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


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." In the fifth section, Decha Tangseefa, Kazi Fahmida Farzana, Amporn Jirattikorn, Carl Grundy-Warr, and Chin Wei Jun examine identity construction and "the politics of belonging." A final sixth section examines "institutionalized identity" and "border practices." 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.

"This edited volume derives from a 2013 conference held at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, which was attended by this reviewer. The conference and resulting book aimed to establish borderland studies as an important perspective for understanding "marginal spaces at the edge of the nation," arguing that "borders are in fact sites of social, political and cultural change that impact local and national politics" (1). The editor and some of the authors succeed in demonstrating that borderlands are indeed dynamic sites of social practice and that understanding them not only deepens our appreciation of local, social, economic, cultural and political processes, but contributes towards a richer and de-centred analysis of national and international issues. 

.... Along with the editor's introduction, 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. 

.... This diverse and interesting set of essays concludes with two further studies of ethnic communities across borders. 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. 

.... These richly diverse chapters demonstrate the editor Oh's contention "that mountain and maritime Myanmar have more in common with each other than with the lowlands." (27); and that, as Grundy-War and Chin Wei Jun put it: "borderlands are not 'margins'" (330). Overall, the book demonstrates the value of exploring Myanmar through the lens of "borderland studies."

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

"....This book, edited by Su-Ann Oh, examines both the mountain and the maritime borders of Myanmar by looking at boundaries as processes that are constantly being produced and reproduced. It looks at the 'symbolic worlds' (emerging from these local areas in the form of local practices) by analysing social organisation, mobility and territorial claims. The book also comments on the fluctuating relationship between the heartland/mainstream and the periphery, and how borderland dwellers and non-state actors have used the border as a 'safety-valve' to voice their grievances and assert their jurisdiction against an ever-hegemonic state/central apparatus.

The book, through its six interesting sections, comments on the 'contested worlds' of both the geographical and constructed borders and knits a compelling and holistic story of belonging in Myanmar's heterogeneous borderlands. 

This edited book by Su-Ann Oh is a valuable contribution to the ongoing research on "spaces of exception." It importantly informs us about the exceptional people who inhabit these troubled peripheries. Their lives are a constant lesson in resilience, adaptability and foresight. It showcases the enterprising spirit of those living in the borderlands and their continuous commitment to bringing normalcy to a terrain that is far from normal.

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. After the initial two politically oriented essays as an overview of the topic, she then looks at the contrast between borders as lines on maps and the images of boundaries they create, then social organisation and livelihood practices, then the essential openness of most of Myanmar's borders, followed by two sections on the construction of identity amongst border folk. Living on a border provides alternatives to who you are or might be which are largely excluded from those who live in the interior of the country and that is perhaps the most important conclusion from the volume."

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)


PDF e-book files for this publication are available as detailed below.

Myanmars Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes: Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds [Whole Publication], by Su-Ann Oh, editor 55.00 USD
Preliminary pages Download
1. Introduction, by Su-Ann Oh, author Download
2. Electoral Sovereignty in Myanmars Borderlands, by Nicholas Farrelly, author 5.00 USD
3. The Maritime Frontier of Myanmar: Challenges in the Early 21st Century, by Maung Aung Myoe, author 5.00 USD
4. Burman Territories and Borders in the Making of a Myanmar Nation State, by Maxime Boutry, author 5.00 USD
5. Ritual and the Other in Rakhine Spirit Cults, by Alexandra Landmann, author 5.00 USD
6. Rohingya Territoriality in Myanmar and Bangladesh: Humanitarian Crisis and National Disordering, by Anders Bjornberg, author 5.00 USD
7. The Culture and Landscape of the Humanitarian Economy among the Karen (Kayin) in the Borderland of Southeast Myanmar and Northwest Thailand, by Alexander Horstmann, author 5.00 USD
8. Navigating Learning, Employment and Economies in the Mae Sot-Myawaddy Borderland, by Su-Ann Oh, author 5.00 USD
9. The Spatiality and Borderless-ness of Contentious Politics: Kachin Mobilities as Capability, by Karin Dean, author 5.00 USD
10. The Mule Caravans as Cross-Border Networks: Local Bands and their Stretch on the Frontier between Yunnan and Burma, by Jianxiong Ma, Cunzhao Ma, authors 5.00 USD
11. I Want to Stay Forever in You, by Decha Tangseefa, author 5.00 USD
12. Life along the Naf Border: Identity Politics of the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, by Farzana Kazi Fahmida, author 5.00 USD
13. Home of the Housekeeper: Will Shan Migrants Return after a Decade of Migration?, by Amporn Jirattikorn, author 5.00 USD
14. Moving on: Spaces of Engagement in the KayahMae Hong Son Borderland, by Carl Grundy-Warr, Chin Wei Jun, authors 5.00 USD
15. The Chin State-Mizoram Border: Institutionalized Xenophobia for State Control, by Bianca Son Suantak, N. William Singh, authors 5.00 USD
16. Ti Buddhist Practices on the China-Myanmar Border, by Takahiro Kojima, author 5.00 USD
Index Download

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