Entanglements of Connectivity and Containment: Dispossession, Mobility, and Differentiation in Contemporary Southeast Asia
Part 1Session 4
Thu 09:00-10:30 Room 3.09
Part 2Session 5
Thu 11:00-12:30 Room 3.09
- Adam Saltsman Worcester State University
- Alexander Horstmann Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
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Differential accumulation: (dis)connection along a logistical frontier
Geoffrey Aung University of Vienna
Along Asia’s capitalist frontiers, major logistical infrastructure projects promise a new era of connectivity premised on the smooth flow of goods, capital, and labor. Yet from China to Myanmar and beyond, emergent port, highway, and economic zone projects capture and contain displaced people in striking ways: labor camps, refugee camps, resettlement villages, and more. Some displaced people find themselves spatially enclosed to provide steady sources of labor for new infrastructure projects. Others compose growing surplus populations, facing conditions more marginal to circuits of production and accumulation. This spectrum of differential accumulation presents a shifting assemblage of connections and disconnections, mobilities and immobilities. While building comparisons to Uyghur encampment in Xinjiang, China, and economic zone projects in central and western Asia, this paper’s focus is a port and economic zone project tied to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which has shaped the displacement and dispossession of Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in western Myanmar.
Vernacular Resistance in the Borderlands of Thailand and Myanmar
Alexander Horstmann Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
My paper looks at silent, non-heroic acts of resistance of indigenous people from the Karen and Shan communities moving to Thailand from Myanmar to the development programs and violence from state agents, humanitarian agents and capital investors who try to manage and contain them (Scott 1990). My paper describes the rural Angst (Turner 2009) that was produced in the semi-democratic (but authoritarian) period before the coup, the impact of modernization on the life of communities, and the increasing popular protest the devastating effects of resource exploitation on livelihood. The paper describes the mafia-style strategies of state agents that have only worsened after the coup, and the increasing “vernacular” resistance against the brutalities of the state. The paper also describes alternative ways of the resource management by the communities and the impact of modernization and social and military control on the livelihood of ordinary people and on their aspirations to make a living in these times. “Vernacular” (Brkovi? 2020) thus describes local and humanitarian efforts to control one´s own livelihood. In the center is the vulnerability of the ordinary people caught in this moment, but also their resilience (Kulick).
Water in One Hand, Fire in the Other: Coping with Multiple Crises in Post-Coup Myanmar
Ardeth Thawnghmung University of Massachusetts Lowell
How do people who have become accustomed to a relatively open political system respond to a sudden relapse into political authoritarianism and multiple socio-economic crises? What factors influence individuals to adopt different strategies? This research discusses how different groups within the population responds to multiple crises caused by the military coup and the economic and social consequences arising from multiple waves of COVID-19 in Myanmar. It focuses particularly on the range of actions taken by the ‘silent majority’ to shed light on nuances that exist among various ‘survival’ strategies and assesses the implications for individual and collective welfare, state capacity, and democratic systems and practices.
Assemblages of Care and Exploitation: Reflections on Humanitarian Projects of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice in the Thai-Burmese Borderlands
Adam Saltsman Worcester State University
In 21st century Southeast Asia, where forms of capital accumulation and dispossession are part of everyday life for a growing segment of the population, questions of emergent political subjectivity are increasingly relevant. While much of the literature tends to focus on the division of labor and social hierarchy to analyze and theorize on this topic, less attention is paid to the role that discourses of care and aid play in the assemblages of governance with which dispossessed or surplus populations must grapple. Both the division of labor and regimes of care are part of how capital, the state, and the subject relate to one another, and both are part of the story of accumulation, differentiation, mobility, and immobility in Southeast Asia. In this paper, I draw on more than a decade of research from the Thai-Burmese border to consider the ways in which humanitarian discourses of care and women’s empowerment are part of broader assemblages of governance that structure precarious labor among Burmese migrants in border towns and rural areas there. I also look at the ways in which migrants themselves frame humanitarian intervention as part of their everyday efforts to get by and manage social conflict.
