The Battle Over Zomia

Scholars are enchanted by the notion of this anarchic region in Asia. But how real is it?

By Ruth Hammond

The region of Zomia had not been mapped for very long when people started quarreling over it. Political scientists, historians, geographers, anthropologists, and especially Southeast Asianists. Even a few anarchists weighed in.

Much of the most recent debate has been spurred by the Yale University professor of political science and anthropology James C. Scott, who describes the region in his latest book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2009). In the preface, he anticipates the criticism that will come "bearing down" on him for his unorthodox take on the practices of the region’s hill peoples: "I’m the only one to blame for this book," he writes. "I did it."

Two years later, the book’s already considerable reach is being extended with new foreign editions. "I’m delighted with the attention it’s gotten," says Scott. As for the criticism that keeps coming, in journals and at conferences, "I’ve got a thick skin."

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The Battle Over Zomia 1

Standee Pawan, OnAsia

A woman of the Akha people goes off to harvest coffee berries in northern Thailand.

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