Water and public policy research in Vietnam

 

We don’t get a lot of exposure to social science and policy research from Vietnam, so it was very interesting for me recently to run across two recent books by Vietnamese researchers: Pham Cong Huu’s Floods and Farmers: Politics, Economics and Environmental Impacts of Dyke Construction in the Mekong Delta / Vietnam and Ly Thim’s Planning the Lower Mekong Basin: Social Intervention on the Se San River. (The research was done at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.) Rural development and agricultural change are topics of interest to me, so I was very interested to read both these books.

Water control is the central focus of both books.  Floods in the Mekong Delta are among the most destructive in Asia. Pham Cong Huu quotes data that demonstrate that Vietnam has more deaths by flooding than any other state in southeast Asia. The river is also crucial to the intensive agriculture of the Mekong Delta, which produces 18 to 21 million tons of rice annually (Huu, 4). So the challenge of creating and maintaining systems for controlling flood waters and directing water into agricultural land is an enormously important one — both economically and in terms of human welfare.

Key among the measures the Vietnamese government has taken is a large system of dikes designed to control flooding. This system has generally had a positive impact on reducing the hazard of massive flooding and improving the stability of cultivation. But Huu observes that it also has major unintended negative consequences as well: “erosion, plant diseases, soil fertility decline and natural degradation in the protected flooding areas” (5).

Huu’s central interest is the decision-making processes that governed the creation and maintenance of this system of water control. He finds that it is dominated by government agencies with little input from farmers and non-governmental organizations.

It is therefore the purpose of this study not only to understand and discuss the “planning and implementation of the dyke system in the Mekong Delta”, but also to investigate the reactions of the farmers and of affected farming communities, with the ultimate aim and goal to include their experiences and visions into the broader social and economic context of the project area. (6)

Huu’s overall assessment of this decision-making process is favorable to the government but highlights crucial deficiencies:

The governmental approach is a correct and wise decision. The dyke system is seen by the government as a relevant flood control measure that needs to be implemented in the floodplains of the MD. This assumption, however, and its perception and consequences are — from a bottom-up perspective — partly adverse to the necessities and practical experiences of the local population. Therefore, farmer communities and local organizations rejected this dyke system in their practical flooding situation. (9)

 Here is how Huu summarizes his analysis of the decision-making process for dike construction in Can Tho city:

In summary, the reconstruction of the planning process and the results of own research substantiate our hypothesis that the whole planning and implementation process of the dyke system has been a top-down activity by the central government and its bodies. Professional knowledge, experience and voice of organizations and residents, especially that of planners at local level, were not asked but rather ignored in the dyke system planning process. (75)

Huu’s book is particularly valuable for the in-depth glimpses it permits of how land-use and water-control decisions are made in Vietnam. He also lays the ground for the idea that a substantially more multi-level process of decision-making would have served the people of the Mekong Delta better — one which took more account of the experience and knowledge of local people and their organizations. Here is how Huu puts this point:

Thus, one may argue that a considerable constraint of the city is the lack of democracy in the whole process of dyke system planning. The participation of civil society in planning issues towards the decentralization and devolution of many areas of natural resource policy and state responsibility are an international trend. Democratic decentralization is obviously more efficient and equitable than state-dcentered control, especially when local issues and problems are at stake. (91)

 Now consider Ly Thim’s research.  Thim is primarily interested in hydroelectric projects and the dams that they depend upon.  He focuses on the Se San river basin. There are several important differences between the problems that Huu and Thim consider. Most important is the fact that Huu’s focus is on sub-national planning (regional flood control), while Thim’s work involves river basins that span more than one country.  In the case of the Se San river, policy choices were mediated through the Mekong River Commission including Cambodia and Vietnam.  A second important difference between the two cases is the role that NGOs played.  NGOs are more or less invisible in Huu’s account, whereas they play a key role in Thim’s account of the development of policies and implementations for hydroelectric power systems on the Se San river.

Here is how Thim formulates his purposes in the research:

This book focuses on how various social actors influence the planning process for Se San River Basin’s management in response to the effect of Vietnamese Yali-Falls dam on Cambodian local communities’ livelihoods…. The objectives of this book are as follows: — To develop an understanding of historical process of hydropower development in Se San River Basin; — to identify the major actors, their roles, interests, power relations and strategies in influencing decision-making process in hydropower development sector in Se San River Basin; — to provide a concluding remark on the impact resulting from responses as a means for Se San River Basin management (1).

