What’s in a claim? Making family, nation and territory in SEA
Part 1Session 1
Wed 11:00-12:30 Room 0.18
Part 2Session 2
Wed 14:00-15:30 Room 0.18
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Asserting membership in early modern Indonesia
Kathryn Wellen Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
While the restrictions of the modern nation state and its legal apparatuses make staking claims all the more urgent, claiming membership is nothing new in Southeast Asia. This paper looks at the way in which claims were made in various places in insular Southeast Asia during the early modern era. It begins in South Sulawesi where genealogies are likely to have been the first texts committed to writing during the 15th century. This is because genealogies were an important means of asserting membership and status. Secondly the paper looks at seventeenth century Sumatra where asserting a Malay identity afforded political advantages and asserting a Bugis identity could open professional doors. Dress, titles and ancestry were key to obtaining these privileges. The paper then turns to texts from Kalimantan and presents statements from Mempawa and Berau about membership in families. It examines the political consequences of these memberships in the context of west and east Borneo, respectively. Finally, the paper examines the dynamics of asserting identity within a diaspora in the absence of corporeal and religious difference.
Cutting Family Ties: announcements disowning kin in Cambodia
Cheryl Yin University of California, Berkeley
This paper examines Cambodian disownment through newspaper and social media announcements to ask: Why do Cambodians dissolve kinship claims through public announcements? Anthropologists have theorized that kinship, lineage, and genealogy are not merely biological; they are also social. From adoption (Clarke 2007), to organ donation (Sharp 2006), to artificial insemination and surrogacy (Roberts 2013), debates over who does—and does not—count as kin are not so clearcut (Feeley-Harnik 2019). Much of the literature on kinship focuses primarily on processes of inclusion or “kinning” (Howell 2006): how non-kin are integrated into the family when there is no prior lineage. What is rarely studied are the processes of exclusion or “dekinning” (ibid): how individuals are disowned and cast out of the family.
Cambodian disownment announcements tell us that breaking family ties is not as simple as drifting apart or cutting off all forms of communication. Cambodians must make their claims public so that others may know that—contrary to descent, genealogy, and blood ties—the social bond between them and their ex-kin has been severed. I further juxtapose disownment announcements with missing persons announcements in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) as Cambodians seek long lost relatives who were separated during the communist regime. What role do these announcements play in shaping kinship claims when they are used to both find missing family as well as separate from them?
Drawing Borders in Blood: DNA Testing, Citizenship Adjudication, and Statelessness ‘Preventions’ in Thailand
Amanda Flaim Michigan State University
Despite its authoritarian commitments, the Thai government is regularly lauded by UNHCR for its statelessness prevention and eradication efforts. Photographs of happy “hill tribe” youth receiving their national ID cards are widely circulated by both the Thai government and human rights advocates, and are often invoked as examples of “best practices” for statelessness prevention. A relatively recent hallmark of this highly celebrated agenda is DNA testing. How is this test performed and adjudicated, and what logics underlie a program that promotes citizenship verification via interrogation of blood? More importantly, what are the political and theoretical implications for pursuing these logics in citizenship adjudication? Drawing on more than a decade of ethnographic and survey research, I argue that DNA testing, while “verifying” the citizenship claims of thousands of individuals on case-by-case bases, also produces an increasingly powerful and expansive infrastructure of body/border drawing, maintenance, and surveillance. Moreover, the research indicates that even as state and humanitarian advocates applaud the “objectivity” of DNA tests in adjudication of citizenship claims, the DNA test is carried out in connection with a range of highly contingent, subjective, and uneven practices at individual, local, and bureaucratic levels. Ultimately, the logics that underlie the DNA test-as-citizenship-proxy are those of unstable and ever-incomplete state claims to ‘knowing,’ identifying, and ultimately (un)settling Indigenous and ethnic minority populations.
An Air of Legality – Legalization Under Conditions of Rightlessness in Indonesia
Christian Lund University of Copenhagen
Land rights are uneven in Indonesia as they favour government over citizens as rights subjects. Moreover, legal complexity and social inequality make legal knowledge about land rights rather inaccessible to small-scale farmers and the urban rank and file. Finally, the presumption of legality enables government institutions to acquire land and establish land control even if juridical settlements have been made against it. Despite these three forms of rightlessness, law and legalisation are important for ordinary people who experiment and improvise to legalize their claims. However, powerful government agencies - enjoying the presumption of legality - equally improvise and may undo ordinary people’s tenuous legal achievements. This generalised legal posturing and improvisation produces a paradox: People and government agencies refer to the law as if it is something fixed, but by doing so they effectively create law, fragment by fragment, constructing what they believe to be already there. And, crucially, such manufacture and persuasion of legality can have the effect of law.
