town of Dawei in the Tenasserim division, are being achieved. Thus, how to conciliate these two international relations’ facets? Despite the contemporary reality of administrative borders, a reading of the Southeast Asian territory according to its pre-colonial organization can answer, at least partly, to these questions. Here intervenes the role of the frontiers, as “buffer” spaces between countries concentrating, handling and shrugging off the tensions. For instance, the Karen “cause” allows to concentrate the international community’s action (Ivanoff and Horstmann this volume) who finds its ground at the border mostly through Christian international NGO (Horstmann this volume). The Karen “State” (complex and divided) on the borderlands enables on the one hand to focus the tensions accumulated along the economic relation within these two countries while, on the other, enabling both of them to manage their territories and resources: for example, the Karen logging in Burma benefits Thailand economy in the same way the Tenasserim’s marine resources directly and indirectly benefited. Whether it be the Karen refugees or the Burmese students who went to hide in south Thailand after the 1988’s demonstrations, these two populations serve as exchanges’currency between the two countries to resolve the tensions existing at their borders (Boutry 2007 and Ivanoff this volume). Besides, the population building the borderlands profit by the interrelations between States to blossom, exist or resist (Ivanoff and Horstmann this volume), similarly to borderlands long before the apposition of linear borders between States. This is exactly the demonstration made by Ma Jianxiong (this volume) about the Burma-Yunnan borderland which has been organized since the 17th century around the mines’ exploitation and managed and structured by the “secret societies” in a slightly autonomous way. Besides, the author describes how these mobile populations “fueled” the borderlands’ societies integrating them through intermarriages. The Han workers thus became Lahu, Wa, etc. As for the Han administration’s ruling elites, they profited by the taxes and wealth coming from this region without having to interfere with the sensitive and sacralized management of this territory.

  • 5 The only littoral capital before Yangon being Pegu in the first part of the Toungoo dynasty (1539-1 (...)
  • 6 The first “unified” Burmese kingdom, including Lower Burma and the Irrawaddy delta is credited to t (...)
  • 7 International Boundary Study (1964, 1966 and 1968).

10So the borderlands allow societies and States to “breathe”; but their essential function is not limited to the geographically outlying “peripheries”. Frontiers, in a wider meaning, also had a leading role in negotiating social change precipitated by the colonial period. Colonization provoked a discontinuity in the Burmese power’s convolution and its interrelations’ structure with the environing societies (well illustrated in its complexity by Robinne article in a contemporary context). Colonization resulted, among other consequences, in the creation of a new administrative center based in Yangon (Rangoon) contrasting with the capitals’ historical withdrawal toward the inner regions (Robinne 1994) and a total reconfiguration of power’s structures (from a charismatic power peculiar to indianized States to a centralized administration) in the Burmese kingdom as well as the surrounding political entities (the Shan principalities for example, also under English administration yoke). So the Burmese had to appropriate a new center within a plural society dominated by English and westerners and also filled by the new immigration made of Indians, Chinese, etc. They had to call for a common conscience upon representations shared by a population whose markers were deeply affected. Besides, while the administrative power were transferred to the new capital Yangon, a pioneer front was opening to the extension of the Burmese social space towards the Irrawaddy delta, destined to become the new British Empire’s rice granary and later on of the whole world’s market. Thus the power was not only off-centered but the whole country on the way of “re-centering”, leading to an important Burmese migration from the dry-zone (the Burmese civilization cradle) towards the delta, but also from the Tenasserim and other regions. This new capital exceptionally littoral5 gave a concrete expression to the higher and lower Burma’s reunification completed by Alaungpaya in 17596 and the Tenasserim’s conquest. The maritime frontiers, generally perceived by the Burmese as a barrier, take back their function of ways of communication, notably through the Yangon capital, an entry gate for numerous asian minorities as well as ideas coming along the “globalization” wave happening within British India. Thus, beyond the administrative borders which have been drawn and several times negotiated between the 19th and 20th centuries7, the new Burmese nation endowed with a new center had to restructure its hegemony’s expanse around sociological, cultural and ethnic frontiers.

  • 8 This goes in the sense of Adas’ “conflict model” theory (1974: 104) considering Furnivall’s plural (...)

11Indeed, contrarily to the anticipated results of the Indian immigration and their participation in the first stages of the rice industry’s developments of the Irrawaddy delta, the bulk of migrants went to occupy the urban centers, beginning by Yangon. Insomuch that Yangon in the beginning of the 20th century seemed to be more Indian than Burmese (Osada this volume). In the delta the villages of multiple religious and ethnic belongings (several villages are still composed of Buddhist Burmese, Christian Karen and Muslim Indians) are still relatively common and constitute complementary socioeconomic systems (Boutry forthcoming). But in the towns, the tensions between Burmese and Indians rapidly grown within actual plural societies8. The Burmese anticolonialist movement structured itself within various frontiers. Osada (this volume) examines the development of the vaccination policy toward Indian immigrants by the British in the fear of potential epidemics and mainly small-pox. And yet, it is particularly interesting to note that the necessity of compulsive vaccinations at Yangon port drifted from a discursive construction based on the one hand on the weakness of the Indian “race”, and on the other on the intrinsic mobility of this workforce all the more difficult to control. Thus a “racial” as much as sociological frontier arose and was reused, as feared by the Indian nationalist J.P. Mehta, by the Burmese, notably when space and demographic problems became an issue in the growing urbanization process of Yangon. Besides, ideas’ diffusion through the Yangon port-city, opened on the Indian Ocean and dynamic cultural exchanges, was profiting by the development of steamship and printing techniques (Lewis this volume). In a social context where Burmese was dominated by the British, these fluxes allowed the local elites to build their discourse toward the colonial presence. The anticolonialist movements, inscribed in a nationalistic vision since the beginning, profited by the ideological currents within the Indian colonies, opening the way to the military regimes that still rule over the country (Lewis this volume). This was also an important period for the missionization of numerous minorities throughout the country, including the Karen, and the spreading of new forms of education. More than one century later, the frontier as an exchanges’ place has moved. But the missionary networks, Karen as well as western ones, mesh the borderland between Burma and Thailand. Today they operate on this historical basis the continuity between the Kawthoolei State and a more and more imagined Karen territory (Horstmann this volume).