Thim finds that non-state actors had significant influence on the policies he considers.  NGOs were able to express their policy recommendations, and local communities were also able to find voice in the processes.

Various important actors who had a direct engagement with dam issues can be identified, such as the affected riverbank communities, the NGOs, the Cambodian government officials, and the Vietnamese government officials. The view of affected riverbank communities is mainly based on their local knowledge, their observation of changing river condition, and their experiences. The view of NGOs such as NTFP and Oxfam America clearly represents the protection of social welfare of affected communities as well as the protection of water resources environment and ecology. In this regard, the actions taken by NGOs … could bring the voice of local communities to provincial, national and international agencies for resolution. By this way, affected communities are empowered through NGOs. (93)

Both these studies are focused on policy decision-making processes governing water in Vietnam, but their methods of approach and their central findings are rather different.  The differences in findings probably reflect differences in the issue areas themselves — local and regional dike systems, versus massive international dam projects.  But it also seems noteworthy that Thim’s approach give substantially more importance to the voices of local communities and community-based organizations; whereas Huu finds that the political culture of Vietnam continues to be a top-down bureaucratic system of decision-making.

I am glad these two books made their way to my office in Michigan. This is another strong argument for the importance of digital distribution of books and research reports: these physical books probably won’t show up in your local library. But since they are available in digital editions on Google Books, anyone can download them for more careful study for a fraction of the paperback price.  Here is Ly Thim’s Planning the Lower Mekong Basin, and here you can find Pham Cong Huu’s Floods and Farmers. (They aren’t available as Kindle editions, unfortunately.)

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.)

Red shirts as a social movement

The redshirts in Thailand have moved onto the world stage in the past several months.  Massive protests in Bangkok have stymied the Thai government and have held the army and police forces at bay for months.  Demands from redshirt leaders and posters include removal of the military-backed government of Prime Minister Abhisit and a commitment to prompt elections.  In the background seems to be a demand for a shift in the playing field in Thailand, with meaningful attention to social inequalities.  And exiled former prime minister Thaksin plays a continuing role in the background, offering video messages at protest meetings and veiled instructions to redshirt demonstrators.  Efforts at clearing the protest encampment led to dozens of deaths in April, and a major crackdown this week seems to have succeeded in breaking the protest in Bangkok with another handful of deaths and a great deal of arson in the center of the city.  But there are indications that protests and violence may spread to other parts of Thailand.

What all of this implies is the presence of a major social movement in Thailand, supported by many thousands of rural and urban Thai people, mostly from the lower end of the socioeconomic order.  This much is clear through the journalism that has developed around the current turmoil.  What we haven’t yet seen, though, is a careful analysis of the dynamics and processes of this movement.  How is it organized?  How are followers recruited?  What resources are leaders able to call upon?  What are the grievances that motivate potential followers?  The time is ripe for a careful, analytical study of the movement.  And intellectual resources exist for such a study, in the form of the extensive literature on social movements and contention that exists in the current social science literature.  However, that literature largely focuses on social movements in the democratic West, and scholars in this tradition generally lack deep knowledge of the politics of Asian countries.  So we need to find ways of crossing boundaries if we are to make use of social movement theory in the context of the Redshirt movement.

One of the most important voices in the current literature on social contention is Doug McAdam.  His study of the black insurgency in the United States is a sophisticated and extensive analysis of the dynamics of the US civil rights movement in the South (Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970), and perhaps there are some parallels between the two movements.  McAdam’s work is entirely focused on examples of protests and mobilization in the United States.  But in the introduction to the second edition of this work he provides a clear and powerful statement of the state of the field, and his synthesis of the best current thinking about how to analyze social movements is of general interest.  So perhaps this is one place to begin the search for an empirically and theoretically informed study of the Redshirt movement.

Here are a few of McAdam’s central points.

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action.  These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

Or in short: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes (viii-ix).  Here are brief descriptions of each of these axes of analysis.

