States of Fear in South East Asia

In Werner Herzog’s 1972 film ‘Aguirre: Wrath of God’ the protagonist, the deranged conquistador Lope de Aguirre, leads a small army of Spanish soldiers deeper into the Amazon in search of El Dorado. The further they push the more geographical friction they encounter. Without a nuanced knowledge of the landscape they become unable to replenish their food and the ecologically wise ‘natives’ utilise the geography to both defend themselves and attack the invading force. This increasingly oppressive geography is simultaneously a physical barrier, a metaphor for the darkness of man’s heart and a map for the protagonist’s internal psychoanalytical territory. The geography occupies a space between tangible reality and intangible conceptuality. While serving as a eulogy to demented colonialism, the film also reproduces a universal narrative theme. The state core pitted against geographical constructions, the state power attempting to project power outwards and ‘up stream’. Conflicts both aided and hindered by their surroundings. Maybe it reminds one of Hemmingway’s Guerrillas, seeking refuge in the Spanish mountains. Or Algerian anti-colonialists embedded in Pontecorvo’s labyrinthine city in ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Man’s political utilisation of space is an often replicated narrative and historical archetype. Maybe if one was to look at Burmese history they would see a culture of hill peoples, culturally and politically opposed to the valley population. Or maybe one would see Mount Popa’s significance, not only militarily (it provided shelter for the deposed King Kyansittha’s army in the 9th century), but spiritually as “‘a hallowed ground of Victory’ whose very touch would give success to ‘men of endeavour’ in their ‘mighty undertakings’ (Aung M. 1962:62). It doesn’t take long especially with Burma to find and interplay between space and power, between geography and politics. As Baroness Young said in a speech to the School of Geography in Oxford,

“human history itself is all about the changing patterns of human response to our physical surrounding and natural resources- the soil, animal and plant life- and how we have exploited them; and what we have done to overcome or take advantage of major natural obstacles, rivers, canyons and mountains. So politics and geography are inevitably and irrevocably inter-twined” (Young J. 1987:391).

Battle of Algiers and Aguirre Wrath of God – Geographical friction on film


Burmese ethnography and historical record shows that its geography creates political systems, provides the tools with which to act out political systems and thus reproduces the political systems. Geography is a foundation of Burmese politics and as a result, the catalyst for political antagonisms and conflict. Geography exists physically, it can be moulded and diverted. It also exists culturally, forming a conceptual putty that can be socially sculpted and act as a repository for cultural artefacts and collective memory.

In pursuit of a Burmese Geo-politics, we find the classic ethnography Edmund Leach’s ‘Political systems of highland Burma’. Leach Identifies highland Burma as being a dialectical interplay between Kachin and Shan tribal systems. It should be noted that this interplay is between political systems not tribes themselves. As Leach reveals, the boundaries between Kachin and Shan tribes are ephemeral and sometimes non-existent. It should also be noted that the relationship between the systems is dialectical and not binary, implying that a synthesis between the two systems can and does exist. Leach notes that Kachin communities;

“…oscillate between two polar types- gumlao ‘democracy’ on the one hand, Shan ‘autocracy’ on the other. The majority of actual Kachin communities are neither gumlao nor shan in type, they are organised according to a system described in this book as gumsa, which is in effect, a kind of compromise between gumlao and shan ideals.” (Leach, 1954: 9)

Gumlao is an expression of autonomy most often associated with the Kachin that differentiates themselves from the Shan but as stated by leach, there is an oscillation (synthesis?) between the anarchistic, equalitarian Kachin system of Gumlao and the feudal hierarchy of the Shan system, the result of which is Gumsa. Gumsa is mediation between two political systems. On study of a Burmese court hearing, Leach notes that the “witness considered that for the past 70 years or so all his family have been simultaneously Kachins and Shans” (Ibid: 2). Or as he later elaborates,

“it is not uncommon to meet an ambitious Kachin who assumes the names and title of a Shan prince in order to justify his claim to aristocracy, but who simultaneously appeals to gumlao principles of equality in order to escape the liability of paying feudal dues to his own traditional chief” (Ibid: 8).

