Myanmar's Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes: Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds

Myanmar's Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes: Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds
Su-Ann Oh, editor
Date of publication:  2016
Publisher:  ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
Number of pages:  398
Code:  PIC242
Soft Cover
ISBN: 9789814695763
Check Price


Anthony Russell, Mountain Research and Development, 38(1):98-99, 2019.

"[T]his volume, replete with both theory and detail, has a wider focus than one theater of tragic ethnic animosity. 

The following 6 sections provide the reader with many well-researched and, at times, helpfully overlapping entries into a better understanding of conflict between the Myanmar core and its periphery, and within and beyond the periphery. From Section I onwards, one recurrent theme is that the disparate peoples of the borderlands are isolated not only "from centralizing force of Myanmar society" but also "by geography and sometimes, instinct, from each other" (p. 65). Yet "where strong connections exist in Myanmar's borderlands they tend to pull, inconsistently, towards the neighbouring nation states" (p. 65) as with the flight, into Bangladesh, of the Muslim Rohingya. They are separated from the Rakhine Buddhists by history and religion. 

The book also explores, in Section IV, how communications, from the mule caravan to the Internet, have produced a social and economic reality that transcends political boundaries. Creating cognitive maps (much more relevant to the fluidity of movement, official and unofficial), this has helped develop a culture of "borderless-ness" culture within the frontier zones. 

This book is as diverse and complex in its approach as the borderlands it examines. This is not a criticism. There is a clear structure, with each section building on and adding to our developing knowledge and understanding."

Laldinkima Sailo, Pacific Affairs: Vol. 91:4, Dec 2018.

The bulk of literature on this subject draws from the line of scholarship that has given increasing prominence to borderland studies, particularly in this region of the world - starting with the world of Edmund Leach, Willem van Schendel (Zomia), and James Scoot (The Art of Not Being Governed). This particular collection is significant in its focus on border issues not only on land, but also on along maritime borders. It also seeks to take an innovative approach in conceptualizing "borders - and boundaries - as social practices - processes rather than objects, verbs rather than nouns - that are constantly being enacted" (1), drawing on the works of Bourdieu (1972) and others who ground the practice of boundary- (and border-) making in practice theory. The key problematique looming large to such an endeavor is that to locate the border as a central discourse to national politics it also needs to take into account reigning conceptual and contextual themes in those national capitals to create asymmetry in drawing on the reigning themes and rhetorics at different points of time. Bearing that in mind, this collection attempts to walk a tightrope. 

The book begins by providing a context of Myanmar's land (mainly mountain) and maritime border spaces. The corresponding chapters look at those social practices through which this collection innovatively approaches the subject - territorial claims, social organization, mobility, and identity construction. 

The one crucial aspect in which this collection supersedes any previous treatment of the subject matter is timing. It is possibly the most recent study (or certainly one among few) of the borderlands amidst the ongoing political reorganization in Myanmar and after that country's milestone elections of 2015. 

Ishrat Hossain, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 2018.

"Describing Myanmar's war-torn peripheries Martin Smith used the image of a chess board where different shades represented different zones and levels of control: black areas were disputed by both parties (1999: 259). Almost two decades after Smith's visualization of Myanmar's conflict landscape, as the country journeys through its nascent democratization process, comes this important volume edited by Su-Ann Oh attempting to capture the diversity and complexity of Myanmar's heterogeneous border regions (including maritime boundaries) and their impact on 'local and national politics' (p.1). This is a daunting task, no doubt, and the book skillfully accomplishes that through an expansive research coverage that includes under represented topics (maritime frontiers), case studies on local practices of peripheral ethnic groups (Rakhine spirit cult, cross-border mule caravan networks, Tai Buddhist rituals) as well as broad commentaries on electoral politics (Farrelly) and development challenges (Grundy-Warr and Chin Wei Jun, Hortsmann, Dean).

The book opens with two overview pieces illuminating the salience of borderland constituencies and maritime frontiers in national political calculations 'during the current period of flux and uncertainty' (p.43). ....Maung Aye Myoe's rich and informative account detailing the political economy of the maritime resources as well as the challenges faced  by the country's maritime frontiers is an important addition to an under researched area of Myanmar's studies. 

Complementing De Mersan's argument, Bjornberg's excellent analysis of the lived status of the Rohingya straddling across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border further demonstrates how both Myanmar and Bangladesh have sought to delegitimize the presence of Rohingyas as part of their respective nation-building projects. 

The book concludes with two final case studies on Chin and Tai ethnic communities. ... both these chapters are excellent examples of detailed fine-grained ground-up studies of arguably under researched ethnic communities and thus contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the borderland dynamics.

Collectively the chapters in this volume demonstrate that borderscapes are often zones of their own rules and the national project of border making devised from the center collapses, at times, when faced with the lived realities of the borderland population. One way to understand, and eventually improve, the disconnect between the periphery and the center, as Oh outlines in the introductory chapter, is to 'examine the patterns, trends, anomalies and contradictions emerging in the different border areas so as to obtain insights and pose questions' (p.19). To that end this edited volume is an impressive achievement."

William Crawley, Asian Affairs, March 2018.

"The essays in this impressively international collaborative book, skillfully edited from ISEAS Singapore, examine a complex range of issues that influence the delineation of Myanmar's - or Burma's - borders. They map the geographical features, the distribution of known natural resources, the discovery of new ones and the capacity or potential to exploit them, the political and historical antecedents and the ethnic and cultural demographics of the border regions. Even the name reflects contested views of the nature of the country and its peoples: Burma reflecting both its colonial past and a recognition of the dominant language and ethnic group; Myanmar a territory and nation of different ethnic groups not all of whom have been fully reconciled to the composition of the State of which they are a part. 

