Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Stateless: Historical Experience and Its Reflection on the Concept of State among the Lahu in Yunnan and Mainland Southeast Asian Massif

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Becoming Stateless: Historical Experience and Its Reflection on the Concept of State among the Lahu in Yunnan and Mainland Southeast Asian Massif

Article excerpt

I Introduction

James Scott's recent workThe Art of Not Being Governed (J.C. Scott 2009) is an excellent contribution to studies on the massif of mainland Southeast Asia and southwest China ("Zomia" in his terminology). Scott upholds that every aspect of social life of highlanders in this area can be seen as a conscious strategy to maintain distance from state power. He argues that their first priority was to avoid control from lowland states and that their social organization, shifting cultivation, illiteracy, and origin myths were designed to justify statelessness in order to meet their ultimate goal of anarchy.

His argument is a part of the recent trend in this field to present a non-state-centered perspective. Studies of this sort have appeared as opportunities for fieldwork have increased since China, Vietnam, and Laos (partly) opened their doors to foreign scholars.1) Such studies have led to a re-evaluation of certain social dynamics that hitherto remained hidden from the modern state perspective. James Scott's book has made advances in this respect.

The Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman speaking group, are distributed over a wide area that covers Upper Burma, northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as their original land Yunnan. According to James Scott, they are one of the typically stateless peoples of "Zomia." Indeed, their consciousness of being stateless is both an important motif in their origin myth and a main driving force behind a series of messianic movements. However, whether statelessness reflects their consciousness is questionable. In this paper, I will present an alternative interpretation of their historical consciousness. I first discuss the Lahu's political autonomy in southwest Yunnan during the nineteenth century (Section II) and follow up by discussing arguments concerning the elimination of political autonomy in the course of China's building of a modern nation-state (Section III). Next I examine indigenous concepts of state and king, the origin myth that justifies stateless, as well as the messianic movements that search for "the lost book" of the Lahu (Section IV). Finally, in the concluding section, I present possibilities for viewing "Zomia" from an alternative perspective, which may open up ways of discussing the realities of states run by highlanders and their original concept of statehood.

II The "Lahu Age"

Emergence of the Lahu Autonomous Polities

After a long period of "missing links" in their ethno-history,2) the Lahu (then known as Luohei or Kucong in Chinese documents) emerged in Chinese official records of the Yongzheng period.3) Qing officials promoted an image of the Luohei or Kucong as "unruly rebels," and the "Luohei rebels" appeared again in the Jiaqing period when they were accused of disobedience to the lowland Tay (Shan) cawfaa or military native officials (tusi ) owing allegiance to the Qing emperor.

Demographic, economic, and religious factors contributed to the appearance of the "rebels."4) The first factor to consider is the expansion of the Han migrant population in southwest Yunnan and Upper Burma during the eighteenth century. According to the Draft Comprehensive Gazetteer of Yunnan, the population of Yongchang and Shunning Prefectures, where the majority of the Lahu resided, increased from 166,962 in 1736 to 660,452 in 18305) due to the huge influx of Han migrants. Highlanders were thus exposed to Han cultural influence. The spread of Mahayana Buddhism over the Lahu hills is a typical example (discussed below).

Rapid opening of mines in the Yunnan-Burma borderlands also attracted Han migrants. Reid (2004, 24) summarizes the migration of Han Chinese miners:

[M]iners migrated in large numbers into Yunnan, where there were reported to be 500,000 miners by 1800. The desire for further mining sites was not halted by any notional boundary of Chinese imperial control. The hills in the north of what are today Burma, Laos, and Vietnam held similar resources of copper, lead, iron, and silver as those of Yunnan. …

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