Zomia must be defended! (part 1)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand


At a time when the state seems pervasive and inescapable, it is easy to forget that for much of history, living within or outside the state–or in an intermediate zone–was a choice, one that might be revised as the circumstances warranted. A wealthy and peaceful state center might attract a growing population that found its advantages rewarding. This, of course, fits the standard civilizational narrative of rude barbarians mesmerized by the prosperity made possible by the king’s peace and justice–a narrative shared by most of the world’s salvational religions, not to mention Thomas Hobbes.
~James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

Yet, for most of human history, this relation with centralized government was impermanent, in flux, and always ready to dissolve. States were made and unmade quite frequently, and populations moved about much more frequently. The peripheries were the rule rather than the exception.

In celebration of the Lunar New Year and the arrival of the year of the horse, I’m reading James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed and learning about the history of Zomia, possibly the largest remaining nonstate space in the world. Zomia sprawls across the Southeast Asian massif (and perhaps as far west as central Asia), across China, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, almost all of Laos, Vietnam, and the fringes of Cambodia: roughly 2.5 million square kilometers. Around 80,000,000 to 100,000,000 people live in Zomia. They are a fragmented population, coming from hundreds of ethnicities, and speaking languages stemming from five different linguistic families. It lies far removed from the main centers of economic activity in the region, crosses national borders, and incorporates several religious traditions and cosmologies. Most of Zomia lies at altitudes from 200 to 300 meters above sea level and has been compared to Appalachia and Switzerland because it exists because it exists at the margins of the political entities that surround it.


In his introduction, Scott claims the peoples of Zomia are generally healthier, more egalitarian, and grant a higher status to women than do the “civilized states” that surround them. Zomia is a relatively stateless area; the inhabitants have rarely paid formal taxes and tithes; they have resisted being enlisted into state military service and have avoided much of the transnational wars that dominate the way we write most history.
Most of all, what marks Zomia is its terrain, its inaccessibility to many overt command and control technologies, and its active resistance to “incorporation into the framework of the classical state, the colonial state, and the independent nation-state.” Zomia is not only a site of political resistance, though, “but also a zone of cultural refusal.”

Zomia has seen hierarchies and small centralization come and go. This flux, this transience, is what marks it most of all, perhaps. Zomia has seen little constant political structure over time, and this inconsistency may be precisely the “social option” uplands peoples have gravitated toward. These polities–for Zomia is best described as a multiplicity of polities–are “almost invariably redistributive, competitive feasting systems held together by the benefits they are able to disburse.” When they do temporarily centralize or combine forces, it is most often as nomadic pastoralists on the periphery of more controlled polities, which they prey on parasitically when advantageous. Thus, even their existence as periphery is always already in flux and when their hosts change, so do they.

Scott notes, of course, with such diverse and fluctuating societies and polities, we need to take the widest possible historical view, and I would add, the greatest care in our descriptions that may eventually become the means of bringing their anarchy under control.

I look forward to reading the rest of the book over the holiday. Happy Lunar New Year!


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