Zomia: the need to think beyond borders

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Remember the excitement you felt as a kid going abroad for the first time? When we grow up we are taught to think about the world as the map that hung in our classroom, neatly divided by national borders. Our identity is connected to traditions and a country.  But there are cultures that do not define such borders, or feel they belong to a specific country. To cope with the problem in Asia, Dutch scientist Willem van Schendel invented his own region: Zomia.

Willem van Schendel has been the first to acknowledge tribes in Asia that don't fit withing the structure of national borders. He came up with the definition of ‘Zomia’ as a tool to help study their society.

“Zomia is a fantasy name, made up by me in an article I wrote about borders,” Professor Van Schendel says.

In attempt to make the world more understandable, social scientists like to divide the globe in to regions. For Asia there is South Asia and East Asia, for example. Ideas about these regions are formed by the similarities the countries within them share. But Professor van Schendel argues that communities inhabiting the border areas of these regions are left behind. And if you want to study them you have to forget about the system of pre-set regions, he says.  

“Another region that we could define is the mountainous region that binds South Asia to East Asia,” says Van Schendel. 

This region is what he calls Zomia, derived from the word Zomi, which in the local language means ‘people that live in the mountains’.

Groups that don't fit in
“If you look at this region the first thing you’ll notice is that none of the ideas that can be assigned to South Asia work here,” Van Schendel explains. He continues by giving and example.

“The caste system is, to date, a very important part of South Asian society. But if you look at Zomia, in this region the people have never established such a system.”

One of the groups that Professor van Schendel has closely observed is the Naga people. This is a name used for a group of tribes living in the North East of India and parts of North Burma.

“This is a group that has never been Hindu, Islamic or Christian. Only after they were defeated by the British did they become Christians. The caste system to them is a foreign concept to them,” says van Schendel.

It is very problematic for these groups that they don’t fit in with the dominant structure of the region that they are supposed to belong to. In Zomia many of these minority groups are rebelling against the group that holds power in the region.

When India became independent in 1947, the Nagas felt that they had never been a part of India and did not desire to become a part of the new democracy. The Naga tribes declared themselves independent from the British Raj a day earlier than the rest of India, on 14 August 1947.

Today there is a ceasefire between the Indian government and Nagas living in the Indian state of Nagaland.  But their struggle is far from over.

The future of Zomia
Scientists in the region that Professor van Schendel defines as Zomia have started referring to the same name in their research work. It helps them understand that many problems in Zomia not only occur in one country. It they cross borders. 

A good example how defining countries based on borders instead of cultures can be problematic would be Pakistan, according to Professor Van Schendel. “If you look at Pakistan, it's a country that covers a part of the world. But if you look inside the borders of Pakistan one could question if you can call it a single society.”

Baluchistan, for example, Pakistan's largest state, has been a problem area for decades. Its people have never felt connected to the common idea of Pakistan. Since its formation the Balochs have fought against what they feel is oppression.  If you look at the area that they feel comfortable in it would spread over Eastern Iran, Southern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan

But if we don’t want to confirm to borders, how should we look at our world then? Professor van Schendel suggests we should think of groups and different cultures and let go of the borders we we're taught in school.