The Art of Not Being Governed by Akha in Chiangrai – The Possibility of Zomia Arts – Part 1

Yuto Yabumoto

Photo: taken by the writer

1. Introduction - Can there be a ‘Zomia Art’?

Sally Price (1943-) and Richard Price (1941-) conducted field research on the Maroons, descendants of fugitive slaves in French Guiana, South America, and subsequently wrote Maroon Arts (1999). It is not only the Maroons who have attempted to elude governance of the state, but also the ‘Zomian people’ (further discussed below). Can the term ‘Zomia Arts’ be used in the same way that ‘Maroon Arts’ is used?

Anthropologist James C. Scott (1936-) in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, presented the idea of ‘the Art of NotBeing Governed’. In this paper, the writer will indicate an intersection between ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ and ‘Contemporary Art’. In the second chapter, Scott’s conception of ‘Zomia’ and its critique are organised, and the relationship between ‘Zomia’- which can be seen as an extension of the history of anarchist thought and ‘art’, is also clarified. Third chapter confirms the theory of ‘Zomia 2.0’ presented by anthropologist Alessandro Rippa through the case of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone across the Mekong River from Chiang Rai, Thailand, on the Laoation side of the border, and the writer’s criticism of it is presented. In the fourth chapter, in order to present an alternative ‘Zomia-ness’ that is not ‘Zomia’ as a neoliberal anarchic territory, the writer conducted a two-week filed research in Abae Village, Pa Kha Samakhi Village, and Phahee Village in Chiang Rai, Thailand in May and July 2023. Based on the field research in the Akha villages, and interviews with the Akha artist Busui Ajaw (1986-) and her artistic expressions, the writer has gone beyond ‘Zomia’ as an original concept of geographical location, and has developed and presented a new concept of ‘Zomia’: a trial theory of ‘Zomian Art’ as ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’.

  • Figure 1: Map of Zomia prepared by the writer on the views of William van Schendel (2002)

2. ‘Zomia’ and ‘Art’

(1) What is ‘Zomia’?

‘Zomia’ is a geographical concept that refers to the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, South-west China and North-east India[1] (fig.1), and ethnic minority hill tribes such as the Akha, Lahu, Karen, and Hmong are particularly recognised as ‘Zomian people’. Scott argues that the ‘Zomian peoples’ production skills such as slash-and-burn, social organisation based on myths, and animist beliefs, constant migration/displacement, and oral/illiterate culture, etc., are ‘the Art of Not Being Governed’ that they voluntarily chose in order to escape from, and compete with, the state. It also states that Southeast Asian Mountain societies are what Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) calls ‘Societies against the State’, and that this is of world-historical significance in the history of ‘anarchism’ of mountain societies that invoke the ‘art’ that makes ‘Zomia’ possible.

It is true that, in the present day, when history is often depicted from a national perspective, ‘Zomia’ has an appealing supranational utopian orientation, with ‘anarchy’ as the keyword. However, on the other hand, there is much criticism regarding the individual specifics of ‘Zomia’. For example, according to Lahu researcher Itsuki Kataoka, it is a historical fact that the Lahu have continued to seek kings (jaw maw) and states (mumi),[2] meaning that the ‘Zomian people’ have not necessarily abandoned a ‘state’. Moreover, as the French anthropologist Bernard Formoso (1957-) states; given the fact that there was an economically symbiotic relationship between the people of the plains and the mountain (hill tribe people), such as agricultural production of medicinal herbs and drugs, and mining development, etc.[3], the state and the Zomia were not always in a state of ‘confrontation’. In this sense, it cannot be said that the ‘Zomian people’ were necessarily ‘anarchists’, and the writer believes that Scott’s assertion may be extreme.

To begin with, the word ‘anarchy’ is derived from the Greek word “anarchos”, meaning “a state of absence” (an=no, arche=power). Derived from that same word, ‘anarchism’ is a political term that was originally defined as “a state with no government”. According to the French philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945), anarchy is defined as “the attitude of each individual who never accepts to submit to the dictates of the unprovable”[4] and seeks liberation from all political pressures that oppress the individual. The Russian political philosopher Pjotr Kropotkin(1842-1921), through his observations of wildlife in Siberia, also drew attention to the fact that living beings survive, not because they are thestrongest in a competitive society, but because they are beings that voluntarily establish relationships of mutual assistance with each other. As a result, he presented a ‘new understanding of anarchism’ from the dimension of ‘mutual aid’, as opposed to the original ‘definition of anarchism’. For instance, in the mountain village of Abae of the Akha people, which the writer visited, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and mountain people coexisted through markets, restaurants and educational facilities, and religious facilities such as churches, temples, and mosques were built to worship the different gods and spirits they believed in. In the restaurants in the market, people of several religions worked alongside each other, and food was served that appeared to be a mixture of their religion and location. This kind of place of mutual benefit/suffering co-existence is close to the image of ‘Zomia’ that the writer has in mind. In this sense, the ‘Semi-Zomia Zone’[5] described by Yukti Mukdawijitra, a Vietnamese mountain researcher from Thailand, is a place of refuge where people from plain and mountain people (hill tribe people), and those who live between the two,[6]  co-exist in a multilayered society in a place that boasts a mixture of the two different cultures. It seems more appropriate to consider them as ‘Zomia-like’ places.

