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Tangled Crossroads: Flows of ideas, commodities and people through the Thai-Myanmar borderworld

Indre Balcaite
School of Oriental and African Studies

Jonathan Goodhand
School of Oriental and African Studies


Panel Abstract

Border regions provide a specific set of spatial dynamics which can, as in the Burmese and Thai cases, shape the trajectory of a country’s political, social and economic development. Borderlands, however, have often been projected as uncivilized, passive zones at the margins of state formation, subject to a linear and irreversible process of state encroachment. This has overlooked the agency of the borderlanders whose identities and affiliations straddle cartographic boundaries and their efforts to escape central control.

The Thai-Burma borderworld has long been such an ‘unruly’ space, a site of insurgency and counter-insurgency struggles, of unceasing flows of people and smuggled goods as well as cross-border exchange of ideas. It is a crossroads where the Thai and Burmese states, capitalist enterprises and international NGOs are interacting with Burmese migrant communities and organisations.

Building on research in the Karen and Shan realms, papers in this panel reveal a crack in state power that empowers the borderland populations by creating space for their transborder strategies through the use of social capital like kinship, ethnicity and religious networks. A discussion on these transgressions is timely given the present enthusiasm in the region associated with the arrival of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, a widely publicised, but limited top-down process.

Adopting a grassroots approach, this panel explores the flows of people, commodities and ideas shaping the social, political and economic Thailand-Myanmar borderscape. The set of papers invokes three of the symposium’s themes: coming from different disciplines (Anthropology, Development and Politics) but all based on recent (2012-2013) fieldwork, papers converse about contemporary and transnational realities along and across the Thai-Burma border.


Paper 1: Power after the Imperium: Territory, Population, and Migrant Labour in the Borderlands of Burma/Myanmar

Geoffrey Aung (Soe Lin Aung)
Columbia University

This paper focuses on emergent formations of power amidst Burma’s transition to liberal-democratic political and economic governance in recent years. In the wake of military rule, what new markers of difference and heterogeneity have materialized under the sign of liberal modernity? Drawing on extended field-based research conducted with and among migrant workers in Burma’s rural and border areas, an attempt is made to trace the passage from coercion to consent as the basis of the exercise of political power in Burma, with an emphasis on how the liberalization of Burma’s political economy has crystallized ‘populations’ as a new object of power in this ostensibly ‘post-authoritarian’ political present. This paper argues that, against the backdrop of shifting migration policy and Burma’s gathering neoliberal turn, rural and border-based workers and migrants represent a new kind of political subject in Burma.

This claim is explored through several years of fieldwork in two areas: first, on everyday tactics used by migrant worker communities to secure access to livelihoods in the Mae Sot area of the Thai-Burma border; and second, south of Mae Sot, on the strategies used by communities living near the Dawei port and special economic zone (SEZ) project to influence project decision-making and assert a would-be participatory politics – in and through concerns around dispossession as a driver of labour migration. The primary theoretical approach attends to recent postcolonial readings of Foucault on governmentality and neoliberalism, seeking in the specificity of emergent power formations in the borderlands a response to the state-centrism of many Foucauldian accounts of state-society relations.


Paper 2: Lives across the border and beyond: trajectories of the Karen from the Hpa-an area, Myanmar

Indre Balcaite
School of Oriental and African Studies

Activists and researchers concerned with the refugees fleeing civil conflicts, oppression and poverty in Myanmar/ Burma have long been publicising the Thai-Burmese border. In contrast, the parallel and interrelated process of ‘economic’ migration that to a great extent provides a different solution to the same problems has been more ‘creeping’ and ‘silent’ in nature. In the past 2-3 decades economic migration to Thailand has permeated the villages of the Karen/ Kayin State of Myanmar, making them reliant on remittances and producing already a second generation of Plong/ Pwo Karen migrant workers who fit perfectly into the definition of ‘transmigrants’. The past 15 years have seen the flourishing of infrastructure facilitating irregular migration geared towards the circular economic migration punctuated by liminal life events, e.g. Buddhist monk ordination, marriage, childbirth or retirement. However, refugee camps and even Thai Karen villages remain important nodes of the Karen borderland networks stretching from Hpa-an (the capital of the Kayin State) to Bangkok and beyond – to Malaysia, Singapore, Korea – and then via refugee resettlement programs – to the US, Australia and Western Europe. In fact, it is at the extended and permeable Thai-Burmese border that these networks are perpetuated and reproduced. Building on 10 months of multi-sited fieldwork with the Karen migrants in Thailand originating from the Hpa-an area, the paper attempts to map the trajectories of the Karen leading across the border to Thailand, to explore the significance of the main hubs and their interconnectness.


