James C Scott: 'Making a pact with the army'

James C Scott’s seminal work on the upland people of Zomia, a region stretching from northern Burma to northern Vietnam and encompassing areas of China, Thailand and Laos, has been the subject of widespread applause and fierce debate. Since ‘The Art of Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’ was published in 2009, Scott has become something of a celebrity among anarchist circles: many claim his theory that the ‘uncivilised’ hilltribe people of Zomia are in fact highly organised, anarchistic groups who have deliberately evaded state control turns establishment notions of anarchism as a ramshackle ideology on their heads. The Yale professor talks to DVB about whether communities can still evade the modern-day state in Burma, and whether recognition of the new Burmese government is well-founded.  

Aside from war as an obvious means to control people, are you also wary of when the Burmese government talks about “developing” the border regions?

Fairly large areas of Burma’s periphery have never been in control of the Burmese government, even in the colonial periods. That has remained true although it’s diminishing, because of both the ceasefire agreements that have allowed the Burmese military to project themselves a little more, but also because of the tremendous number of resources, not just hydroelectric sites, but minerals and timber and so on, that are located in these border areas. This makes it become all the more important for the government to control these areas than it was before.

Before they were not of any real fiscal interest but now they’re vital in lots of ways, in addition to the offshore oil and gas. It seems to me from the government side that the desire to project their force in the border areas is much greater than it was before. Khin Nyunt’s ceasefire initiatives have probably been the most important government policy that advanced that objective.

It also seems to me that with regard to the military government, or even the caretaker government before 1962, one of the things in which it specialises in is the forced resettlement of people: first starting out with the squatter communities in Rangoon who were largely U Nu supporters, and then continuing across the country, including border areas, after 1988 and the Visit Myanmar Year [in 1996]. Some of it was for real estate speculation. If there’s anything the government has done consistently well it’s the removal of populations for reasons of security and preservation of the regime.

The so-called ‘peace villages’ in Karen state may be a case in point.

State space requires concentration of resources and population in one particular area. Whenever people and resources, and their agriculture, are dispersed and mobile, it creates a problem for the state. It struck me when I was reading Karen Human Rights Group reports as I was writing the book that the concentration of people around military camps and the creation of free-fire zones outside of that space is not just to grab the resources available there, but to create essentially hostages that provided forced labour for the camps. Also if there was an attack on the camp there would be a lot of civilian casualties from ethnic groups associated with the rebels.

It very important that the state in the border areas has either created areas where it controls the population – a military force and a hostage population, as well as confiscated land – and everything outside it is maybe not in its control but it is a free-fire zone.

You say that the advancement of technology and infrastructure in the 1950s diminished the ability of people to live outside of the state.

When I wrote that I was thinking more regionally, rather than just in terms of Burma. Even with the early, larger counter-insurgency efforts in Thailand and the power of the central government in Vietnam, it’s pretty clear that both the Thai and Vietnamese states project their force much more effectively to the borders than Burma ever has. And so when I say my argument doesn’t apply after 1950, it obviously applies least to strong states like Vietnam and Thailand, and applies most to Burma, where the military government hasn’t successfully projected its force nor gained any legitimacy in these areas. If my argument applies past 1950, it’s likely to apply most to places like Burma and Laos, for example, which is the only country in Southeast Asia which is a hill people country, with the exception of the people along the Mekong.

Given that huge areas of the country remain outside of its control, could one argue that Burma has been an ineffective state builder?

In that respect it is, thus far, throughout most of its periphery, a failed state. You could argue that areas outside of state control have diminished in Burma, but with nothing like the comprehensiveness and rapidity with which they’ve done so in Thailand.

Why then has Burma failed, while Thailand and Vietnam haven’t?

Bracketing for a minute the question of coercion and history of civil war, you could argue that in Vietnam and Thailand, the kinds of advantages and rewards available for affiliation with the central government are much greater. For example, anyone who wants to make a career in Thailand has to make it in Bangkok.

Think of it [Burma] like Gaul in the period of the Roman Empire: up until the fifth century, it was in the interests of lots of Gallic elites to learn Latin and seek offices in the Roman Empire; to become locally recognised. You have this Gallo-Roman culture that is centralised, and its attraction is because of the advantages available in trade and status. Once the Empire collapses in the fifth century, they stop learning Latin and the literacy disappears for a long time.