From the above, the writer should not be too fixated on the word ‘anarchy’, but reinterpret ‘anarchism’ as ‘an attitude in which life forms with different conditions of existence, trying to build a mutually supportive co-existence without abandoning their own heterogeneity’, and the meaning of ‘Zomia’, with regard to the history of ‘anarchism’, should  probably be ‘newly interpreted and updated’ in accordance with the modern day situation. (In continuation in this paper, the word “Rewrite” is used in place of ‘newly interpret and update’.)

[1] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press (2009), pp.14-16. The term ‘Zomia’ itself was coined by Dutch historian Williem Van Schendel in 2002.
[2] Itsuki Kataoka, State and Power from the Perspective of Mountain Peoples: the Example of the Lahu.  Christian Daniels (ed.), Upland Peoples in the Making of History in Northern Continental Southeast Asia(The History and Culture of the Mountain Peoples of Mainland Southeast Asia), Gensousha, (2014), pp. 11-17.
[3] Bernard Formoso. Zomian or zombies? What Future Exists for the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif?, Journal of   Global History (2010), p.321.
[4] Paul Valéry, Kunio Tsunekawa  (trans.), Les principes d'anarchie pure et appliquee (Pure and Applied Anarchy Principles), Chikuma Shobo, (1986), p.14.
[5] Yukit Mukdawijitra, Semi-Zomia Zone: Highland States Viewed from Ethnic -minority-centred Vietnamese History, International Workshop Radically Envisioning a Different South Asia: from a Non-state Perspective, Kyoto University (2011), pp.18-19  
[6] The ‘between’ referred to here is not intended to be the between of poles, but rather a ‘place of mixing’ where diverse phenomena are mixed together.

(2) ‘Zomia’ and ‘Global Contemporary Art’

The writer believes that this act of ‘Rewritings’ is an important and key concept in considering the intersection between ‘Zomia’ and ‘art’. The Austrian artist Peter Weibel (1944-2023) defined ‘Rewritings’ as “a process in which all elements within a natural or social system are endlessly translated and renewed upon new meanings based on the interaction of their relationships”. Within this context, ‘art’ functions as a veritable magnifying glass to visualise the transformation of historical, ethnic, and cultural characteristics in different parts of the world caused by the global cultural economy, and at the same time, he also argues that ‘contemporary art and the contemporary world are part of a global rewriting programme’. Specifically, Weibel defined ‘Global Art’ as that which dynamically shows the traces of the confluence and influence of cultures in contemporary global society, where the meaning of all events is ‘rewritten’ by the interrelationships of global cultures and economies, etc.[7]

In terms of this definition of ‘art’, as in Claude Lévi-Strauss’(1908-2009) states that “mythic thinking produces variations across languages and cultures, communicating numerous materials to each other”, the functions of ‘art’ and the function of ‘myth’ are coming closer together. For example, in ‘Cosmo-Eggs’, which was exhibited in the Japanese Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura (1974-) created a new mythology about three eggs, which through their ‘art’, showed traces of inversion and substitution of reality and unreality, and spun a new narrative. The writer believes that, particularly in ‘Zomia’, this creative rewriting through ‘art/myth’ has functioned as an effective means of escaping modern strategies of inclusion (incorporation) by the state and powerful authorities. In the case of the Akha people, as Akha researcher Deborah E. Tooker states, through this creative practice, the Akha have reproduced an identity and a polity centered on ‘supra-secular forces’ distinct from modern national identities and polities in the pre-globalisation period. Whilst reproducing the identity and the polity, the Akha have avoided being subsumed under the state. In addition, the Akha’s ‘myth’ places emphasis on ‘performing’ through rituals, etc., rather than ‘believing’ religiously, and their ways of reproducing are always flexible and dynamic. ‘Transformability and Similarities between art and myth can be found there.[8]  

