Zomia reconsidered

An earlier post described James Scott’s recent book on the segment of Southeast Asia that he refers to as Zomia (The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia).  As noted there, Scott turns in his usual creative, imaginative, and innovative treatment of the subject matter; the book is an absolutely captivating argument about the push and pull between states and fugitive peoples.  As such, it suggests the possibility of bringing some of the central ideas and analyses to bear on other geographies as well.  But how accurate is Scott’s reading of the primary historical experience of these parts of Southeast Asia — Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Bangladesh?

This is the question posed by the current issue of the Journal of Global History (link), with essays by C. Patterson Giersch, Magnus Fiskesjo, Sarah Turner, Sara Shneiderman, Bernard Formoso, and Victor Lieberman.  All the essays are fascinating, including the editorial introduction by Jean Michaud.  But particularly important is Lieberman’s essay.  Lieberman is one of the leading contemporary historians of Southeast Asia, and he is a very fertile and imaginative thinker himself.  So his responses to Scott’s arguments are worth looking at closely.  (His most recent volumes, Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (v. 1) and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, are directly relevant to Scott’s analysis.)

Lieberman begins by establishing the territory on which he agrees with Scott. First, he accepts the fact of a growing separation between lowland and highland peoples in Southeast Asia during early modern times, and he agrees about the importance of analyzing this pan-Southeast Asian phenomenon.

Another point of agreement is the fact of highlander agency. Lieberman agrees with Scott’s insistence that highland peoples throughout Southeast Asia crafted their own social worlds in response to the political and natural environments that faced them. He writes:

Scott’s basic thesis is that highland societies, far from living in isolation, have been profoundly and continuously moulded by their relation to plains-based kingdoms. (333)

He notes that Scott’s approach turns the narrative of state-building on its head; highland peoples were defined in terms of state-avoidance. The lowland states had an interest in gathering manpower and taxes, and the highland peoples had a persistent interest in evading both. Lieberman writes:

Scott claims that these processes transformed Southeast Asia’s mountainous interior into a vast “shatter zone,” an area of flight, a sphere of asylum and marronnage for runaways from state-making projects in the plains. (334)

Scott’s central achievement, then, is to bring hill peoples into the mainstream of regional history by uncovering their relation to lowland states and societies. (336)

So Lieberman acknowledges the importance and boldness of Scott’s effort at providing a comprehensive historical study of Zomia.  But Lieberman offers a series of important criticisms of Scott’s historical case.

First, he finds Scott’s documentation to be weak, in that it makes little use of Burmese-language sources. This has led, in Lieberman’s opinion, to a number of errors of fact, some more significant than others. He cites estimates of literacy, for example; Scott says less than 1 percent of people were literate in Southeast Asia, and Lieberman documents 50 percent for Burma in 1800.

More significantly, Lieberman believes Scott over-estimates the importance of manpower as a determinant of military success in the region. The degree of maritime commerce was equally important, he argues. And this is critical to Scott’s argument, since competition for manpower is one of the primary reasons Scott cites for the efforts of lowland states to attempt to dominate the highlands.

Finally, and most important, Lieberman argues that there is little documentary evidence for significant population flight from lowland to highland (339). This is key to Scott’s interpretation, and Lieberman argues the evidence isn’t there to support the claim. After reviewing Scott’s own evidence and some additional data of his own, he writes:

All in all, outside central Vietnam perhaps, this remains a rather limited record of displacement and flight. (341)

Moreover, Lieberman argues that Scott’s interpretation of the highlands becomes so dependent on one causal factor, state oppression, that it neglects the processes of development that were internal to the highland societies themselves. “Ecological and cultural conditions that were intrinsic to the hills and that were substantially or completely divorced from the valleys receive little or no attention” (343).

This point is more important when we consider an example not included in Scott’s analysis — the highland peoples of Borneo/Kalimantan. Lieberman argues that these tribes had virtually all the characteristics of culture and agriculture displayed by Zomians, including swidden cultivation and a proliferation of local languages, and Scott interprets these traits as deeply defensive. Yet these features of highland life emerged in Borneo without the pressure if a surrounding predatory lowland state (345). And this casts serious doubt on Scott’s anarchist, anti-statist interpretation of Zomia.

Lieberman’s point isn’t that Scott’s interpretation of Zomia is unsupportable. Rather, his point is that it is a bold and substantive interpretation of a complex historical domain, and it requires serious, fact-based consideration. And this is exactly what the essays in this special volume of Global History promise to do.