To me it is post-fifth century Gaul that we have in Burma’s periphery, in which there’s not a lot of persuasive advantages to affiliation to the central government’s project, and militarily of course it is associated with forced labour and forced resettlement. So the negative reinforcements are massive and the positive reinforcements minimal in the Burmese case.

As Burma’s military and diplomatic prowess advances, will the government be able to assimilate these people into the central state?

So far, unless you have a much more successful Burmese economy, and less emphasis on pure military control of the periphery, then I think the best they can achieve is a suppression of outright rebellion, and not a positive affiliation with the central government. At some point they have to make a real peace with the ethnic groups at the borders in almost a positive collaboration, rather that simply coercion. I don’t know if the new government realises this.

Until and unless this government stops the confiscation and the retitlement of land, both in government and ethnic areas, and releases political prisoners, then one shouldn’t take this reform all that seriously to the point of abandoning targeted sanctions.

The Wa special zone remains one of the few areas of outside of government control. Is this because Naypyidaw has allowed it that status?

Historically in Thailand, Burma and Laos, the weakness of the central government has  for a long time allowed there to grow up small zones of autonomy and warlords who control trade routes, amphetamines, opium and so on. [Wa state] is a classic example of a geographically inaccessible area in which strong figures are able to create a zone of autonomy – but it’s also an authoritarian warlord situation. None of these so-called ‘small border powers’ would be able to exist if it were in the vital interests of the adjacent states to eliminate them. So the Burmese, if they had Chinese consent, could eliminate Wa autonomy if they actually exerted themselves. The Wa are probably able to buy off a certain amount of protection because the government is so porous and unreliable. The tenuousness of control allows these zones of autonomy to continue, and they continue as long as they don’t threaten the sovereignty of the adjacent states.

In effect it’s not sufficiently in the interests of the Burmese state to devote the resources, and embarrassment and desertion of its troops that it would need to [take Wa state]. Of course these people can cut a certain amount of deals – it’s like a protection racket, with agreements made not to attack as long as that is reciprocated.

Is the government really breaking with former junta’s policies on ethnic minorities, as it is projecting?

I don’t know, and I suppose nobody really does. It seems to me that it’s easier for the government to make a certain number of concessions to the Burman population than to ethnic groups at the periphery, although the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam wasn’t something I’d anticipated, and is the single most encouraging sign I see. But there are such massive institutional interests of the army in controlling the land and grabbing resources, and doing essentially what was done in Russia after democratisation where they grabbed all the valuable assets of the country. It’s been a massive transfer of resources to military and military units and individual officers. As long as that goes on and [political] prisoners are not released, then I’m skeptical, although slightly encouraged by what’s happened. I was surprised at the demonstrations to mark September 2007 and at the Myitsone protests.

There are a lot of people who want to be influential in what you might call a ‘pacted transition to democracy’, including the likes of the International Crisis Group and Myanmar Egress. And it seems to me that if you look at a pacted transition that takes 10 to 15 years after a century of failed state then given this transfer of resources, environmental damage and leakage of huge numbers of Burmese to Thailand, it’s not clear that after another 15 years, there’d be much left worth saving.

If there’s a pacted transition then it’ll preserve the centrality of the military for a long time – it’s going to reconfirm the seizure of assets and so on. The damage of the last half century continuing for another 15 years seems to me a fairly intolerable prospect.

Do you feel your book has shifted establishment perceptions of anarchism as ramshackle and naive?

I hope so. The core of anarchism, it seems to me, is mutuality without hierarchy, and the capacity of self-organisation of society without the state. That is a principle that can apply in urban areas in the modern state for organised forms of local welfare and social support and solidarity. To say things are outside the state purview does not mean, ipso facto, that they are chaotic and violent.

But one of the reasons why I’m not a full-fledged anarchist is because I think the state is both the ground of all of our troubles but also the ground of our emancipation. The freedoms of the French Revolution, of everyone equal before the law and rights to basic protection, are something that is better protected by the state than global international corporations. But the paradox is that the French Revolution not only gave us universal human rights but universal military conscription and global war, so it’s a pretty mixed bag. But I actually believe that in lots of places like France, and perhaps Greece today, the effort is to keep the state the protector of the minimal social network that we require, rather than people having the authority dictated to them by the IMF and World Bank and WTO.

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