On the other hand, one international art exhibition that attempted to ‘rewrite’ ‘Zomia’ itself was the Asian Art Biennial, held in Taiwan in 2019, co-curated by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu-Nyen (1976-) and Taiwanese artist Hsu Chia-Wei (1983-), The Strangers from Beyond the Mountain and the Sea focused on the inherent ‘Zomia’ of the mountainous regions and the ‘Watery Zomia’ of the Sulu Sea. In the same exhibition, Chinese artist Liu Chuang’s (1978-) Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018) attracted particular attention. Through his video work, Liu presents images as if there were a magnifying mirror of the continuous transformation of the colonialism and extractivism  history in ‘Zomia’ from the past to the present.[9] Namely, this video work showed the state of the transformation of ‘Zomia’, which was a refuge for mountain peoples to hide in the clouds, become a place for investment by Bitcoin mining companies worldwide due to the industrial advantage there, brought about by the nearby power supply from hydroelectric plants, and its enormous rain cooling function. In this way, the viewer witnessed a condition, ‘Zomia’ being ‘rewritten’ in a modern way [10]as ‘art’.

[7] Peter Weibel, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds: Globalization and Contemporary Art, 900 Transnazionale 1, (2017), p.10,p. 20
[8] Deborah E. Tooker, Space and the Production of Cultural Difference among the Akha Prior to Globalization: Channeling the Flow of Life, Amsterdam University Press (2012), pp.37-38.
[9] Liu Chuang, Can Sound Be Currency?, Collected Papers of the 2019 Asia Art Forum and Artists Forum, National Taiwan, Museum of Fine Arts (2020), pp. 75-82.
[10] Hsu Chia-Wei, The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea, Collected Papers of the 2019 Asia Art Forum and Artists Forum, National Taiwan, Museum of Fine Arts (2020), p.36.

3. Modern ‘Zomia 2.0’ and the Akha's ‘Art of Not Being Governed’

(1) What is Zomia 2.0?

The aforementioned work by Liu can be said to be exposing the compatibility of the neoliberal economy and decentralised advanced technology with ‘Zomia’, as exemplified by the spread of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies in recent years. Anthropologist Rippa uses the example of the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone[11] (fig. 2) on the Laotian border side of the Golden Triangle to argue for the existence of ‘Zomia 2.0’- a haven for economic elites, that operates independently without the state, and is based on neoliberal ideology.[12]  The writer has been practicing law in Thailand and Laos for more than 10 years.[13]  Laotian Special Economic Zones (SEZs)  have been granted numerous exceptions regarding investment and land regulations, etc., through deals between foreign investors and local politicians. In this sense, the zones could be said to be a kind of ‘Zomia-space’, which, although located within Laotian territory, have their own autonomy on the periphery of state authorities.

Rippa’s ‘Zomia 2.0’ is significant because, like Scott, it extends ‘Zomia’ from its geographical meaning to ‘Zomia-ness’ as a mode of behaviour. However, no reference is made to the ‘art’ in ‘Zomia’, such as social organization, oral culture based on animism and mythology, etc. It seems too simplistic to argue that mere dealings with the government are ‘the Art of Not Being Governed’. The writer is apprehensive about  an easy definition of ‘Zomia 2.0’ based on neoliberal, and economic elitist ideas, and considers it may lead to a misunderstanding of the inherent characteristics of ‘Zomia-ness’. Rather, the writer, believes that the anarchist history and the ‘Art of Not Being Governed’ of ‘Zomia’ are not something that can only be activated by transactions between the state and economic elites, but a ‘transdisciplinary art’ that is activated in many/other beings, many/other places, and many/other dimensions, while intertwining elements such as mythology[14] and animism.

[11] This is a casino and real estate development project of approximately 10,000 ha to be developed and operated by the Kings Romans Group under a 99-year concession from the government in Bokeo Province, Lao PDR.
[12] Alessandro Rippa, Zomia 2.0: branding remoteness and neoliberal connectivity in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, Laos: Social Anthropology (2019), p.253.
[13] The writer is the founder of One Asia Lawyers, an Asian legal focused global law firm.
[14] Lévi-Strauss states that ‘mythical thinking’ is a liberator of protest (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Yasuo Ohashi (translator), ‘Wild Thought’, Misuzu Shobo, (1976), p.28), and refers to the relationship between myth and anarchism.