The theoretical Gumlao system involves a territory called a Mung comprising of villages of equal status, none of which have structural power over the other. Within the villages there is also no hierarchical structure, making Gumlao effectively classless. As a result debt is never owed to village headmen. Gumsa has a hierarchy of villages, and lineages within the villages are ranked. Leach notes that Gumsa communities evolve features that “lead to rebellion, resulting, for a time, in a gumloa order” yet Gumlao communities “usually lack the means to hold its component lineages together in a status of equality”. And thus the Kachin are in a state of flux, or to use Leach’s apt metaphor, a state of “oscillation”. The exception to this cyclical theory is when Gumlao communities are “centred around a fixed territorial centre such as a patch of irrigated rice terraces” (Ibid: 204). This attachment to a concrete geographical feature appears to prevent Gumlao systems collapsing under the weight of their own egalitarianism. Although Leach doesn’t explain this relationship between geography and politics he does go part of the way to acknowledging geography or environmental factors as key factors in the evolution of Burmese political systems. Leach splits geography into “Physical Environment”, or the multitude of “resources and means of production which supply thee basic means of subsistence” (Ibid: 228), and the “Political Environment”, or political history. Leach cleverly transmutes something that is conceptually temporal (history) into something that is conceptually spatial (environment). In doing so it is made clear that Leach understands geography and environment to be heavily loaded with cultural artefacts such as collective political history. The environment is temporal and spatial, conceptual and Vs physical.

The anthropologist James C. Scott continues Leach’s legacy and tries to fill in the blanks on the nature of the space/power relationship in his study of upland Southeast Asia, ‘The Art of not Being Governed’. Scott identifies within Burma, state cores and semi-autonomous peripheries. Scott ascribes, to the region, the dialectical process of history, a continual antagonism between projects of state craft and outside rebellious tribes. This dichotomy is not too dissimilar to Leach’s comparison between the Shan and Katchin. Now we are speaking in geographical terms, Scott can go some of the way to explaining why autocratic political systems gravitate to valleys. Scott’s main conclusion is that the valleys are the only physical place in which states can flourish, the ideal “state space”. If these state cores were to try and project their power into more inaccessible territories they would meet what Scott refers to as “geographical friction”. Imagine the amount of man power, infrastructure and geographical knowledge it takes for states to exist. Now imagine the state trying to exist in an inaccessible terrain. Supply chains being cut off in the dense jungle, splinter populations not paying taxes, a severely lacking cartographical method. Beyond the nice uniform, taxable boundaries of valley state space, the state is effectively blind. This geographical friction, although not preventing human access, prevents state access and thus crude borders are created. As Scott says “settlements that may be three hundred or four hundred kilometres distant over calm, navigable water, are far more likely to be linked by social, economic, and cultural ties than settlements a mere thirty kilometres away over rugged, mountainous terrain” (Scott, 2009: 47) or put simply ‘easy’ water ‘joins,’ whereas ‘hard’ hills, swamps and mountains ‘divide’ (Ibid: 45). This geographical border doesn’t prevent the movement of people but does prevent the movement of certain cultures (i.e. state culture). It is a fascinating concept to think that certain political systems and social structures are just incapable of traversing certain geographical obstacles. Is it possible that more autonomous tribes such as the Kachin could have utilised this geographical filter to their advantage? It must certainly have played a role in the formation of upland political systems. But as Scott understands, the borders created are not just topographical entities but culturally malleable conceptions

“the degree of friction represented by a landscape cannot simply be read off the topography. It is, to a considerable degree, socially engineered and manipulated to amplify or minimise that friction… Friction is not simply ‘there’ in some mechanical way; it is constantly being sculpted for one purpose or another…” (Ibid: 166).

Scott notes that many guerrilla tactics involve the manipulation of this geographical friction to their advantage.

The valley is not only naturally demarcated as state space by frictional borders but it also provides a hospitable place for agrarian projects. It’s interesting that Leach talks about political systems falling apart when wet rice cultivation is not at the centre because Scott has a related theory about how rice paddies becomes the state core because rice is an immensely practical, and stable crop for state political systems to build themselves on,

“wet-rice cultivation provides the ultimate in state-space crops. Although wet-rice cultivation may offer a lower rate of return to labor than other subsistence techniques, its return per unit of land is superior to almost any other Old World crop. Wet rice thus maximises the food supply within easy reach of the state core” (Ibid: 42).

