Navigating Zomia: Negotiating quasi-independence

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Zomia is a geographical term that was coined in 2002 by historian William Van Schendel to refer to the huge mass of mainland South East Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments. Asia’s hill people living here have earned a reputation for egalitarianism, insurrection and independence.

According to James Scott, Zomia has been recognised as the last enclosure movement which is an effort to integrate people, lands and resources of the periphery. The enormous ungoverned territory presents a constant temptation-an alternative to the life within the state.

These lowlands are economically complementary and have natural trading partners. They are composed of refugees who are ‘barbarians by choice’ and their way of life has been termed as secondary primitivism. These hill people are ex-valley people who have been in touch with the imperial states in valleys.

Zomia is knitted together not by a political unit, but by diverse culture, dispersal mobility and egalitarianism. The focus on Zomia as a vast interstate massif arises because of its importance as the most significant complex catchment zone for refugees from state, making projects in the valley.

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