  • Figure 2: Golden Triangle SEZ seen from the Thai side beyond the Mekong River, Photo: taken by the writer

(2) In search of alternative Zomia-ness - contemporary art practices of the Akha people

In search of clues to an alternative ‘Zomia-ness’ or ‘Transdisciplinary Art of Not Being Governed’ that is not ‘Zomia’ as a neoliberal anarchic territory, the writer conducted field research in the Akha villages of Chiang Rai (fig.3). According to Cornelia Kammerer, the writer of Gateway to the Akha World, the earliest confirmed records on the existence of Akha communities in Thailand (in English) are from 1909, when the Akha, with their roots in Yunnan province, China, migrated to the mountains to escape from the state.[15]  However, according to Scott, it is likely that the ‘Zomia’ ceased to exist after World War II.[16] Indeed, in line with interviews conducted by the writer in villages of the Akha, almost no one has actually migrated in recent years, as settlement is required as a condition for issuing citizenship cards and passports in Thailand, and migration has been restricted by the Thai government’s forest protection policy. Naturally, migration within the state and industrial society, such as to Bangkok and other cities or to work overseas, does occur, but it may be difficult to call them ‘Zomian people’ today, as they were normally characterised by their flight from the state and authorities.

[15] Regarding the relationship between ‘animism’ and ‘anarchism’, as the writer states in ‘Animism in Zomia – Possibility of Anarcho-Animism’ (Bulletin of cultural study on Katachi no Bunka Kai), 2023, the writer believes that the two have mutually supporting role, and thinks it has a function. Also, as the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1951-) stated, ‘Animism is the ontology of a society without a state and a society that resists the state’, there may be a close relationship between animism and anarchism. The writer would like to further deepen this point in future research.
[15] Cornelia Kammerer, Gateway to the Akha World: Kinship, Ritual, and Community Among the Highlanders of Thailand, University of Chicago (1986), p.73 

  • Figure 3 (left): Beautiful village scenery of Pahi Village, Photo: taken by the writer

  • (right): People of Paka Village, Photo: taken by the writer

However, Hani-Akha researcher Tsutomu Inamura (1966-) notes that “the Zomia appears to be ‘historically’ wrong and oversimplified. Nonetheless, this is a cultural theory, a culture they have accumulated and developed as a result of their consequent flight from the state, and it is the tendency of the culture to be ‘the Art of Not Being Governed’ that is important. This is something I agree with as far as the Akha are concerned, if not all of the mountain peoples.”[17] In the cultural tendencies of the Akha described by Inamura, the writer believes that the ‘Transdisciplinary Arts of Not Being Governed’ may be partly alive today.

Interestingly, for example, during the fieldwork conducted by the writer, it was always possible to meet women embroidering outdoors in each village (fig.4). The vivid primary-coloured costumes of the Akha, coloured with various dyes from plants and trees, are made of different fabrics shaped into geometric patterns which are then sewn into the ground cloth, which are then embroidered with fine, colourful embroidery. According to interviews, although the embroiderers themselves are not aware of it, the bright colours and designs of the embroidery evoke images of forests, rivers, and snakes. In addition, creating these images and wearing those costumes at festivals may play a role in sharing the image of ‘being with’ nature and spirits. In this way, the embroidery and costume production of the Akha people is deeply connected to spirit (ne) belief and animism on a subconscious level.  It was confirmed that the ‘practice’ of the ‘art’ of maintaining the identity of the Akha is still alive today, transcending beings, time and place.

[16] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press (2009), p.ix
[17] Tsutomu Inamura, Ethnography of Ancestry and Resources: The Anthropology of the Hani-Akha People in Yunnan Province, China, Mekong, (2016), p.93. Here, Inamura refers to the Akha in Northern Thailand and Burma as the ‘Hani-Akha people’ who share identical origins and culture with the Hani in Yunnan Province, China.

  • Figure 4: Pahi village woman weaving an Akha costume while babysitting, Photo: taken by the writer

On the other hand, according to Akha researcher Micah F. Morton, in recent years, the Akha people have been trying to build a language system based on a common Akha alphabet in order to maintain their transnational and multi-locational identity.[18] Regardless of its merits or demerits, in resistance to this trend towards literalisation, the Akha-born artist Busui Ajaw is transmitting to the global world, through the non-literal visual medium of ‘art’, the beliefs and wisdom that is ‘handed down from the Akha ancestors’, which are now in the process of disappearing.

[18] Micah F. Morton, Negotiating the Changing Space of ‘Zomia’: Preliminary Discussion on the Role of Language in Akha Identitiarian Politics, Rian Thai: International Journal of Thai Studies Vol. 3, (2010), pp. 102-106