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Border Economies: The Plasticity of Power Domains, Scales and Flows in Mainland Southeast Asia

1100–1230, Saturday 16 April 2016, L6

Indre Balcaite
Central European University

Hans Steinmuller
London School of Economics


This panel proposes examining mainland Southeast Asia’s borders as a resource in human livelihoods. As encapsulating difference, borders allow reaping financial profits or claiming extra rights. The papers offer ethnographic accounts of cross-border flows of people and commodities as economies under shifting power constellations and regimes. The evolving modes of ‘business at the border’ nevertheless exhibit at least three common characteristics across time and space in terms of their (il)legality, spatiality and transactionality. Firstly, the economies straddling borders and subject to diverging national legal regimes highlight the fuzziness of the legality/illegality distinction. At different stages of their development and movement, the same financial, commodity and labour flows are deemed ‘legal’ and ‘licit’, ‘legal’ but ‘illicit’, ‘licit’ but ‘illegal’ or ‘illegal’ and ‘illicit’ by the nation-states and other stakeholders. Secondly, border economies are transboundary formations at the intersection of many scales – individual, local, national, regional and global – and the most successful border entrepreneurs skilfully navigate between them. Finally, border economies rest on many close, often personalised relationships straddling those boundaries. Individuals and groups active in these economies as suppliers, customers, intermediaries or merchandise (as in labour migration) negotiate these relationships among themselves under shifting hierarchies of capital, prestige, ethnicity, nationality and gender that endow the stakeholders with different socioeconomic status and mobility rights. Cross-border investments in agriculture, clandestine migration and small-scale trade of foodstuffs and other daily necessities are transactional processes demonstrating the plasticity of the geographical borders of the state as well as political boundaries of state and non-state institutions.


Paper 1: Cross-border Agricultural Investments: Intersecting Effects of State, Market and Gender Relations in the Lao-China Borderland

Kyoko Kusakabe
Asian Institute of Technology

Since the 1990s, Chinese investments in Northern Laos have been increasing, especially in rubber production. Some investments arrive through large concessions and some are based on land-use agreements with local villagers but all harvested rubber is sold to China. In 2010, with land concessions for Chinese rubber plantations rapidly growing, the Lao government faced criticism that these activities were depleting forest resources and declared a ban on their further expansion. As the rubber price dropped globally, Chinese companies stopped harvesting rubber and instead started renting villagers’ prime land for large-scale banana and watermelon plantations. Villagers are selling rubber at a very low price to Chinese companies and in order to make ends meet they are also renting out their prime land and working as laborers on Chinese-run farms both in Laos and in China. Women who are responsible for providing their families with food are now planting upland rice further away from the village. The Lao government’s land concessions and cross-border investment policy, the global rubber market, and Chinese domestic demand for food keep changing rapidly and thereby influencing women and men’s relationship to and perceptions of land. The intersecting effects of the state, market and the gender relations of various ethnic groups in the Lao-China borderland constantly shape and reshape their productive and reproductive activities and their status.


Paper 2:

Divergent Values and Meanings of Commodities: Intersection of Regulations and Flows along the Myanmar-Thailand Borders

Busarin Lertchavalitsakul
University of Amsterdam

Border spaces engender various methods of moving things from one side to the other, manipulating and questioning their significance as divides between sovereign states. In a remote border pass connecting northwest Thailand with Southern Shan State in Myanmar (Burma), I investigated the interaction between state regulations and the border crossing movements coordinated on both sides mainly by members of the transborder Shan ethnic group. The regulation by states and other dominant powers shape the flows, eliciting diverse reactive and proactive responses from cross- border traders: evasion, negotiation or defiance. The commodity flows crisscrossing the borderland involve small-scale cross-border trade and smuggling activities, blurring the state-imposed distinction between the two types of economic transactions. The practices and ‘performance’ by both state and non-state actors render dialectical values and meanings to things transported across the border that shift between ‘commodity’ and ‘gift’ depending on the regulation regime. For instance, the trade of some foodstuffs from Shan State is prohibited in Thailand in order to protect the market for local producers. However, the size of commodities and the intra-ethnic context of exchange turn the forbidden items into ‘personal belongings’ that can be brought for household consumption, evading state sanction. Another ambiguous commodity—money, in everyday transactions and cross-border trade in southernmost Shan State, people prefer Thai baht to Myanmar kyat, which emphasizes the social use and meanings of money that go beyond economic purposes in commodity exchange. This situation signifies the contradictory relationship between political sovereignty and economic dominance at the border.


Paper 3: Border Business: (Il)legal Phlong Karen Migration Between Eastern Myanmar and Central Thailand, 1980s-2010s

Indre Balcaite
Central European University

Studies of Burmese migrants have long been preoccupied with their plight inside Thailand. I focus on the brokerage of their crossings – often clandestine – across the Myanmar-Thailand border. These human flows have set off monetary exchanges among the migrants, their brokers and state agents on both sides that allow studying migration as a business straddling the legality/illegality distinction. Based on interviews and ethnography, I scrutinise the Phlong (Pwo) Karen transborder flows between the mid-1980s and early 2010s in order to grasp the shifting governmentality of the border and migration across it. The case of Karen cross-border migration fits the global trends of increasing human flows and tightening border regimes, an interaction that has resulted in the commercialisation of undocumented migration. Before the early 1990s, migrants from the central Kayin (Karen) State travelled in small groups of friends or relatives on foot through an intensifying conflict zone to reach the border areas held by the Karen National Union (KNU) insurgents and to cross into Thailand’s adjacent Tak province. By the late 1990s, the displacement of the KNU gave way to hardening border control but now groups numbering 50-100 people were being transported by professional smuggling brokers cooperating with the Burmese and Thai immigration officers. The increased central control on both sides of the border did not eradicate undocumented migration or the contestations in the borderland. The growing size and professionalisation of the human smuggling industry allowed extending the migrants’ trajectories from ever deeper inside Myanmar to ever further inside Thailand.


Paper 4: Working the Border: Female Traders and the Unexceptional Flow of Daily Necessities Across the Thai-Lao border

Sarah Elsing
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Southeast Asian borders are often examined from the vantage point of conflict and resistance, depicting cross-border flows as exceptional in a landscape of increasing state control. This paper provides an alternative perspective, bringing attention to the unexceptionality of the flow in daily necessities across the various border crossing sites between Loei (Thailand) and Sayaboury (Laos) provinces. The opening of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2004 was aimed at channelling trading activities towards the bridge and away from the local border crossing sites. The implementation of the new regulations has been largely successful and has enabled female traders from Laos to travel across the border by car and to shop directly at wholesalers in the city. Meanwhile, small-scale trading activities across local checkpoints and unmarked border crossing sites have continued, usually under the gaze of border officials. Themselves strongly embedded in the local community of their duty stations, border officials not only engage in social relations and gift-giving practices with local traders but also interpret their duties in a way that facilitates such trading activities, thereby blurring the dichotomy between state and society. By drawing on social networks with other traders and relationships with border officials, the female traders operating outside the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge have been able to maintain their businesses and remain competitive in the wake of increased and diversified trading practices across the border. The paper thus reveals the flow in daily necessities as an unexceptional part of everyday life along the border.