This debate is interesting and important, in part, because it sheds light on the practical empirical research challenges that arise when we consider bold new interpretations of social data.  A bold hypothesis is advanced, purporting to pull together the processes of development observed in a variety of places; and then there is the practical question of evaluating whether the hypothesis is born out when we do the detailed, local historical research needed to test its basic assertions.  In this case, Lieberman is suggesting that several of the components of the theory are found wanting when applied to highland Burma.

(The image above is a satellite-based survey of fires across Southeast Asia (link), relevant to the practices of swidden farming.)

Zomia — James Scott on highland peoples

James Scott opens his most recent book with quotations from frustrated pre-modern administrators and missionaries whose territories included the peoples of inaccessible highland regions — Guizhou, highland Burma, and Appalachia.  Scott finds that the geographical circumstances of highland peoples mark them apart from the political organizations of the valleys; states could control agriculture, surplus, and labor in the lowlands, but were almost entirely incapable of exerting sustained rule in the highlands.  And he finds that highland cultures and systems are more or less deliberately shaped to elude the grasp of the state; linguistic variety, swidden agriculture, and ethnic opacity all work to make the art of rational administration all but impossible.  The book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and it is a significant contribution to the social and political analysis of very large swatches of the world.  (Here are the table of contents and introduction to Edmund Leach’s classic book, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure.)

Scott makes use of the concept of “Zomia” to capture the highland peoples of Southeast Asia.

One of the largest remaining nonstate space in the world … is the vast expanse of uplands, variously termed the Southeast Asian ma s-si f and more recently, Zomia.  This great mountain realm on the marches of mainland Southeast Asia, China, India, and Bangladesh sprawls across roughly 2.5 million square kilometers — an area roughly the size of Europe.  As one of the first scholars to identify the massif and its peoples as a single object of study, Jean Michaud has traced its extent: “From north to south, it includes southern and western Sichuan, all of Guizhou and Yunnan, western and northern Guangxi, western Guangdong, most of northern Burma with an adjacent segment of extreme [north]eastern India, the north and west of Thailand, practically all of Laos above the Mekong Valley, northern and central Vietnam along the Annam Cordillera, and the north and eastern fringes of Cambodia.” (chapter 1)

(The Michaud citation refers to Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif.)

Scott estimates the population of the minority peoples of Zomia at 80-100 million.  Here is a map posted by Martin Lewis on GeoCurrents.Info.

What is intriguing about this definition of space and social reality is that it is not defined by nation-state boundaries and jurisdiction, by linguistic groupings, or by ethnic and national identities.  Scott emphasizes the enormous linguistic and ethnic variation that occurs across this expanse of space.  “In the space of a hundred kilometers in the hills one can find more cultural variation–in language, dress, settlement pattern, ethnic identification, economic activity, and religious practices–than one would ever find in the lowland river valleys” (chapter 1; Kindle location 343).

Two central arguments take up much of Scott’s attention in the book.  One is an argument about the logistics of state power in a pre-modern agrarian society.  Essentially he argues that pre-modern agrarian societies were only able to impose their rule over a tight radius of perhaps 300 kilometers, when it came to collecting taxes, grain, and manpower.  Moreover, this radius of power reduced significantly when population was distributed over mountainous country.  So as a practical matter, the pre-modern states of Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia were river-valley states, and the peoples of the highlands were rarely subject to central rule.  This argument resonates with Michael Mann’s analysis of pre-modern state power in The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760.  On this scale, the Kingdom of Chicago would barely be able to exert its will over the peasants of Peoria or Milwaukee; and Indianapolis would be a distant and irrelevant place.

The precolonial state, when it came to extracting grain and labor from subject populations, could project its power only within a fairly small radius of the court, say, three hundred kilometers, and that undependably and only during the dry season. (Kindle loc 610)

And, he argues, the peoples of the highlands deliberately organized their activities in ways that made the power of the state least effective.

Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and (more controverially) even their largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm’s length. (Kindle loc 26)

The very diversity, fluidity, and mobility of their livelihoods meant that for an agrarian state adapted to sedentary agriculture, this ungoverned landscape and its people were fiscally sterile. (Kindle loc 217)

The other central theoretical argument that Scott offers concerns the question of ethnicity and identity.  Like Ben Anderson (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism), Scott believes that the identities of Burman, Mon, Khmer, Tai, or Shan are constructed identities, not essential or ancient.

