Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Taking Flight in Condemned Grounds: Forcibly Displaced Karens and the Thai-Burmese In-Between Spaces

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Taking Flight in Condemned Grounds: Forcibly Displaced Karens and the Thai-Burmese In-Between Spaces

Article excerpt

Based on fieldwork in non-ceasefire war zones within and between Thailand and Burma, this article explores the nexus between written language, intelligibility, and qualified voice in order to examine the Karen people as unqualified political subjects in a quotidian theater of the displaced. KEYWORDS: borders; state terror; displacement; intelligibility; sovereign power


Experiences "inside" Burma/Myanmar (1) have been harrowing. Like many lives in many agony-ridden spaces, the torments inflicted on people under the Burmese dictatorship have by and large been imperceptible, out of the view of the world. Although the pattern dates back to 1962, when General Newin took the helm and the country became a hermit state, it has been most acute since the massacres in the country's urban areas on August 8, 1988 (the cursed 8/8/88). Conservative figures show that as of December 2004 between five hundred and fifty thousand and eight hundred thousand people have been forcibly displaced "inside" the country. (2)

Although these people are living in danger zones, the territorial sovereignty of the despotic state renders them imperceptible to the "outside" world. Their sufferings have rarely been accounted for by the international community. Most of their stories have never been disclosed, and even when they have, they have often been ignored. No matter how loud they have screamed, a large number of forcibly displaced peoples "inside" the Burmese nation-state have been tortured and killed without being heard as they dissolve back to the soil they hoped would be their homelands.

Consequently, many of these indigenous peoples or ethnic nationalities (3) have taken flight through openings along the so-called Thai-Burmese state boundary, searching for sunlight, only to end up living in darkness on the Thai side. (4) Once they cross the "state boundary" into Thailand, they are often regarded by the Thai society as the aberrant--those whose lives do not generally qualify to be accounted for, no matter whether they are living "legally" in what the Thai state terms "temporary shelter areas" (5) or "illegally" outside those shelters. Among them are the Karen indigenous peoples, who already, long before the demarcation of the Thai-Burmese boundary, were located in the border zones. Whether in Thailand or in Burma, the forcibly displaced Karens, their voices and struggles, are usually ignored. (6)

This article calls attention to the necessity and urgency of conducting academic field research in the dangerous areas in the Thai-Burmese border zones, in "the condemned grounds." As part of a research project studying political entanglements that have led to the invisibility of the suffering endured by displaced Karens, the article aims to highlight an intricate nexus between voice and territoriality. It especially seeks to delineate a geography of the sacred: a map of exceptional spaces, in the sense explored by Giorgio Agamben, whereby the displaced have been dispersed through complex forms of human disposal so as to become homo sacer. (7) The article thus advances a new line of political inquiry, both by questioning the closure of the political through processes of exclusionary counting, in ways suggested by Jacques Ranciere, (8) and by showing how this closure is ultimately dependent on state terror and its capacity to enforce a distinction between the logos of the speech of those counted and the phone (noise) of those who have no-part.

To this end, the article takes three steps. First it argues that the forcibly displaced Karens are political subjects, not simple facts of life. Second it proposes a methodology for studying forcibly displaced peoples in the border zones by weaving three topics of anthropology together with the notion of "in-between spaces"--doing so in order to capture the kaleidoscopic realities of the border zones. The three are (1) an anthropology of borders and philosophico-cultural in-between spaces; (2) an anthropology of state terror and political in-between spaces; and (3) an anthropology of displacement and refugees together with in-between spaces of terror. …

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