Paper 3: A cosmopolitan space: Re-Muslimization across the Thai-Myanmar borderland through the Dawah Tabligh movement

Samak Kosem
Chiang Mai University

Religious movements along the Thailand-Myanmar border are significant in understanding the various forces shaping the borderscapes and creating migrant identities. This paper focusses on the network of Dawah Tabligh, the Muslim missionary movement for the revival of the practice of Islam, and its integration in the Mae Sot community and Mae La refugee camp. Studying the structure and individual levels of Dawah Tabligh movement among Burmese migrants of different ethnic groups allows to get a grasp of the ‘re-Muslimisation’ process, itself part of the wider developments called elsewhere as ‘missionarising the border’*. Integration occurs in cooperation, conflict, negotiation and compromise over the power relations with respect to time and place. The movement reveals a possibility of creating alternatives Burmese Muslim migrants otherwise excluded from the Thai society. Namely, opportunities open up in their everyday lives under the specific contexts of the Dawah Tabligh network that can help them to ‘make a new home’ by joining the Islamic community ‘Ummah’. Embracing Muslim religiosity, they can claim the religious space and connect with various Muslim groups in other countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The active process of religious space production at the border encourages integration across the lines of nationality, ethnicity and locality. Migrants’ inclusion in a religious space re-positions them with respect to social relations in the new context, granting them a higher social status within the framework of adaptation to a new culture despite the lack of security in life, caused by economic and social crises.


Paper 4: Opium in the Myanmar-Thai borderworld: The political economy of a resurgent cross-border flow

Patrick Meehan
School of Oriental and African Studies

This paper explores the cross-border border trading networks which serve to link remote rural opium-producing communities in the Shan state of Myanmar with lucrative markets in Thailand and beyond. It focuses specifically on the role of cross-border brokers who play an instrumental role in enabling drugs to traverse the border region. It examines how these transnational commodity chains have become an invaluable part of local livelihood strategies across Shan State in a region where the gains from development have been deeply inequitable and stunted by protracted conflict, predatory land grabs, ill-conceived (or non-existent) rural development policies and persistent food insecurity.

The paper analyses the drug trade flows in the wider context of the political economy of opium in the Thai-Myanmar borderland, arguing that the lucrative cross-border drug trade has played an instrumental role in the marketization and monetisation of the region’s rural economy. In turn these processes have facilitated a ‘border effect’ both encouraging the Thai and Myanmar states to attempt to penetrate and consolidate their control over the border region and providing the mechanisms and finance through which to achieve this. In particular, the paper analyses the ways in which the drug trade has been utilised by the Myanmar government to extend control over local strongmen in the border region control through their manipulation of offers of legal impunity, protection, taxation ‘rights’ and money laundering on the one hand, and threats of prosecution and military action on the other.


* The term has been used in Thai – โยรชายแดน (yor chai-daen) – in Samak Kosem, 2012. ‘Missionarizing Border: Religious Space and Movement, Re-identification of Muslim Migrants along Thai-Burma Borderland’. In Kwanchewan Buadaeng (ed.), Deterritorializing Thai-Burma Borderlands. Social Sciences Journal, Chiang Mai University, Vol. 1-2, 2012, 317-348. สมัคร์ กอเซ็ม, โยรชายแดน: พื้นที่และขบวนการทางศาสนา การปรับสร้างอัตลักษณ์ของผู้ย้ายถิ่นมุสลิมบริเวณพรมแดนไทย-พม่า// สลายเส้นแบ่งพรมแดนไทย-พม่า, สังคมศาสตร์ มหาวิทยาลัยเชียงใหม่, 1-2/2555, 317-348.