Rice Paddies provide a geographically concrete entity that political entrepreneurs can easily co-opt to their own means. Such a centralised ideology of statism not only leads to the homogeneity of food production but also of culture and religion. Scott explains that the valley states are not just topographically flat but also can be thought of as having been “culturally, linguistically and religiously flattened… the flattening of religious practices was, then, a project of the padi state to ensure that the only other kingdom wide institution of elites besides the crown’s own establishment was firmly under control” (Ibid: 155). To continue the metaphor of a state squashing culture flat, it could be seen that the autonomous regions are the cultural juice that seeped upland when the state flattening process was enacted. The heterogeneous assortment of religions and languages that were not tolerated by the state amalgamated in upland territories. “The Shan Buddhist may represent something of a living historical archaeology of dissident Buddhist sects suppressed and expelled from the Burmese heartland over the past few centuries” (Ibid: 157). The very identity of semi-autonomous tribes is defined in reaction to the geographical and cultural hegemony of state cores. After all,autonomy isn’t autonomy without autocracy to be autonomous from.

Foucault was bemused at “how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historic-political problem, Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to nature… it was analysed as soil or domain” (Foucault, 1988: 149). Scott understands how space is as much culture as it is ‘soil’.

Lowland geography has led to the formation of a state centre. It allows for the ideal state crop and for easy subjection of peoples. The upland areas are a natural escape from the state centres and thus help to form autonomous political systems. The very act of living in an upland area is a symbolic act in resistance to the stag. The upland lowland divide helps to reproduce the culture and political systems of Burma. But what of a more contemporary study? Rice is still the main crop of Burma but people are increasingly living within urban environments. What is the effect of Urban geography on Burmese politics, especially in relation to the current Junta that controls Burma?

One could split Urban Burma into its own Hill-Valley dichotomy. Open boulevards and grid system roads provide easily controllable state space while more labyrinthine alleyways and interconnected houses provide spaces for resistance and autonomy. Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s refurbishment of Paris was in effect designed to make Paris more controllable, more efficient, to get rid of the mediaeval labyrinths and build grand boulevards where state can become omnipresent. Scott, in his earlier study into statecraft, puts it thusly “the logic behind the reconstruction of Paris bears a resemblance to the logic behind the transformation of old-growth forests into scientific forests designed for unitary fiscal management. There was the same emphasis on simplification, legibility, straight lines, central management, and a synoptic grasp of the ensemble.” (Scott 1998: 59). “Much of European state craft” Scott tells us “seemed similarly devoted to rationalising and standardising what was a social hieroglyph into legible administratively more convenient form” (Ibid: 59). Calling cities a social hieroglyph is a convenient if not accidental metaphor. The state requires knowledge of the city for the purposes of taxation and subjugation. Knowledge that without which would blind the state. It must decipher the social hieroglyphs. Extraction of this knowledge requires a method of mapping the social and conceptualising social knowledge as a topographical landscape. In other words, the spatialisation of knowledge. Foucault tells us that the spatialisation of knowledge was the process that defined the formation of European science:

previously, the rule had been to study and classify plants purely on the basis of what could be seen… all the traditional elements of knowledge, for example the medical function of plants, were abandoned… the object was spatialised to the extent that the classificatory principles were to be found in the structure of the plants themselves: the number of the elements, their arrangement, their width, and certain other elements such as the height of the plant” (Foucault, Trans: West-Pavlov, R. 2009: 115).

Foucault’s Spatialisation of Knowledge



The art of statecraft is the art of taking social facts (on kinship, religion, exchange etc) that exist in the present and projecting them onto the geographical terrain. Where autonomous hill peoples understand their social relations in the present, the Urban state sees social relations on a spatial map. Family names become genealogical trees, households become points on a grid system and one’s personal exchanges exist in the network of a planned economy. The urban geography becomes a living map for social processes. The City is both the map and the territory. Without this Foucauldian spatialisation of knowledge, totalitarian states would be unable to function.

Urban Burma is most definitely a totalitarian environment. The uniformity of the rice paddi has been replaced by uniformity of concrete. The totalitarian political systems that exist in this space are highly exaggerated forms of statism. It is a logical extension of state control. George Orwell, the one of the best sociologist-who-wasn’t-actually-a-sociologist, begins to map the dynamic of totalitarian systems in his analysis of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s travels’

“(A Houynhnhnm, we are told is never compiled to do anything, he’s merely “exhorted or ‘advised)… This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of society. In a society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion.., is less tolerant than any system of law. When they [human beings] are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else… they had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organisation” (Orwell, 1946).