Expanding political opportunities.  Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests….  But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life.  Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time.  It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

Extant mobilizing structures.  … By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action.  This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

Framing or other interpretive processes. … Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings — including a shared collective identity — that people bring to an instance of incipient contention.  At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)

So how can these basic sets of questions help in forming a careful analysis of the Redshirt movement?  McAdam’s general point is that these angles of analysis have emerged as key within dozens of studies of collective action and social movements.  They represent an empirically informed set of theoretical perspectives on collective action.  We shouldn’t look at these three sets of factors as setting a blueprint for collective action; but it is a good bet that new instances of social movements will involve each of these factors in some way.

Putting the point another way: we can read McAdam’s synthesis as posing a research framework in terms of which to investigate a new example of a social movement — whether the Falun Gong in China, the monks’ movement in Burma, the Maoist insurgency in India, or the Redshirt movement in Thailand.  It is certainly possible that a given case won’t fit very well into this set of questions; but McAdam’s hunch is that this is unlikely.

So it would be very interesting to initiate a careful study of the Redshirt movement along these lines.  Such a study would need to review the shifting circumstances of political power over the past ten years or so in Thailand, both at the national level and at the state level.  Certainly the military overthrow of the Thaksin government created “ebbs and flows” of the sort to which McAdam refers.  And the Yellowshirt demonstrations of 2008 also shifted the fields of power in Thailand.  What openings did these various events create for Redshirt mobilization?  Second, we would need to know a great deal more about the local and regional organizations through which Redshirt mobilization occurs.  What are those organizations?  What resources do they control?  How do they manage to succeed in mobilizing and transporting many tens of thousands of rural supporters to the center of Bangkok?  And how do they manage to continue to supply and motivate these supporters through several months of siege?  Finally, and most importantly, we need to know much more about the mentality and social identities of the Redshirts.  What do they care about?  What are their local grievances?  What are their most basic loyalties and motivations?  McAdam points out that most studies of successful social movements have found that activists and supporters usually possess dense social networks and deep connections to their communities; will this turn out to be true for the Redshirt movement?

There is a cynical reading of the movement that would almost certainly not stand up to this kind of careful analysis: the idea that the Redshirts are simply the pawns of Thaksin, and that Thaksin’s financial support to individual followers is sufficient to explain their behavior.  This doesn’t seem credible on its face; it makes the movement out to be an automaton controlled by a distant leader.  Surely Thaksin plays a role; but equally certainly, leaders and followers have their own issues, agendas, and passions.

The kind of study suggested here does not yet exist, so far as I can tell.  It would be necessary to pull together a great deal of local knowledge about the social constituencies and local organizations that are involved in the movement — information that isn’t presented in any detail in the journalism that has been offered to date about events in Thailand.  But once a researcher has pulled together preliminary answers to questions in each of these areas, he/she will be much better positioned to answer pressing questions of the day: will the movement survive the repression in Bangkok this week?  Will it spread to other locations in Thailand?  Will the government succeed in preserving the status quo?  And schematic answers to these questions would provide a much more substantial basis for understanding the movement and its location within Thai society.

Here is one small contribution to the effort.  McAdam emphasizes the importance of “identity shift” in the evolution of a social movement.  He thinks that a very substantial part of a movement’s strength and staying power derives from the new forms of collective identity that it creates.  There is evidence of shifting identities along these lines within the Redshirt movement.  Consider this interesting analysis of language from Thailand’s Troubles:

ไพร่, which sounds like prai, was a dusty word which rarely saw the light of day. Now on every other t-shirt worn by people of the Red movement printed large and proud is prai.

Prai has perhaps a dozen meanings including cad, citizen, plebian and proletariat. In the context of the Red movement protest, which includes an element of class conflict and rebellion over inequality, prai frequently means commoner and peasant.

This sounds quite a bit like a shift of identity, from disregarded poor person to proud member of a movement.

(Several earlier posts have focused on events in Thailand.  Here is a post from about a year ago on civil unrest in Thailand.  See also the social movements thread in UnderstandingSociety.)

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.

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development). We need to put the poor first.  However, I also believe that our ability to achieve this goal is highly sensitive to the distributive structures and property systems that exist in poor countries.  The property institutions of developing countries have enormous impact on the full human development of the poor.  As a result, ethically desirable human development goals are difficult to attain within any social system in which the antecedent property relations are highly stratified and in which political power is largely in the hands of the existing elites.

