Myanmar’s Mountain and Maritime Borderscapes – Local Practices, Boundary-Making and Figured Worlds edited by Su-Ann Oh, ISEAS Publishing, Singapore, 2016, 398 pages.

Reshmi Banerjee reviews Su-Ann Oh’s edited volume on Myanmar’s “borderscapes.”

Borders have their own narratives. They are sites of immense socio-cultural interaction, which in turn influences the local and national landscape. They are also trans-national zones which see the mixing of cross-border cultures and mobile social practices. Ideas of nation and identity, along with daily struggles for security and livelihoods, gain focus in frontiers. The relevance of history, geography and politics is deeply felt in these border regions as well, where shared commonalities exist alongside divisive conflicts. Perspectives from the margins are few in academic discourse but they are critical to creating inclusive worldviews and democratic national policies. Border-regions tend to shape and define a nation as they often bring forth the diverse voices that are vital to constituting a plural spectrum. Interaction with the ‘other’ is a daunting but regular task in these volatile zones. Facing every-day issues like insurgency and the presence of the military, armed conflict, the lack of rule of law, human and drug trafficking, ecological devastation, economic stagnation and politico-administrative mismanagement are routine challenges.  


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. Borders are difficult to decipher as they are fluid, layered and ambiguous, with overlapping allegiances and stakeholders competing for power. The borders of Myanmar – both mountains and maritime – are not only presented in the book as linked to each other (in terms of their relationship with the Myanmar state and its neighbour, Thailand) but the difference of the landed border from the shifting nature of the maritime one (the sea’s changing boundaries) is also highlighted. Borders are perceived as having a ‘life’ of their own and not seen as an appendage. 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.


The first section of the book is an introduction to Myanmar’s border regions and has two essays. Nicholas Farrelly (“Electoral Sovereignty in Myanmar’s Borderlands”) begins by defining the four ways in which borderland constituencies are different from the heartland (their lack of easy connection, their strong links with neighbouring countries, their mountainous terrain and their role as harboring the Myanmar diaspora). A comparative national level approach is used by the author to argue that electoral sovereignty should be considered while re-imagining Myanmar’s borderlands. By touching on population and voter distribution, ethnic complexity and popular enfranchisement, Farrelly states that border regions (home to several ethnic groups) have either rejected national political institutions or fought for autonomy. The deficit in participation in the electoral process, poor infrastructural development and lack of connectivity (physical and emotional) with the central government needs to be rectified if a balance is to be created between local and the national interests. Maung Aung Myoe (“The Maritime Frontier of Myanmar: Challenges in the Early 21st Century”) focuses on the riparian borders of Myanmar by pointing out the challenges in the maritime frontier, including all the disputes of Myanmar with its neighbours: India, Bangladesh and Thailand. The political economy of fishing, including illegal fishing, overexploitation of marine resources and hydrocarbon extraction is discussed. Competition between domestic and foreign entities over Myanmar’s maritime frontiers makes us aware of the complex geopolitics of this region. Weak law and order in the coastal waters, sharing of revenues from the marine resources, less ethnicized politics of the sea (lack of institutionalised ethnic-based insurgency in Myanmar’s water frontier), and special economic interests are all stressed, thus emphasising the multiple players involved in Myanmar’s water boundaries.


The second section, titled “Territorial Claims and Imagined Boundaries,” consists of three essays, which help us to perceive better the notion of belonging and its ties with the imagined territories. Thus borders are not just in the physical realm but they are an intrinsic part of our collective consciousness. Maxime Boutry (“Burman Territories and Borders in the Making of a Myanmar Nation State”) argues that identity is fluid and the actual borders of Myanmar could be that of an imagined territory where it seems that the presence of the Burman identity is hegemonic. Thus these imagined borders within the state also create obstacles for achieving a unified Myanmar nation-state. He explains how the Burmans have integrated with the Moken (sea nomads of Austronesian origin), and thus the Burmanization process has been adapted; meanwhile the Burman migrant and the Mon have competing representations of territorialisation. He further elaborates on the manner in which the Burman “islanders” (in the Myeik Archipelago) and the Moken could (through intermarriage) negotiate their own imagined territories. Thus, the Burmans were successful in stretching their borders – both cultural and national.


Alexandra de Mersan tackles another side of the Myanmar border in her essay (“Ritual and the Other in Rakhine Spirit Cults”) by posing the question of what rituals convey about the current socio-political situation in Rakhine state. She presents an interesting history of the Arakan region, the origin of the Rohingyas and the important role of spirit (nat) cults. As cults are considered a reflection of the socio-economic context of the localities which celebrate them, it is interesting to note that the figure of kala in spirit cults is seen at the margins of the country (the word kala has been used to denote the outsider). Rituals thus express inter-relationships with a process of differentiation occurring amongst groups. This is especially relevant following the 2012 outbreak of violence in the state. Changing attitudes of the Rakhine towards the ‘other’ can be seen in the manner and pace in which rituals are changing and kala spirits are disappearing. These social practices give us insight into the intertwining aspects of territory, hegemony and belonging.


The issue of Rohingyas is discussed again in Anders Bjornberg’s essay (“Rohingya Territoriality in Myanmar and Bangladesh: Humanitarian Crisis and National Disordering”). He covers the process of exclusion and discrimination towards the stateless Rohingyas in both Bangladesh and Myanmar with the community being considered as an ideological and symbolic threat. The history of ethnic politics combined with the divide and rule policy in this region has aggravated the core-periphery exploitation; the effects of that history are still felt today. The essay deals with the challenges that the community faces along with the role of the UNHCR in addressing them. The Rohingyas are not embedded in the borderlands as a contested space but the issue of their existence itself raises questions as to established norms of nation, territory and its boundaries.  


