The Art of Not Being Governed

A classic book in contemporary anthropology that puts out an interesting thesis about the the reactionary lives of the peoples living in upland Southeast Asia (named 'Zomia', a mountainous region the size of Europe that consists of parts of seven Asian countries).

Central to the author James C. Scott's argument is the idea that the hilly and inaccessible terrain of upland Southeast Asia became a natural refuge for disparate groups that fled the imperial projects of the organized state societies in the lowlands (Qing dynasty, British Empire) which surrounded them, i.e. slavery, conscription, taxes and warfare.

In some way the book represents an “anarchist history,” as Scott evaluates why people would deliberately and reactively remain stateless. Among the strategies employed by the people of Zomia to remain stateless

"... are physical dispersion in rugged terrain; agricultural practices that enhance mobility; pliable ethnic identities; devotion to prophetic, millenarian leaders; and maintenance of a largely oral culture that allows them to reinvent their own histories as they are forced to move between and around states."

The book positions the reader in a way that makes you appreciate the inventive and sophisticated ways the different groups adapt to their changing external environment. This very much runs in counter to the 'bararian'-perspective previously perpetuated by the empires trying to subjugate them.

The 'Zomia' idea remains relevant today, as the civil war in Myanmar shows how different ethnic armed groups resist the lowland Bamar central government and effectively run their own societies in lands not marked on any map.

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