‘Much of the most recent debate has been spurred by the Yale University professor of political science and anthropology James C. Scott, who describes the region in his latest book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009)…
Zomia does not appear on any official map, for it is merely metaphorical. Scott identifies it as “the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states.” Though the scholars who have imagined Zomia differ over its precise boundaries, Scott includes all the lands at altitudes above 300 meters stretching from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India. That encompasses parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma, as well as four provinces of China. Zomia’s 100 million residents are minority peoples “of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety,” he writes. Among them are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Mien, and Wa.
He depicts an alternative past for the inhabitants of Zomia. The majority of the people who ended up in the hills were either escaping the state or driven out by it, he says…
While others might describe the hill peoples as “primitive” because they did not have permanent abodes or fixed fields, adhere to a major religion, or adopt other modern practices, Scott turns that idea around. He argues that those many minority ethnic groups were, in a sense, barbarians by design, using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them.
As Scott develops his thesis, concepts that many scholars might hold dear vanish. Longstanding notions about the meaning of ethnic identity: Poof, gone. The idea that being “civilized” is superior to being uncivilized. Poof. The perception that absence of a written language signals a group’s failure to advance. Poof.
Instead, Scott asserts, “ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources.”
Over the past two millennia, “runaway” communities have put the “friction of terrain” between themselves and the people who remained in the lowlands, he writes. The highland groups adopted a swidden agriculture system (sometimes known, pejoratively, as “slash and burn”), shifting fields from place to place, staggering harvests, and relying on root crops to hide their yields from any visiting tax collectors. They formed egalitarian societies so as not to have leaders who might sell them out to the state. And they turned their backs on literacy to avoid creating records that central governments could use to carry out onerous policies like taxation, conscription, and forced labor.’ (via The Chronicle of Higher Education).