The third section of the book deals with “Social Organization and Border Economies.” The Myanmar-Thailand border, a turbulent space which has witnessed the birth of a humanitarian economy is covered in two essays. Alexander Horstmann (“The Culture and Landscape of the Humanitarian Economy among the Karen in the Borderland of Southeast Myanmar and Northwest Thailand”) provides a detailed study of the emergence of humanitarianism marked by the presence of local and international organizations. This has triggered the strengthening of social support networks, which has positively impacted education, health and social welfare amongst the Karens. The essay covers the changing face of Mae Sot town, increasing activism associated with Karen nationalism and the Karen National Union (KNU), and the rise of non-state spaces including faith based organisations – international church networks. Here, humanitarianism has shaped the border economy and the border infrastructure. The same border is further studied by Su-Ann Oh (“Navigating Learning, Employment and Economies in the Mae Sot-Myawaddy Borderland”) whose essay focuses on the two economies – neoliberal and humanitarian operating at the Mae-Sot-Myawaddy border. It examines, on one hand, the efforts of Burmese migrants in acquiring cultural capital to gain employment; on the other hand, it looks at the hierarchical structures of economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital. She also describes the common educational trajectory, which includes schooling and training alongside employment in garment factories, or work with community and non-governmental organisations.

The fourth section is titled “Mobile Practices and Moving Borders” and highlights the networks and technologies that transcend the physical aspect of a territorial border, thus focusing more on the spatial, social and virtual dimensions. Karin Dean’s essay (“The Spatiality and Borderless-ness of Contentious Politics: Kachin Mobilities as Capability”) deals with mobilities (seen as capabilities) in the Kachin Hills that have provided economic, cultural, social and political opportunities across space and time. The second essay in this section by Jianxiong Ma and Cunzhao Ma (“The Mule Caravans as Cross-Border Networks: Local Bands and their Stretch on the Frontier between Yunnan and Burma”) provides a fascinating account of the role played by mule caravans in cross-border networking in the frontier between China and Burma – caravan as a form of local politics, as a way to set up social boundaries.


The next section, titled “Institutionalized Identity and Border Practices,” discusses the Indo-Myanmar and Myanmar-China borders. The essay by Bianca Son and N. William Singh (“The Chin State-Mizoram Border: Institutionalised Xenophobia for State Control”) delves into the economic and social discrimination that the Chins face in Mizoram, an intense xenophobia which is fostered and institutionalised by a few powerful civil society organisations. They explain not only the historical context and the nature of relationships formed across this porous border, but also reflect on illegal activities, social violence and the prevailing feeling of mistrust amongst communities. In another essay, Takahiro Kojima (“Tai Buddhist Practices on the China-Myanmar Border”) explores the relationship between the local Buddhist practices of the Tai people (who cross the China-Myanmar border) and the religious policies of the two countries. The movement of monks and holu (lay specialists in the recitation of Buddhist texts) from Myanmar into China (after the Cultural Revolution) was also the result of better local economic development in China and aspirations for a better life. The essay impresses upon us the expansive dimension of religious dynamism in the border areas, one that is affected by crucial interactions between political power and local practice.


Finally the book touches upon two aspects which are ever-present and changing in a borderscape: “Identity-Construction and the Politics of Belonging.” This section has four essays – each of them discuss ways in which stateless and displaced people of ethnic origin (Karen, Rohingya, Shan, Karenni) construct their identity and sense of belonging through memory, imagination and landscape. Decha Tangseefa in her essay (“I Want to Stay Forever in You”) focuses on how music is not only used as a tool by young Karen refugees to remember their nation, home, family, and freedom, but also to deal with uncertainty in the future. Music is considered as both soothing and strengthening in that it allows the Karens to unite through the intermingling of identity, memory and space. Kazi Fahmida Farzana (“Life along the Naf Border: Identity Politics of the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh”) comments on the use of visual art (drawings and paintings) by the Rohingyas to tell their children about their ‘desh’ (homeland) and their life of exile. Like the Karens, songs or taranas are widely used to build solidarity for rebuilding the homeland. Songs thus become non-confrontational instruments of resistance against oppression, making people aware of their powerless condition yet motivating the community to rise against domination. Amporn Jirattikorn’s (“Home of the Housekeeper: Will Shan Migrants Return after a Decade of Migration?”) essay on the Shan migrant community in Chiang Mai (Thailand) and Carl Grundy-Warr and Chin Wei Jun’s essay (“Moving On: Spaces of Engagement in the Kayah-Mae Hong Son Borderland”) on Karenni refugees who, suffering from land and resource dispossession, add to the narrative on border: a tale of ruptured or hardened identities and a permanent state of non-belonging.


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. Borders have shaped communities but so too have communities – impacted border-making. Culture and rituals, trade networks and economic zones, contentious politics and electoral success, refugees and homelessness are all covered in this book, creating a wide and engaging canvas for readers to explore. 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. It gently nudges us to remind ourselves that alternative and subaltern ways of functioning (without the imposition of mainstream conceptualisations) need to be truly welcomed for a democratic arrangement of power. Borders are ‘creative passageways’ which have always seen a continuity of flows (of people and goods). Chronic expression of cooperation and kindness has often overshadowed perennial conflicts and negative mind-sets. The lines of separation have existed more on the ground than they have in the heart. This should be seen as a symptom and a sign – of the desire of border communities to create different yet united and durable domains.    


Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).