Skip to content

State (Re)formation in Southeast Asia

1330–1530, Thursday 14 April 2016, C3

Hans Steinmuller
London School of Economics

Hans Steinmuller
London School of Economics

The literature on political institutions in the highlands of Southeast Asia suggests a shift from the ‘radiation’ of state power to the ‘penetration’ of state power (Turton 2012). Often revolutionary insurgencies and invading armies prepared the grounds for the creation of modern nation-states. More recently, the extension of transport networks, schooling and development projects have further increased the reach of the state. This panel explores the (re-)formation of the state in the highlands of Southeast Asia by looking at historical archives, oral memory, and everyday practice. A group of anthropologists and historians looks at topics such as border-drawing and mapping, the transformation of local ritual vocabularies, the politics of state-promoted poverty alleviation and modern housing.


Paper 1:The Rise and Fall of Silver Mining Industry on the Yunnan-Burma Borderland from the 17th to 19th Centuries in the Context of State Re-construction in Burma

Dr Jianxiong Ma
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

This research reviews the history of the exploitation of silver mines on the borderland between the Yunnan and Burma frontiers as well as studies the social organization of miners and the influence of miner societies on this borderland during the transformation of Burman States from to Taungoo dynasty to Konbaung dynasty, and during the wars between Qing China and Burmese kingdom (1762-1770). After a century of exploitation, resulting in the silver mines becoming exhausted from the 1800s to1840s in the mid Qing dynasty, a large number of unemployed miners had to search for outlets other than mining deep in the mountains. Their mobility created two different styles of social mobilization in the form of identity resistance against the Qing governments, due to the two different social political environments in the official county areas and the frontier Shan chieftain areas. Some surplus miners found political interests with the Louhei/Lahu through their participation in the Luohei’s rebellious Five Buddha districts’ social movement in the mountains. In this political and social mobilization movement the miners adopted their social organizational methods and techniques into this reconstructed society in the frontier mountains area through which a new Lahu identity was created. Other idle miners mobilized and became involved in the competition and violent conflicts in other mines, and also in some cities along the main transportation routes in western Yunnan, where they were under the judicature of official counties. Along with more and more serious conflicts among miners, an ethnic mobilization line between the Hui miners and the Han miners was gradually established, which resulted in more and more ethnic violence between the Han and the Hui in these transportation cities and villages, especially when the Hui failed to get justice when taking their issues to Beijing. The resulting ethnic conflicts created an escalation in ethnic violence and led eventually to genocide. In this article, the author aims to point out that, the decline of the silver mine industry on the borderland during the 1800s to the 1840s brought about the local governments’ failure to manage social mobility when miners shifted into agriculture or business. Thereafter, ethnic mobilization, bound with identity resistance, became a political outlet, but this outlet differed depending on the different styles of local political and the social landscape of Yunnan-Burma borders was deeply reshaped.


Paper 2: Frontier Mimesis: State penetration and local appropriation between Laos and Vietnam (1880-1930).

Dr Oliver Tappe
University of Cologne

Houaphan – today a province of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was historically a contested upland frontier between the lowland realms of the Vietnamese and the Thai/Lao courts. With a dozen different ethnic groups, local power asymetries, and complex processes of cultural interpenetration, this region provides an illustrative case study for questions of modern state formation in the Southeast Asian uplands. How where imperial and colonial forces perceived by local actors, and which role did representations of the lowland state play for upland political configurations and prestige economies? The emergence of colonial state administration, border regimes, and discourses of ‘ethnic minorities’ certainly altered the conditions of uplanders’ political and economic agency, even though the reach of the state remained selective and fragmentary.Since the late-nineteenth century, the French colonial administration adopted various strategies to ‘pacify’ and control this mountainous, culturally heterogeneous regions. At the same time, upland powerbrokers aimed to forge strategic alliances with the new colonial power. This ethnohistorical analysis of sociopolitical entanglements on the upland frontier takes the concept of mimesis as vantage point. With reference to the work of Michael Taussig, along with other theories of imitation, I will discuss processes of mutual appropriation and differentiation within the precarious relationship between upland societies and the state. Mimesis here provides an alternative reading of upland frontier history beyond the binaries of dominance and resistance prevalent in James Scott’s work on the anarchist history of zomia, the uplands of Southeast Asia.


Paper 3:The Expansion of Buddhism and the State on the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

Prof Guido Sprenger
University of Heidelberg

In Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia, the Buddhist monkhood used to be the only institution reaching from the centre to rural villages in the past. Therefore, when Southeast Asian states reformed as modern territorial nation states, they strongly relied on the monkhood to spread state presence. In Laos, this link was maintained in Laos even after the socialist revolution. This talk focuses on a local perspective from villages in Southern Laos which do not or not fully identify as Buddhist. Still, Buddhism holds a specific attraction to them which is a way of being closer to the state and the national mainstream society. However, this goes along with the restructuring of local collectives which consist of both humans and non-human spirits, as the state identifies by having no spirits.


Paper 4: Sovereignty and Authenticity in the Wa Hills of China and Burma

Hans Steinmuller
London School of Economics

This presentation deals with a community of potential nation-makers in the Wa Hills of China and Burma. I discuss the claims to sovereignty and authenticity made by Wa intellectuals, politicians, and monks. These claims are complicated by the fact that ethnic Wa are spread across China, the Wa Special Region of Burma, other states of Burma, and Thailand. I will discuss different versions of Wa militarism and primitivism, and how they are mobilised in China and in the Wa State. On the whole, my argument will be about the objectification of Wa culture into a regime of authenticity, and on the meaning of such objectification processes for claims to sovereignty.