Becoming immobile: Legal precarity and labour exploitation amongst Myanmar agricultural migrant workers along the Thai-Myanmar border
Aung Htun Lin Social Action for Children and Women
Sofie Mortensen University of Copenhagen
Located on the border to Myanmar, the Phop Phra District is one of the most important agricultural areas in Thailand. Rich soils, a mild climate, good infrastructure and cheap, largely undocumented migrant laborers attract farmers from all over Thailand that engage in various crop production such as maize, chili, vegetables, fruits and flowers. With farm sizes spanning from five to several 100s of rai, the famers employ a range of permanent and seasonal workers, predominantly landless people from rural areas around Bago, Myanmar. Many come as families with the hope to save up, buy land, build a house and return to Myanmar. However, while the journey to Thailand is fairly easy and cheap, the labor and legal conditions make it very difficult to save up and thus to return. Indeed, the character of the border and the migrants’ mobility change significantly once they arrive in Thailand where many find themselves in a new position of immobility, presently compounded by underemployment and rising debts during COVID19. In this paper, we explore what causes this immobility and how an intricate system between employers, local police as wells as Thai immigration policy and officers keep the migrant workers in legal precarity and poor work conditions that include monthly police protection fees, frequent raids and salaries below half of the minimum wage. We address how this is a part of larger capitalist processes that rely on the accumulation and free movements of labor, whilst at the same time ensuring control over migrants’ mobility, disposability, exploitation and deportability (De Genova, 2002; Fassin, 2011; Proglio et al., 2021; Walia, 2013). While we recognize the agency of migrant workers in Phop Phra, we also consider how this is very constrained by the conditions and lack of support from international and local organizations that tend to center their support for migrant rights in Mae Sot. The paper draws on 80 life story interviews and 20 photovoices with women and men migrant workers, in addition to interviews with community leaders, schoolteachers, local authorities and employers, conducted during December 2021 and January-February 2022.
In 21st century Southeast Asia, multiple overlapping forms of accumulation, dispossession, and mobility are intimately linked to the region’s economic integration in dynamics of global capitalism and to state spatial practices that engender precarity at the same time they aspire toward connectivity. One finds these patterns across the region, including in Special Economic Zones and in urban spaces amidst development projects that transform the built and natural environments, displacing lower-income residents while projecting images of employment opportunities, and luxury and middle class lifestyles (Harms 2016). As well, borderlands in mainland Southeast Asia have long reflected sites of displacement, precarious labor, transportation and logistics nodes, and infrastructural projects aimed at creating productive linkages for capital (Campbell 2018, Hirsch 2009, Glassman 2010). Amidst these trends there are numerous logics that reflect expert knowledge deployed to govern the populations and relations that are surplus to national and regional imaginaries, that feature as disposable or flexible labor, or, conversely, those who constitute a desired market (Li 2016). These include the logics of investors, developers, and employers, but also humanitarian actors, development agencies, and local authority figures who are all, at times, “managing” the same populations.
In this panel, we seek to explore the myriad entanglements that lie at the intersection of these logics in Southeast Asia, and analyze, in particular, the ways in which communities and individuals who are grappling with dispossession and insecurity in various contexts navigate forms of governance that coalesce as assemblages that imply a kind of precarious political subjectivity. At the heart of our focus is an interest in the contradictions that ensnare the very idea of connectivity in Southeast Asia. That is, at the same time that infrastructural and logistical plans and development offer an imaginary of borderless economic corridors and urban centers buzzing with global linkages, this panel’s various papers note the numerous ways in which populations encounter the kinds of disconnection, differentiation, “social separateness,” and incommensurability that accompany capital accumulation (Gilmore 2002, Melamed 2015). And yet, as we show, populations rendered separate, surplus, or “non-market subjects” maintain and produce alternative forms of connectivity that, ultimately, are part of the constellation of relations and discourses which play a role in the production of social space.