Identity at the core was a political project designed to weld together the diverse peoples assembled there. Bondsmen of allied strongmen, slaves captured in warfare or raids, cultivators and merchants enticed by agricultural and commercial possibilities: they were in every case a polyglot population. (Kindle loc 1166)

The central plain of what would become Siam was, in the thirteenth century, a complex mix of Mon, Khmer, and Tai populations who were an “ethnicity-in-the-process-of-becoming” Siamese. (Kindle loc 1172)

The book takes up the argument that Scott began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: that a central task of the state it to render its territory and population “legible”.  The state needs to be able to regiment and identify its subjects, if it is to collect taxes and raise armies; so sedentary, mobile, peripheral peoples are antithetical to the needs of the state.  This argument begins in Seeing Like a State; and it gains substantial elaboration here.  And it is a fundamental call for a different approach to conceptualizing and studying the cultures and populations of Southeast Asia: not by ethnic group, not by national boundaries, but rather by the common circumstances of material and political life in high, rugged terrain.

As I’ve suggested in treating Scott’s other contributions to “peasant studies”, Scott’s work almost always takes the form of an imaginative re-framing of problems that we thought we had understood.  But once looking at the facts from Scott’s point of view, we find that the social phenomena are both more complex and perhaps more obscure than they initially appear to be.

What is the Burmese junta doing?

Burma has been a cauldron of surprising news in the past two years or so. The generals have taken a series of actions in a number of areas: brutal repression of the monks’ demonstrations in 2007, prosecution and conviction of Aung Sun Suu Kyi (ASSK) in a bizarre show trial, a major rainy season assault on the Karen militias and villages, increasing pressure on the Kachin Independence Organization, brutal assault on the Kokang cease-fire group on the Chinese border. And don’t forget the mystery tunnel construction (link) and the phantom North Korean ship (link) a few months ago. (Here is a list of recent news items concerning events in Burma and the rest of southeast Asia, and here is a map displaying some of those items. Follow the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed for updates.) Is there an underlying logic to these actions? What is the junta’s strategy? What are they trying to accomplish, and how do these actions fit into any sort of rational plan? (See an earlier post on the Burmese dictatorship.)

Here’s a sketchy analysis about the junta’s goals: to maintain the decisive military and political power of the Burmese army; to gain full control of national territory, including particularly the states with independence movements and armed militias; to retain the ability to crush any possible opposition movement; to keep the wealth-production machine going for the benefit of the generals and the military system; and to preserve diplomatic support from China. And one important date is looming: the junta’s promise to conduct elections in 2010. The elections are plainly designed to leave decisive control in the hands of the army and to present a thin semblance of “democracy”. And the junta is determined to manage this process so as to lead to an outcome that leaves their power unchallenged.

So what do they need in order to accomplish these goals? They need arms; they need trading partners; they need on-the-ground control of the population; and they need to retain control of Burma’s resources and economy. How do recent actions conform to these goals? Is the junta merely reactive, or is it following a longterm strategy?

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi fits into this set of goals fairly obviously. ASSK is the most charismatic leader that Burmese society possesses. She leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), the most persistent opposition group in Burma today and the overwhelming winner of the elections of 1990 (link). And her name is one of the most celebrated in Burma’s post-colonial history. Her father Aung San was the hero of Burmese independence and his assassination in 1947 was a turning point in Burma’s modern history. ASSK has the potential to mobilize a powerful pro-democracy movement, and the generals fear her. Moreover, there seems to be a streak of emotion in the generals’ attitudes toward her; there seems to be a powerful hatred of ASSK that goes beyond rational fear. But the evident determination of the junta to keep ASSK under house arrest and out of politics through the 2010 elections makes a cruel kind of sense.

The recent military campaigns against the Karen and Kokang groups and the increasing pressure on Kachin and Shan movements also fit fairly clearly into the goals mentioned here. The generals appear to have come to the conclusion that they have a realistic opportunity to change the balance of forces between the army and the ethnic organizations. They appear to have undertaken a determined effort to do so, beginning with the Karen. This seems to be motivated by both the long-standing effort to control the non-Burmese populations and the goal of managing the 2010 elections.

The international trade strategies of the junta also appear to be directly linked to the commercial interests of the regime. Gas contracts, timber and jade sales, and exploitation of Burma’s other economic assets show an aggressive but strategic effort at increasing Burma’s foreign exchange revenues. The relationship with North Korea appears to represent a source of military technology not otherwise available to Burma (the mystery ship?). And western economic sanctions don’t seem to dampen Burma’s trade opportunities significantly. In other words, the junta appears to have created an alternative world trading system that leaves it fairly immune to western criticism and sanctions.

