Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Introduction: Upland Peoples in the Making of History in Northern Continental Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Introduction: Upland Peoples in the Making of History in Northern Continental Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

I Purpose

Scholars are beginning to recognize that upland peoples matter profoundly to the history of continental Southeast Asia. But exactly what role upland peoples played in the making of this region remains a largely neglected issue. Though historians acknowledge the wide spatial distribution of upland ethnic groups, they often try to squeeze them into the frameworks of nation-states. The idea of the nation-state endorses the views of single, or dominant, ethnic groups; and this naturally leads to heavy reliance on interlocking concepts such as borders, state space, non-state space, and transnationality. But the arrival of globalization in upland continental Southeast Asia has spotlighted factors other than space, whether it be state or regional space, as crucial for understanding upland peoples. Global capitalism is undermining the old hierarchies of space, particularly those between areas within nation-states; global economic ties can even enhance the status of constituent parts vis-à-vis the nation-state itself. Such shifts draw attention to the importance of non-space related topics, namely cultural and social fluidity between regions, and political and economic linkages that transcend nation-states. Though globalization promotes homogenization and conformity, thereby seemingly eroding differences between regional space units, it is equally true that some upland peoples have formulated strategies for maintaining their own cultures and societies in the face of increasing outside contact over time. They constantly alter tactics to meet ever-changing circumstances, and an enquiry into such strategies can render a perspective for plotting the position of upland peoples in the past as well as in the present.

This set of research papers seeks to probe the role of upland peoples in the making of history in the lowland polities of upper continental Southeast Asia from the eighteenth until the twentieth centuries. Infused by a desire to move beyond scholarship's still dominant paradigms of nation-state and development, which downplay upland history, the papers focus on investigating upland strategies for interaction with lowland polities and societies, and the extent to which upland peoples contributed to the foundation of lowland Tai (Tay)1) polities. The authors, four anthropologists and one historian, were either members of, or associated with, the five-year joint research project titled "History of the Hill Peoples in the Tay (Tai) Cultural Area," which I coordinated at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, between 2006 and 2010. This multidisciplinary project aimed to augment histories of northern continental Southeast Asia by rethinking the roles played by upland peoples, and the papers here build on the debates conducted at project meetings. They explore the realities of upland-lowland relationships on the basis of empirical data gathered either from extensive fieldwork or from deep reading of indigenous, Chinese, and Western historical sources. Two of the papers deal with case studies from the area west of the Salween River, a part of the Tai world on which little research has been done since the days of Edmund Leach.

One central issue addressed is: Was the upland-lowland relationship essentially as antagonistic as James Scott has claimed in his highly controversial book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009)? According to Scott, upland peoples deliberately chose a material lifestyle (residential location, agricultural techniques, rejection of written scripts) and ideology and a flexible social organization in order to fend off the encroachments of lowlanders and to protect themselves from incorporation into the administrative systems of padi states (Scott's term for lowland states). Upland peoples embraced the ideals and aspirations of egalitarianism, freedom, and independence, and it was only by designing and securing a mode of living and a social structure of "escape" that they succeeded in maintaining their autonomous lifestyles. …

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