This “exhortation” is identified by Sheila Fitzpatrick in ‘Everyday Stalinism’ Stalin, rather than commanding, produces signals that “indicated a shift of policy in a particular area without spelling out exactly what the new policy entailed or how it should be implemented” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 26). Slavoj Zizek elaborates on this in ‘The Ongoing Soft Revolution’ “the ambiguity was thus total: a local official confronted by a general unspecified order, was it ; caught in the unsolvable dilemma of how to avoid being accused of leniency but also to avoid being scapegoated as responsible for the ‘excesses’.” (Zizek 2004: 302). On the flipside Zizek also identifies the excess of laws within totalitarian societies in his essay ‘Denial the Liberal Utopia,

“a ruler has to have at his disposal an excessive number of laws which, although each of them is in itself public, clear and unambiguous, partially contradict each other; with such a complex framework of laws where a submission to one law readily brings into conflict with another… a mere accusation finds almost anyone of any station in violation of something” (Zizek, 2004).

The totality from which totalitarianism derives its name is revealed but what is also made clear is how totalitarian systems rely on individual fear as a means to hold structure and reproduce itself. Fear proves fertile ground for psychoanalysts yet remains an enigmatic concept for the anthropologically minded and a coherent ‘anthropology of fear’ has yet to be formed. lthough fragments of such a theory do exist. Monique Skidmore’s study of Terror in Urban Burma directly links fear to the totalitarian state, “Fear is the most common emotion constructed by the regime. At times its generation is an incidental unplanned side effect of the regime’s policies, but the majority of the time, the regime deliberately uses strategic and symbolic violence to engender fear and terror” (Skidmore 20.10). The regime literally saturates the country in paranoia and fear as one of Skidmore’s informants elucidated -v “paranoia is so widespread you don’t think about it anymore. We all live in this delusion.”

(Ibid: 10).

Skidmore concludes that there is a connection between the constructions of fear in Burma and the temporal, “As a response to a future possibility, it [fear] is inherently temporal. In generating fear the military confuses, distorts, and controls time with the aim of stopping Burmese people from imagining futures other than the one mandating their incorporation into a totalitarian state” (Ibid: 10). But what if Skidmore didn’t look at just the temporal connections to fear? Other anthropologists have found a greater connection to space. Manuel Antonio Garreton, in his study on state terror in South America, claims that “When the state is omnipresent and the society is underground or submerged (when society actually is “underground”), the struggle against fear tends to be individual and atomised, and people seek refuge in the most intimate nucleus, the primary group.” (Garreton, 1992: 20). Aung San Su Kyi as written that “the greatest obstacle in the way of peace and progress in Burma is the lack of trust” (1997: x) As Skidmore elaborates “The military dictatorship… manages to isolate Burmese people into small knots of friendship” (Skidmore, 2003: 15-16).

A hypothesis could be formed that states that the regime in Burma uses fear to push social geography into internal realms. Where one would normally play, communicate socialise in open spaces, they are now forced into “small knots of friendship”. Fear is unable to sublimate into expressive social acts in geographical spaces, instead the oppressive state causes tensions to play out in private. Gan-eton Highlights how locals can also use spaces to alleviate this fear “[The Church] provide[s] a space to re-establish links and regroup, and they gather and diffuse information about what is happening in order to lower levels of uncertainty” (Garreton, 1992: 20). 19th century Asylum architects understood this need to isolate in order to control, “care and or treatment of the mentally ill has always proceeded from fundamental principles of isolation and separation of individuals in space.” (Dear, Clark, 1984: 67). Like with the construction of asylums, totalitarian regimes construct and plan cities to their advantage and along with heavy control of other cultural phenomena such as time, the junta manage to subordinate the Burmese populace.

In conclusion, the geography in Burma is a cornerstone on which politics is built. Whether it’s the autonomous tribes who use geography to evade the state, lowland state cores who utilised the land in order to hold power or the contemporary junta whose grip of totalitarianism is propped up by the oppressive urban environment, Geography acts as a skeleton to political systems but also as a mechanism by which the systems are reproduced.



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