Saturday, May 5, 2018

Part 2. The Anarchist State of Zomia

Olive's kingdom sits within the borders of Zomia, a state not defined by rivers or cattle paths, mountain ranges or the convergence of ethnic polity, but rather a narrow range of altitude between 400 to 4000 meters. Stretching across the mainland of Southeast Asia, China, India and Bangladesh it is not a state but how people organize themselves living in between, at the edges of, or far above the state. If it is a state at all, it is an anarchist one.

In these mountains, every step was either up or down. You could create a model of it by crumpling a piece of paper in the hand, relaxing the pressure, and tossing it on a table. Folds and creases, mountains and valleys but try to find a level surface.

The light of the sun shines bright, and reveals a terrain of grass plateau, pleasantly dotted with patches of jungle and streams which run across a range of limestone mountains, reappearing on the other side as coffee coloured rivers.

'To have the tribes, one must buy their opium.'

The mountain peoples of Zomia are nomadic, and would rather slash and burn the forest to grow their sweet grasses and tubers than raise rice in the valleys. The myths they tell over the hearth always mention that they lost their writing in their travels and never bothered to learn it again. In their mountain transience, the state was unable to pin and mount, coerce and tax. Without the Word, there were no names, families and houses to fill the ledgers of the succession of Burmese, Chinese and British administrators who dared venture into those vertiginous peaks.

Their nomadism was also expressed in their colourful, intricately embroidered dress told the history of written their people, written on their shirtsleeves and the hems of their skirts. The rings of necklaces they wore around their necks which made them seem strangely opulent was in fact a consequence of having to carry everything they owned on their person in case they had to abandon their villages.

Zomia could be thought of as a Southeast Asian Alps that sprawls across several nation states, a mountain kingdom like Switzerland at the periphery of Germany, France, and Italy that became its own nation state.

The highland farmers of Zomia earned a pittance for their poppies, but the un-natural capitalist relations the Chinese brought with them into the mountains turned opium into cash above and below. The poppy was another weapon of the weak against their fate, where craggy mountain passes above 1000 meters can bloom with the powder pink bulb, and its perfume can become a form of dreamy resistance against the state.

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