The book's title suggests all these issues and more, in that it also takes account of the myths, rituals and symbols that contribute to a collective understanding of what the country represents. Some of these issues may seem somewhat rarefied. One cannot imagine a border guard believing that he has been posted to protect a symbolic 'figured world', or that the border itself represents only 'a temporary stand-off in a socio spatial power struggle'. But these concepts are clearly relevant to a cultural, social and anthropological portrait of Myanmar. They are also important to an understanding of its political and economic development, and this book provides many useful ideas in analyzing them."

Michael W. Charney, International Journal of Asian Studies, 2018.

"The book is divided into six main sections. First, Nicholas Farrelly and Maung Aung Myoe provide and overview of Myanmar's "Mountain Borderscapes" and "Maritime Borderscapes." In the second section, Maxime Boutry, Alexandra de Mersan, and Anders Bjornberg look at territorial claims and imagined boundaries. Alexander Horstmann and Su-Ann Oh examine societal organization and border economies. Fourth, Karin Dean and Jianxiong Ma and Cunzhao Ma look at mobile practices and the "moving border." The contributors to this last section include Takahiro Kojima, N. William Singh, and the late Bianca Son, the present volume being unfortunately one of the last opportunities scholars will have to access unread work by this promising historian of the Chin-Zo people and their history. The unusual range of sections indicates the variety of subtopics explored and just how diverse an impact borderlands have on the lives of the people who live in them. The sixteen chapters and the range of subjects they deal with might easily have given the book a hydra-headed feel, but fortunately an astute introduction by editor Su-Ann Oh and the shared perspective of the contributors that the centre of gravity of change in contemporary Myanmar is being worked out in these borderlands helps to give the volume as undeniable cohesiveness. 

There is a lot to recommend the volume to scholars of contemporary Myanmar and Southeast Asia. But there are also some gems that if identified correctly by the reader can lend themselves usefully to broader historiographical projects. 

Overall, the volume contributes much important work on borderlands. It also provided an important overview of what might be called a "borderlands" paradigm through an insightful introduction."

Ashley South. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 18 April 2017.

"Karin Dean offers the most sophisticated elaboration of borderland perspectives, in relation to migrants within and between Kachin communities in northern Myanmar. She conceptualises boundaries and connections within and between communities, across both space and time, with a focus on the transformative impact of modern social media, and how these may contribute towards social and political mobilisation. 

The late Bianca Son, together with N. William Singh, provides a fascinating and sadly insightful account of intra-ethnic relations across the India border, and the unfriendly reception which Chin from Myanmar often receive among their Mizo "cousins" to the west. The chapter is particularly valuable for its fine-grained analysis of social, political and economic dynamics across and on both sides of the border."

Reshmi Banerjee. Tea Circle - An Oxford Forum for New Perspectives on Burma/Myanmar, 15 March 2017.

The book also expands our knowledge of Myanmar by studying the volatile and vocal nature of the transnational political economy along with the asymmetry of different border areas of the country."

Robert H. Taylor. Aseasuk News No. 61, Autumn 2017. 

Among the 16 diverse contributions to this substantial volume, there is bound to be something of interest to most students of contemporary Myanmar culture and society. 

.... Given the wide variety of content, tone and purpose of the contributions to Myanmar's Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes, edited Oh has had to be creative in organising the essays in coherent units. This she has skilfully done. 

About the publication

This edited volume adds to the literature on Myanmar and its borders by drawing attention to the significance of geography, history, politics and society in the construction of the border regions and the country. First, it alerts us to the fact that the border regions are situated in the mountainous and maritime domains of the country, highlighting the commonalities that arise from shared geography. Second, the book foregrounds socio-spatio practices — economic, intimate, spiritual, virtual — of border and boundary-making in their local context. This demonstrates how state-defined notions of territory, borders and identity are enacted or challenged. Third, despite sharing common features, Myanmar’s borderscapes also possess unique configurations of ethnic, political and economic attributes, producing social formations and figured worlds that are more cohesive or militant in some border areas than in others. Understanding and comparing these social practices and their corresponding life-worlds allows us to re-examine the connections from the borderlands back to the hinterland and to consider the value of border and boundary studies in problematizing and conceptualizing recent changes in Myanmar. 

“This ambitious project combines sophisticated theorization of boundary-making as a form of social practice and empirical studies of Myanmar’s heterogeneous borderlands, both land and sea. Seeing the country from its edges opens up a provocative and altogether novel vision of the contestations joining diverse peripheries and centre. This volume brings together the leading scholars of the country in a collection that is a must-have for anyone interested in contemporary Myanmar, border studies, and Southeast Asia.”

– Itty Abraham, Head, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) 

“This is the first book to attempt to bring together such a diverse range of Myanmar’s land and maritime border regions for comparison. In doing so, it highlights the diversity of the country’s demographic, social, economic and political make-up when viewed from the margins rather than the centre. It reveals how these border regions help to constitute the nation and how they shape what modern Myanmar is today — they also give strong indicators of what it might become. This is an essential read for anyone in the social sciences interested in borderlands, as well as those requiring a broader understanding of the challenges facing the contemporary Myanmar government as it attempts to usher in social and political cohesion following decades of conflict.”

– Mandy Sadan, Reader in the History of South East Asia, School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS)


Similar Publications