29 Feb

Map of the Week: Zomia and Geographies of Ignorance

By: Phoebe Hill

Millions of people carve out unique ways of life amongst the high ground and mountain peaks of the upland regions of Asia. Taken together, such upland peoples number more than the population of modern Malaysia and have long played a vital role in facilitating transnational and transregional trade networks. Despite their demographic might and historical importance, such peoples have been victim to what Dutch social scientist Willem van Schendel terms “geographies of ignorance”, falling through the cracks of academic inquiry. In 2002, recognising the shortcoming of modern Asian Studies, van Schendel coined the term Zomia to refer to the upland Asian region and its peoples.

Seen on the map, Zomia roughly corresponds to the region known geographically as the Southeast Asian Massif, or the uninterrupted stretch of mountain peaks and valleys that runs from the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet to the Annam Cordillera in Vietnam and Laos. Originally proposed to match the area seen in red on the map, van Schedel later expanded Zomia to include the blue area. Stretching across an area the size of Western Europe, the Southeast Asian Massif encompasses a startling diversity of cultural, linguistic and economic forms and more than 200 indigenous groups. 

Despite such diversity, van Schender and others have identified a set of key characteristics that the people of Zomia share: sparse populations, historical isolation, and the threat of domination by a central state. James C Scott, professor of political science at Yale, builds upon the concept in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed, showing that rather than being left behind by civilisation, the people of Zomia actively resisted state-building projects including taxation, slavery and repression. Whether it was purposeful or circumstantial, it is clear that the people of Zomia are linked together by their common distance from centres of political power. 

While the concept of Zomia has drawn criticism, it remains important for opening up transnational lines of inquiry. Some argue Zomia erroneously lumps together millions of people who lack a common cultural or political identity, and it is difficult to deny the startling cultural, economic, social, and even environmental diversity within Zomia. However, Zomia’s strength is as a scholarly frame of understanding, not as a concrete regional label. Many of the peoples in Zomia stretch across borders, pre-dating the establishment of modern nation-states. Because of this, a focus on the nation has long mischaracterized or plain-out ignored the upland peoples of Asia, painting them as insignificant, uncivilised mountain minorities. In embracing transnational perspectives, Zomia transcends the restrictive majority/minority or civilised/uncivilised binaries to better understand long-neglected peripheral peoples. 

Since its inception, Zomia has served as a key tool for generating transnational inquiry and debate within Asian Studies and beyond. However, in light of contemporary trends including the rapid development of information and communication technologies and power projection efforts of states in the region, change appears to be in store for the peoples of Zomia. Nevertheless, returning to the work of James Scott, modernisation and state-building efforts are unlikely to proceed without resistance.