Burma’s foreign relations also seem fairly successful in the realpolitik sense. Burma has managed to avoid much pressure from ASEAN nations; it has preserved the diplomatic support of China in the United Nations; and it maintains acceptable relations with India and Bangladesh. Its assault on the Karen areas has ruffled relations with Thailand because of the influx of refugees across the Thai border their military campaign created. And the assault on the Kokang group had strained relations with China because of the large number of refugees into Yunnan province and the mistreatment of Han people in Shan State. But so far the Chinese haven’t offered much pressure to the Burmese junta either.

So it seems that there is actually a fairly coherent underlying set of goals and strategies that appear to be driving the junta’s actions. The common view in the western media of the junta as mysterious, secretive, reactive, paranoid, and ineffective doesn’t seem to be accurate. The junta seems to be a more dangerous enemy to the people of Burma than this description would suggest. The generals have developed bureaucracies and plans that allow them to pursue their aims fairly effectively. And this is bad news for a democratic Burma. The junta has entrenched a brutal, violent, and exploitative regime that is fundamentally unconcerned about the welfare of the people of Burma; and their military government seems pretty effective in preserving its power and pursuing its political goals.

It is interesting to note how many areas of the social sciences need to be consulted in order to deal with this question: political science (how can we explain the regime’s behavior?), organizational behavior (how do the bureaucratic agencies of the Burmese state function?), military sociology (how is the army recruited and managed?), and social movements theory (how do the various oppositional groups in Burma seek to mobilize?). So Burma represents something of a laboratory for social science research and theory formation.

Running a dictatorship

What is involved in running a military dictatorship in a large country like Burma? Simply having a lot of military force is obviously not enough. It is necessary to organize and manage a number of complex processes in order to manage the basic “metabolism” of the government and society. Even a dictatorship requires a political administration that is capable of solving problems and implementing policies on a broad basis. And this means decision-makers, a bureaucracy, rules and procedures, agents at the local level, etc. There are several tasks that simply must be attended to; if not, the state would collapse:

  • maintaining the nuts and bolts of a military organization — command, discipline, recruitment, training;
  • monitoring, co-opting, and repressing internal opposition groups;
  • monitoring telecommunications and internet activity;
  • controlling borders and potential military threats across borders;
  • negotiating with and controlling internal armed groups;
  • collecting revenues for use by the government and its officials;
  • maintaining a minimum level of civil amenities (routine policing, sanitation, provision of electricity, water, and fuel).

Not essential but certainly in the interest of long-term stability are functions such as these: a plan for national and regional economic development, a plan for development of stable institutions for civil society, and a plan for transition to civilian rule. If it is possible to demonstrate that ordinary life is improving for the mass of ordinary people, the state is more likely to gain a degree of acceptance.

Almost none of the positive functions of government seem to be available in Burma today. Corruption is rampant. Brutality and mistreatment of civilians by soldiers appear to be rampant as well, especially in peripheral states. (Examples of brutality by soldiers drawn from the twitter feed include beatings, rapes, forced marriages, and forced labor.) And economic prospects for typical citizens are not improving; the country’s wealth is being exploited for the benefit of military and political elites almost exclusively.

Burma’s generals have done everything possible to keep their regime inside a black box. It turns out, however, that we know a little bit about how the Burmese military goes about a number of these tasks. Mary Callahan’s 2005 book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma provides quite a bit of detailed information and analysis of the organization and goals of the Burmese military. The Epilogue provides an extensive description of the strategies and actions of the military in the past decade. She notes the apparent stability of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime, indicating that it was necessary to rebuild the military state substantially after the elections and riots of 1988. Stability and order were the highest priority, and the military went about building the institutions and organizations that it needed in order to suppress threats against its survival. Callahan highlights a number of important steps that have occurred since then — all of which fall under the general heading of “military dictatorship state-building” (211 ff.):

  • Ministry of Defense reorganized
  • Substantial rearmament
  • New army garrisons in towns and villages throughout the country
  • Expansion of military industrial base
  • Expansion of system of education, health, and welfare facilities for members of the military
  • Office of Strategic Studies takes charge of policy — ethnic areas, drug trade, economy, foreign relations
  • State-building and civil administration delegated to (corrupt) regional commanders
  • Funding derived from taxes and fees; profits of drug trade; control of natural resources (gems, forestry, tourism) controlled by Myanmar Economic Corporation
  • Development of severe discipline problems in the ranks and corruption problems in the officer corps