The fundamental question of poverty is this: how do people earn their livings? The economic institutions of the given society (property relations and market institutions, for example) determine the answer to this question. An economy represents a set of social positions for the men and women who make it up. These persons have a set of human needs—nutrition, education, health care, housing, clothing, etc. And they need access to the opportunities that exist in society—opportunities for employment and education, for example. The various positions that exist within the economy in turn define the entitlements that persons have—wages, profits, access to food subsidies, rights of participation, etc. The material well-being of a person—the “standard of living”—is chiefly determined by the degree to which his or her “entitlements” through these various sources of income provide the basis for acquiring more than enough goods in all the crucial categories to permit the individual to flourish (Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). If wages are low, then the consumption bundle that this income will afford is very limited. If crop prices are low, then peasants will have low incomes. If business taxes are low, then business owners may retain more business income in the form of profits, which will support larger consumption bundles and larger savings. There is thus a degree of conflict of interest among the agents within the economic system; the institutions of distribution may favor workers, lenders, farmers, business owners, or the state, depending on their design. And it is very possible for economic development to proceed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the upper levels of society without leading to much change at the bottom.

Here I want to review an important empirical example of economic development without commensurate gain for the poor of the region: the effects of the Green Revolution in the rice-growing regions of Malaysia. James Scott provides a careful survey of the development process in Malaysia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985). The chief innovations were these: a government-financed irrigation project making double-cropping possible; the advent of modern-variety rice strains; and the introduction of machine harvesting, replacing hired labor. Scott considers as relevant factors the distribution of landholdings, the forms of land tenure in use, the availability of credit, the political parties on the scene, and the state’s interests in development.

Scott’s chief finding is that double cropping and irrigation substantially increased revenues in the Muda region, and that these increases were very unequally distributed. Much of the increase flowed to the small circle of managerial farmers, credit institutions, and outside capitalists who provided equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Finally, Scott finds that the lowest stratum—perhaps 40%—has been substantially marginalized in the village economy. Landlessness has increased sharply, as managerial farms absorb peasant plots; a substantial part of the rural population is now altogether cut off from access to land. And mechanized harvesting substantially decreases the demand for wage labor. This group is dependent on wage labor, either on the managerial farms or through migration to the cities. The income flowing to this group is more unstable than the subsistence generated by peasant farming; and with fluctuating consumption goods prices, it may or may not suffice to purchase the levels of food and other necessities this group produced for itself before development. And these circumstances have immediate consequences for the ability of poor households to achieve the development of their human capabilities. Their nutritional status, their health, their literacy, and their mobility are all directly impaired by the fact of low and unstable household income. Finally, the state and the urban sector benefits substantially: the increased revenues created by high-yield rice cultivation generate profits and tax revenues that can be directed towards urban development.

Scott draws this conclusion:

The gulf separating the large, capitalist farmers who market most of the region’s rice and the mass of small peasants is now nearly an abyss, with the added (and related) humiliation that the former need seldom even hire the latter to help grow their crops. Taking 1966 as a point of comparison, it is still the case that a majority of Muda’s households are more prosperous than before. It is also the case that the distribution of income has worsened appreciably and that a substantial minority—per­haps 35‑40 percent—have been left behind with very low incomes which, if they are not worse than a decade ago, are not appreciably better. Given the limited absorptive capacity of the wider economy, given the loss of wages to machines, and given the small plots cultivated by the poor strata, there is little likelihood that anything short of land reform could reverse their fortunes. (Scott 1985:81)

This example well illustrates the problems of distribution and equity that are unavoidable in the process of rural development. The process described here is one route to “modernization of agriculture,” in that it involves substitution of new seed varieties for old, new technologies for traditional technologies, integration into the global economy, and leads to a sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture. Malaysia was in effect one of the great successes of the Green Revolution. At the same time it created a sharp division between winners and losers: peasants and the rural poor largely lose income, security, and autonomy; while rural elites, urban elites, and the state gained through the increased revenues generated by the modern farming sector.

Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, and Benjamin White’s Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (1989) provides detailed case studies of these sorts of processes of property and power in development in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

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.

What is a diasporic community?


There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of “natural experiment” on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I’d like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I’m led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of “modern community”, deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let’s look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won’t do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics — “it depends on what we mean by community”. Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group’s interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we’re inclined to deny that these groups are “communities.” So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display “creolization” — the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural “drift” — with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world — repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world — is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I’m inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.

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.)

%d bloggers like this: