„Mountainland“ is an ongoing long-term project, that surveys the lives and societies of Zomia (upland Southeast Asia, India, Bangladesh, China).
The Southeast Asian Massif is a region that extends across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, China, India and Bangladesh, roughly 2.5 million square kilometers. The people dwelling in these mountains comprise hundreds of ethnic groups, and are linguistically and culturally distinct from the people who dominate the state cores in the lowlands.
The ethnic minority populations in the mountain area are estimated at around eighty million to one hundred million people and are more scattered and culturally diverse than those of the valleys. The migration of these people is best understood as a history of escape from state-making processes in the lowlands.
It is the practice of internal colonialism that describes the making of most modern nation-states. This process involves absorption/incorporation and displacement of inhabitants as well as an alteration of the landscape by deforestation, irrigation, levees, etc., in order to grow crops and set up settlement patterns.
In pre-colonial times, the states in mainland Southeast Asia were small, centralized spaces of power (called mandala) with accompanying tributary villages attached. The rest of their „territory“ was peripheral to influence.
Much of this periphery and the area beyond was made up of difficult terrains, such as mountains, swamps, stepes, marshlands… but at the same time a great source of trade goods and forest products, necessary for the prosperity of the states. It was a source of human captives, needed as laborers and working capital, too.
The contrary nature of the two zones (lowlands and highlands) made them become trading partners, eventually.
Time passed and the reach of the states grew. People and groups at the periphery were either absorbed (becoming, over many generations, part of the main ethnic group/identity) or simply moved away further into the hinterlands, far out of reach of the state. As this process repeated itself again and again, the mountains became culturally complex zones of people who chose to place themselves there.
Being part of a state system meant taxation, conscription, corvee labor and cultural assimilation.
Political independence, on the other hand, came with the advantages of trade without taxes, cultural refuge, and the preservation of group identity. These were historically the driving forces for the people to migrate to the mountains.
Some state subjects ran away for reasons similar to those of the ethnic minorities, and became incorporated into the „Mountainland“. These patterns generated a space made of people who had never been dependent on any state as well as those who esacaped away state reach.
Today, political articulation and negotiation is far more difficult and complex in many areas of Zomia. During the last decades, authorities started to understand the value of the region, its resources and the benefit it could give to their economies.
The postcolonial lowland states sought to exercise influence in the hills by encouraging people of the lowland majority population to settle there.
Military presence, campaigns against shifting cultivation (the traditional form of subsistence in Zomia), deforestation, building of roads, railroad tracks and bridges into the hills, and the introduction of administrational facilities made nonstate spaces a phenomenon of the past.
Avoiding the state was, until some decades ago, a real option, but it has become almost impossible today.