12The movement of the frontiers organizing the territory continues, for example in the Tenasserim region, the last “pioneer front” of Burma. The Burmese “hegemony” takes its roots on different scale, thanks to socioeconomic structures having repercussions on intermarriages between Burmese and the Moken (nomads of austronesian origins). This dynamic brings for a time the local society on a segmentation’s process crystallized around a sociocultural frontier between nomadic and sedentary ways of life, insular and continental Southeast Asia (Boutry this volume). And yet, it is by integrating these “multi-polarized” structures of the region (mainly between Burma, Thailand and Singapore) that the State can claim the territorialization of this “periphery” (i.e. a region at the crossroad of cultures without being at the center of the Southeast Asian dominant powers). This interlocking of scales between the national wills, the economical dynamics and the social and ritual structures organizing the social landscapes of Burma can be observed in other part of the country, for example in the Shan State. Despite of the deep changes within the relations of power–from the sawbwa’s ruling to the colonial administration and today the Burmese central government–the networks articulating the relationships between the populations (Shan, Burmese, Intha, Pa-O, etc.) survived and continue to give the social landscape its coherence (Robinne this volume). Beyond the functionality of the socioeconomic networks linking these populations, the ritual organization of the landscape through the religious circumnavigation of five Buddha images gives it its identity. So this is not an accident if the Burmese government progressively tries to appropriate the ritual’s religious identity. The balance transcending the different interactions’ scales (economic, social, matrimonial, ritual and political) between the population participating to the ceremony is thus modified in favor of the national territory’s burmization. And yet, the appropriation of the religious sphere of exchanges is equivalent in Burma (likewise the whole Southeast Asia) to monopolize the political sphere and consequently the power. However, the different scales of power must be considered with care, because where the Mac-Mahon’s borders implicitly gave to the central power a national range, it goes generally differently at the local level. The complexity of these “frontier-regions”, concentrating various forms of social organization, cannot accommodate to an unilateral takeover by the Burmese nation’s geo-body but they continue to act as the buffer States of pre-colonial Asia. As the Tenasserim and the Sino-Burmese networks of tokè (Boutry this volume), the exchanges networks and the ritualized link of the Inle and Thibaw regions’ populations to their territory are necessary to “administrate” it (resources exploitation, agricultural production, etc.) (Robinne this volume). We could draw similar conclusions from the intraregional relationships between the different populations (Buddhist Thais, animist sea-gypsies, Muslim Malays, Chinese) that compose the social landscape of South Thailand, and from the relationships between this region and the central power of Thailand (Ferrari 2009).

13Thus, striving to take into account the complexity of scales not as a barrier to the understanding but as a method by which deciphering the societies under study is necessary. Then considering the “frontiers” allows to understand the historical process on which are based the events that shaped the societies as well as the relationships between societies themselves. Beside, this methodology can reveal the “tensions”, compromises and multiple realities that are hidden behind too easily and widely accepted notions such as “globalization”, post-colonial change or the ethnic groups’ extinction. This collection of articles gives a way to think the importance of frontiers as “laboratories” where are shaped the Burmese societies’ adaptations to political, social, economical and cultural changes. This “anthropology of frontiers” offers to detect through different scales of time and space forms of continuity and coherency. In doing so, the “Burmese exception” may be put into perspective and the country with its social landscapes put back into a wider knowledge of Southeast Asia.

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1 The concept of “Zomia” has been first used by Van Schendel (2002).

2 Brun and Miroschedji (1998-1999) in “social archeology” notably showed the interrelations between nomadic and sedentary societies in the Fertile Crescent. Still at the prehistoric times, Bellina demonstrates the existence of exchanges between the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia through the Malay Peninsula (Bellina 2006).

3Espace social restreint” and “espace social étendu” (Condominas 1980).

4 Karen National Union.

5 The only littoral capital before Yangon being Pegu in the first part of the Toungoo dynasty (1539-1564) (Lieberman 1987).

6 The first “unified” Burmese kingdom, including Lower Burma and the Irrawaddy delta is credited to the king Anawratha (1044-1077). In the first par of the Toungoo dynasty (1539-1564) also, the king Bayin-naung greatly streched the territory under Burmese influence (Lieberman 1987).

7 International Boundary Study (1964, 1966 and 1968).

8 This goes in the sense of Adas’ “conflict model” theory (1974: 104) considering Furnivall’s plural society as a consequence of the colonial influence.

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Maxime Boutry

Maxime Boutry obtained a Ph.D. in social anthropology and ethnology at the EHESS (Paris) in 2007 concerned with the contemporary migration of thousands of Burmese towards the extreme south of Myanmar to conquer the Mergui Archipelago’s islands and its marine resources. At present, he is a fellow researcher at the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (Irasec) and his work questions the basic processes of the Burmese society’s construction through its capacities to adapt. On the meantime, his works fits with an applied anthropology on subjects such the Burmese immigration and human trafficking in South Thailand but also a reflection on the humanitarian aid in the Burmese society since the cyclone Nargis which stroke the country in 2008.

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