So what does this suggest about Burma and its current subjection? Several things. First, the Burmese military state appears to have a very secure grasp on power; the opposition has little real leverage to force change. The ethnic armies have either come to cease-fire agreements with the regime, have been crushed (Karen National Union), or have settled into an acceptable status quo. Even the more active Kachin Independence Army poses no realistic threat to military rule. The National League for Democracy (NLD) may have widespread support in Rangoon and London; but it is hard to see how it can lead a movement that would seriously challenge the military and police system. Even mass demonstrations appear to be ineffectual in forcing change on the SLORC — this was one of the lessons of 2007. The regime has adequate access to revenue, through its control of Burma’s natural wealth. The junta’s willingness to use overwhelming brutal force against civilians is entirely credible — witness the past forty years. And internationally, only China appears to have real economic leverage with the Burmese junta — and the Chinese are doing a great deal of investment in Burma. Western sanctions have not had economic effect on the junta or the military, and it appears that ASEAN censure is harmless as well.

So it’s hard to see how this is going to turn out well for the forces of democracy in the medium term. A democracy movement needs a certain amount of space in order to act effectively on a mass scale; and the junta seems to be all too capable of ensuring that this doesn’t happen.

Opaque Burma

It is striking how ignorant we are about the most basic facts about Burma. I don’t mean simply that the western public is poorly informed; I mean that a lot of the basic facts about contemporary Burma are simply unknown, to scholars, journalists, and other expert observers. The experts don’t know what is going on in Burma, in quite a few important areas of life.

Take the junta itself. How does it work as a government? how does information get collected, how do goals get set, how are policies arrived at, and how are policies implemented over the expanse of control that the Burmese army exercises? It seems that there is very little factual knowledge about these very basic questions. The general impression that the media present of the Burmese military is that it is reclusive, corrupt, and irrational. The first two features are probably true; but “irrational” is a bit hard to reconcile with the fact that the army has successfully preserved its rule for decades. And there appear to be relatively clear strategies in place for controlling the armed ethnic populations and for securing economic development relationships with China and other non-western states. (This is where the corruption comes in; the army appears to use its control of Burma’s natural resources for its own benefit and the benefit of its allies in the ethnic organizations.) We hear a lot about the junta’s war with Aung San Suu Kyi, but very little about other aspects of its organization and behavior.

Or take everyday life in villages and towns in peripheral states. What is ordinary life like in the countryside? How visible is the central government and the Burmese army? What state or municipal entities provide services and collect taxes? How do people earn their livings? What is the state of public health in rural areas? What organizations and community-based groups are active?

Or consider the realities of the ethnic armies; how do the Kachin or the Karen armies preserve their organization and mobilization over time? What is the infrastructure that provides supplies, weapons, and money? How are young people recruited into these movements? What are the strategies and motives that guide decisions — whether to continue the cease-fire or return to active armed conflict?

Or consider, finally, the circumstances of the monks’ rebellion of 2007. Where are the detailed studies of this uprising in terms of motivations of participants, organization, mobilization strategies, and repression?

I suppose the explanation for this level of ignorance is fairly obvious: Burma is essentially closed to outside scholars and journalists, so it is difficult to impossible to do social-science fieldwork in Burma today. The observers who are able to gain a snapshot of insight are mainly occasional travelers and writers who manage to make their way to remote and often dangerous places. And organized social-science research is difficult or impossible to carry out under these circumstances. And there is very little by way of independent journalism within Burma — we are dependent on emigree services that do their best to provide some of the news from the periphery. (It would appear that the situation of research in Burma is orders of magnitude more limited than in Thailand or Malaysia.)

News from Kachin State, Burma

Map: Kachin State, northern Burma

In an earlier post I initiated a geo-twitter experiment to see how much it is possible to learn from twitter about a complicated issue. My twitter feed serves as a sort of selective (and non-expert) news feed for Southeast Asia. It selectively aggregates tweets that show up through searches of Twitter on Burma, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia (as well as related items — Kachin, Karen Burma, …). I also add tweets based on news stories I come across in newspapers and web news sources from the region. The idea is to select a number of the news items that reference these parts of Southeast Asia in the twitter fire hose and see whether they begin to add up to an intelligible picture. Southeast Asia doesn’t get extensive coverage in the western press, and using twitter appears to be a way to get a more detailed understanding of what is going on.