Disputing and Documenting Claims to Property in Myanmar
Elizabeth Rhoads Lund University
Claims to Myanmar citizenship rely on kinship and residency, while claims to property rely on all the above. For some, formally documenting these ties through household lists, citizenship scrutiny cards, and registered deeds are the only way to make these claims. While for others, markers such as speaking Burmese language, or being perceived as taingyintha, may be enough in the absence of documentation to make local claims to citizenship, space, property, tenancies, and residency.
Those whose claims do not align with societal perceptions of who has a right to make property claims end up subverting cultural conventions of belonging in space through making legal claims through the use of courts, documents, and legal institutions. Yet, using documents to make claims against other more powerful actors or claims that counter societal perceptions of rightful or natural claimants, are not always successful. At a minimum, these strategies rely on a functioning legal system, or a will from authorities to accept claims for other reasons. Furthermore, legal claims to property, rather than providing consistency, perpetuity, and the ability to withstand regime change, are highly dependent on the authorities that enforce said claims.
Good Crop, Bad Crop: competing claims around the Mekong Region rubber boom
Juliet Lu University of California, Berkeley
In the uplands of northern Laos, rubber is mythologized. It is portrayed a silver bullet for developing the remote borderlands, stopping shifting cultivation, eradicating opium, and reforesting the uplands. In the 2000s, agribusiness investors and Chinese and Lao state officials promoted the crop based on these portrayals and a resulting rubber boom drove vast landscape transformations. By the 2010s, however, rubber became recognized as the Mekong Region’s top driver of deforestation and environmental organizations and downstream buyers of rubber called for a shift to sustainable rubber supply chains.
I suggest that these contrasting portrayals are symptomatic of a broader and problematic shift in how intensive agriculture is both promoted and governed. The erosion of borders and the globalized nature of agricultural trade and land investments has intersected with an emphasis on crop-specific policies and agricultural extension programs, catalysing massive crop booms. This crop-specific emphasis extends into environmental governance strategies which increasingly look to supply chain approaches centred on single commodities. I argue that this focus on single crops and the totalizing claims made about their inherent market, moral, and environmental characteristics distracts from approaches that better reveal system-wide drivers and landscape-scale impacts.
To each her own: Giving land back in Myanmar
Hilary Faxon University of California, Berkeley
Dispossession is the original sin in political economy. From North America to South Africa, land restitution has again acquired enormous urgency in the 21st century. But remedying past injustices through redistribution raises normative and procedural difficulties. Even with the desire to atone for a violent past, can states make things right by giving land back?
In Myanmar, a highly unequal society with a bloody history of land grabbing under a half-century of military dictatorship, restitution was closely tied to the promise of democracy. Until days before the 2021 military coup, the Vice President traveled the country announcing land returns, a powerful symbolic gesture of reconciliation. Yet ribbon-cutting ceremonies ignited new struggles over who the state would recognize as deserving. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research, I show that, in practice, getting land back looked a lot like having land grabbed: it was arbitrary, sudden, and dependent on local elites. To improve their odds in the context of competing claims, smallholders staged performances of property, presenting themselves as “original owners” “pure farmers” and “indigenous inhabitants” through documents, digital media, and embodied practices. The promise of property prompted claimants to position themselves as worthy while reinforcing the very relations of domination that redistribution might have transformed. These findings suggest that, rather than look to the past, we dream forward to forge new relations of land after revolution.
This panel explores how people in Southeast Asia make or dissolve claims, whether to place, people, citizenship, or identity. Amidst resurgent authoritarianism and a lack of robust legal institutions, claims-making often takes place beyond, beside, or outside the law. Public performances in newspapers, classrooms, scientific laboratories, farmlands and Facebook groups index ownership and belonging. The papers in this panel ask: how do actors assert and challenge ideas about kinship, property, citizenship and sovereignty? We are particularly interested in the ways in which claimants harness or subvert official rules and cultural conventions to (re)make claims, both from above and from below. When what is required ‘on paper’ or ‘by blood’ does not align with people’s everyday experience, they must find ways of making claims to the contrary. Using cases concerning family conflict in Cambodia, land restitution in Myanmar, DNA and citizenship in Thailand, and rubber plantations in Laos, we explore the multiple, dynamic ways in which state actors and everyday people forge claims about themselves and their social world.