The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

Sanjay Subrahmanyam writes:

His focus is on the area known as the mainland massif, recently rechristened ‘Zomia’ by Willem van Schendel. It is a huge area currently populated by more than 100 million members of ‘minority peoples’ (such as the Akha, Chin, Hmong, Kachin, Karen, Khmu, Lahu, Miao, Wa and Yao), occupying some 2.5 million square kilometres from western China to north-eastern India and including the upland areas of five other countries: Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Scott, as he himself writes, has a ‘simple, suggestive and controversial’ thesis regarding this area. Hitherto, he says, most of these minority populations have been seen by anthropologists as well as policy-makers as archaic vestiges, survivors from another time. He argues that, on the contrary, ‘hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys – slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labour, epidemics and warfare’. Central to the book is the argument that Scott used as the title of the lecture that he delivered widely in anticipation of its publication: ‘Why Civilisations Can’t Climb Hills’.

(LRB 2 December 2010)

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