Part of this experiment is a Google map that locates as many of these items as possible on a master map. The idea was that a spatial display of the news feed would help to give some shape to some of the main social, cultural, and military events going on in the region. When you look at the map, you’ll see that the news items fall into a handful of large clusters. (The map has had a surprising number of visitors — over 6,000 visits in three weeks.)

In Burma there are basically three clusters on the map right now: news on the ethnic armies in the Kachin/Shan provinces in the north; news on the Burmese army offensive against Karen independence forces on the Burma-Thai border (and the refugees and displaced persons who have been created); and news of the government’s corruption and brutality as well as the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Here I’m going to focus on one cluster — the Kachin region in north Burma — and simply reproduce the items that have come through in the past month. Here are the posts that are tagged on the map of north Burma above. Does this begin to give a somewhat coherent view of what is happening in this part of Burma?

  1. Burmese Army conduct in Kachin | (5/7/09) There is a culture prevalent in Nong Mong (Naw Mung in Kachin) city in Putao district in Kachin State, northern Burma where high ranking Burmese military officers marry native Kachin woman and later abandon them and their children, a source said.” link
  2. Ethnic Groups in Myanmar Hope for Peace, but Gird for Fight |(18/06/09) New York Times LAIZA, Myanmar — The Kachin tribesmen who inhabit the hills along Myanmar’s border with China have a reputation as stealthy jungle warriors, famous for repelling Japanese attacks in the Second World War with booby traps and instilling terror by slicing off ears to tally their kills. Now, as they have many times in their war-scarred history, the Kachin are hoping for peace but are prepared for battle with Myanmar’s central government. “Whether or not there will be war again, we have to be ready,” Maj. Zauja Nhkri, the head of an officer’s training school that is part of the Kachin Independence Army, which has around 4,000 men under arms.“If our army is strong, we can maintain the peace.” As Myanmar’s military government prepares to adopt a new and disputed Constitution next year, a fragile patchwork of cease-fire agreements between the central government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups is fraying. link
  3. Edmund Leach, Ethnography of Kachin | Edmund Leach — Political Systems of Highland Burma — A Study of Kachin Social Structure (1954) link
  4. Junta to resettle 200,000 Burmans in Hukawng Valley | (17/06/09) KachinNews The Burmese military junta plans to resettle 200,000 Burman people in ethnic Kachin’s Hukawng Valley (also called Hugawng in Kachin) in the country’s northern Kachin State before 2010, said regime insiders. The new Burman settlers, who make up the majority of the country’s population, will be mainly settled in areas close to three Kachin villages known as Nawng Mi, Sahtu Zup and Wara Zup on the Ledo or Stilwell Road also called Burma Road during WW II, added insiders. In the guise of Rangoon-based Yuzana Company’s crop plantation in the Valley, only Burman people from different areas of lower Burma have been resettled in the Valley since late 2006, said native Kachins from the Valley. link
  5. Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners | (11/06/09) New Mandala: Rejecting and accepting headlines up at Laiza — “Getting news out of Burma’s more remote corners — such as the Kachin Independence Army/Organisation headquarters at Laiza — can be a difficult job at the best of times. When there is inherent, and perhaps even deliberate, ambiguity thrown into the mix it is almost impossible.” link
  6. Inside the Kachin Independence Army | (22/01/09) PulitzerCenter: Inside the Kachin Independence Army (youtube video) link
  7. KIO in preparation mode, refurbishing armed wing | (17/06/09) New Delhi (Mizzima) The ethnic Kachin resistance group – Kachin Independence Organisation is refurbishing its military in what appears to be preparation for an impending war with the Burmese Army. Sources on the Sino-Burma border area said, the KIO off late has been re-grouping the members of its armed wing – the Kachin Independence Army and is recruiting new members. Awng Wa, Chairman of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) working in Kachin state told Mizzima that he has witnessed KIA cadres retreating into their forest camps and beefing up security around their areas of control. He said, the KIA is also calling back its old members and recruiting new cadres and is vigorously providing trainings to younger batches. link
  8. KIO campaigns against Burma junta over ‘known-result’ | (25/06/09) The ‘Known-Result’ — where the people of Kachin State have rejected the Burmese junta’s proposal of transforming the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-ring of KIO into a battalion of ‘Border Guard Force’ is being widely spread in a campaign by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country. The special campaign has been launched by the KIO to explain the pressure by the junta on the KIA to transform at both the organizational level and among the Kachin public in Kachin State and Northeast Shan State since early this month, said KIO leaders. link
  9. KIO wants KIA to be “State Security Force” | (25/06/09) The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of strongest ethnic ceasefire groups in military-ruled Burma would rather transform its armed-wing to a “State Security Force” rather than a “Border Guard Force” it has told the junta, said KIO sources. The KIO has officially informed the junta of its willingness to transform the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to a “State Security Force” (SSF) instead of the junta’s proposal that it be changed to a battalion of a “Border Guard Force” when the two sides met at Mali Hka Center in the junta’s Northern Command headquarters in Kachin State’s capital Myitkyina on June 21 (Sunday), said KIO leaders. link
  10. A land the world forgot: A photojournalist sneaks into Myanmar to report on the Kachin freedom movement | (18/06/09) NewsReview.com The car came to an abrupt stop. “Get out,” the driver said. My friend and partner in journalism Tim Patterson and I stumbled in the moonless night through an uneven, bulldozed field toward the sound of a river. When we reached the river, we crossed a creaky bamboo footbridge and scrambled up a loose-dirt hill to an older SUV with its lights off. “Welcome to Free Kachin,” our contact said, smiling broadly. link
  11. Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber | (8/06/09) Burmese junta allows felling of 100,000 tons of timber per company per year link link
  12. Kachin Schoolchildren Beaten And Hospitalised By Burmese Army | (17/06/09) Burma Campaign Around 15 schoolchildren and young men have been beaten, and some hospitalised, after Burmese Army soldiers went on a rampage through Mayan village in Kachin State, Burma. According to Burma Campaign UK sources, the attacks happened after youths in the village prevented soldiers from gang-raping a 17 year old girl. On the morning of 31st May a young man in the village, Lasaw Naw, was brutally beaten by a group of army soldiers in an unprovoked attack. link
  13. Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers | (10/06/09) [Kachin News] Kachin youths assaulted and detained for preventing rape by Burmese soldiers: Many… link
  14. Kachin Recruiting Drive Launched as Tension Mounts | (17/06/09) The military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is recruiting former soldiers as tension builds over the Burmese regime’s instruction to ceasefire groups to reassign their troops as border guards. A Kachin military source said the recruitment drive by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was to heighten the force’s preparedness. “We are alert and ready to open fire if our leaders order it,” he said. link
  15. Burmese army bases in Kachin |(23/2/07) New Mandala: “Over at Hugawng Kachin, there is a useful little post with comparative maps of the Burmese army battalions based in the Kachin State in 2006 and 1994 (when the Kachin Independence Organization ceasefire was signed). In 1994 there were 26 battalions located mainly near Myitkyina and along the north-south trunk route through the southern part of the State. Now there are 41 battalions based in the State with a proliferation of smaller outposts at strategic points from Hpakant to Sadung. Anybody who has recently driven on the road between Myitkyina and Bhamo will have seen the number of relatively new bases north of Bhamo. These are all clearly marked on the 2006 map.” link
  16. Three Kachin peace groups give into junta | (29/06/09) Three Kachin ceasefire groups in northern Burma last week, gave into the demands of the Burmese military junta of transforming their armed-wings into the kind of forces that the regime wants, said sources close to the groups. The New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), the Lasang Awng Wa Peace Group in Kachin State and the Kachin Defense Army (KDA) in northeast Shan State agreed to transform their armed-forces to a Border Guard Force or local militia, said sources in the three outfits. link
  17. Burmese military Junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders | (10/6/09) The Burmese military junta allots large tracts of virgin land to senior KIO leaders: The Burmese military junta has allotted thousands of acres of vacant-virgin land this year to senior leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of largest ethnic ceasefire groups in the country, said local sources link
  18. KIO accepts junta’s idea of transformation of armed-wing | (9/06/09) [KachinNews ] KIO accepts junta’s idea of transformation of armed-wing link
  19. Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe | (13/6/09) [Kachin] Forest ranger assaulted by soldiers over sharing bribe: (corruption, logging) text
  20. KIA lance-corporal disappears on way home | (28/06/09) Lance-corporal So Ba Du of the Special Gorkha Squandron of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) disappeared while returning home from the squandron base in Laiza headquarters to Myitkyina in Burma’s northern Kachin State on June 7, said KIA sources. The incident comes at a time of mounting military tension between Burma’s ruling junta and the KIA after the latter was pressurized to transform to a battalion of the Border Guard Force (BGF) by the regime. link
  21. Junta rakes in 1,000 million Kyat from auction of seized cars | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta has earned a whopping net profit of over 1,000 million Kyat (an estimated over US $909,091) from its biggest auction ever of seized cars in Myitkyina, the capital of the country’s northern Kachin State. The revenue was raked in, in a matter of days, local sources said. Hundreds of car dealers, brokers, businessmen and the rich, mainly from Rangoon and Mandalay dropped in at the car auction venues in the Kachin State Football Stadium and the Burmese Army compound of the No. 37 Infantry Battalion in Myitkyina in the 2nd week of this June, said local residents. link
  22. Iron ore mine could destroy 7000 in Shan state of Myanmar | (2/07/09) Burma Newscasts reported that Russian and Italian engineering companies are reported to be involved in the development of a huge iron ore mine in Burma’s eastern Shan state that campaigners say could displace more than 7,000 homes. The already volatile Shan state is home to Burma’s second largest iron ore deposit, on the site of Mount Pinpet. Excavation of the site began in 2004, and work includes the conversion of around 11,000 acres of surrounding land for construction of a cement factory and iron processing plant. The Pa-O Youth Organization in a report released said that more than 25 villages’ home to around 7000 mainly ethnic Pa-O people could be destroyed by the Pinpet Mining Project. link
  23. Surprise addition in KIO delegation negotiating with junta |(6/07/09) In a surprise addition to its seven-member delegation, negotiating with the Burmese ruling junta, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has included its Western Regional Commander. The inclusion comes at a time when there is gradual escalation of tension between the KIO and the military regime, KIO sources said. A KIO delegation was constituted last month to negotiate with the junta on the proposal regarding the transformation of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed-wing of KIO. Col. Lahpai Zau Raw, 4th Brigade Commander (B.C) and the KIO’s Chairman of the Western Regional Committee based in Northeast Shan State was included in the KIO delegation on June 27. Now there will be eight delegates, said sources close to the KIO headquarters in Laiza on the Sino-Burma border in Kachin State. link
  24. Junta deploys fresh troops secretly in Kachin State | (25/06/09) The Burmese military junta is secretly deploying more combat troops in Kachin State at a time when negotiations are on with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) over the transformation of its armed-wing into a battalion of a “Border Guard Force”, said local sources. As of the second week of June, able soldiers have been selected from different battalions and secretly infused into local Burmese Army battalions and military bases in the frontlines in different regions of Kachin State by the instruction of Lt-Gen Ye Myint of Chief of Military Affairs Security of the junta. They include two unidentified Light Infantry Divisions, said a source close to Burmese troops. link
  25. Junta bans construction of ‘Manau Poles’ in Bhamo | (2/07/09) In a fresh ban, the Burmese military junta has prohibited the construction of ‘Manau Poles’ – a mark of ethnic Kachin culture in Bhamo in the country’s northern Kachin State, said local sources. Kachin residents in Bhamo told KNG, that Kachin ‘Manau Poles’ were banned from being constructed in June on the orders of the junta’s Northern Regional (or Kachin State) Commander Brig-Gen Soe Win. link
These two dozen items raise several related story lines: the persistence of ethnic identities and independence movements in several parts of Burma; the persistence and military significance of the Kachin Independence Army / Kachin Independence Organization; the brutal behavior of the Burmese army around its bases in Kachin and Shan states; the corrupt exploitation of resources by the junta; and the ongoing negotiation between the Burmese junta and leaders of the KIO over the Burmese demand that KIA transform itself into a border control unit under control of the Burmese army.

So it seems as though the experiment is at least somewhat successful: there is enough content in the twitter feed to provide a basis for beginning to see some of the lineaments of the current social and military situation in Kachin State. It’s a different kind of exposure from what commentators have discussed so widely about twitter in Tehran — almost none of these items come from local participants. Instead, they are postings by interested observers who are reading expatriate web sites, blogs like New Mandala that attract academic experts on Southeast Asia, news sources like Kachin News and The Irrawaddy that specialize in the region, and twitter contributors such as kambodscha, jonfernquest, and andrewspooner who have long experience and knowledge of Cambodia and Thailand. But when you mash it all together, you get a remarkably nuanced picture of the current social reality. And there are surprises as well — for example, after two weeks of dozens of items on the Burmese army’s assault on Karen camps on the Thai border, that issue has gone silent.

(If you absolutely insist on more traditional sources of knowledge, here are two books separated by about sixty years that shed light on Kachin society and politics: Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure and David Steinberg, Burma: The State of Myanmar.)

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