Hindsight is a wondrous thing. Back in the day, once upon a time, right at the beginning, I didn’t quite realise that my own academic interests were taking root in soil that had, for many years, been cultivated by others. It is a peculiar, but common, aspect of most immature scholarly ambitions: we only have a vague inkling of where things began, or who came before, or what started things off. In my case I came to realise, over time, that for my own academic formation it was the Thai-Yunnan project, and Ajarn Gehan Wijeyewardene, and Ajarn Ted Chapman, that came before. Sadly, I never met either of them.
For today’s discussion, I think it worth considering our anthropological ancestors and their careful stewardship of the ideas, concepts and research strategies that we now, so often, take for granted.
My brief presentation seeks to examine how it is that the study of Southeast Asian borderlands has germinated on this campus, and what that means for those of us who are seeking to find newly fertile fields for their research. This treatment is deliberately integrative. It is partly anecdotal, partly grounded in real research, and also occasionally gripped by my own flights of fancy. That, after all, has been one of the basic orientations that Thai-Yunnan inspired work on this Australian National University campus and beyond.
Let us start, as we often do, with Thailand. The Thai-Yunnan project was forged by scholars who knew Thailand intimately and sought to latch on to the political and social transformations that the end of the Cold War created. From the vantage of northern Thailand, ground zero for Thai-Yunnan, it made sense to look north, and east and west, in the expectation that different research strands could be profitably pursued. Yet in all of those directions the flows and possibilities were interrupted by borders. The notion of a borderless realm, ala the Zomia of Jim Scott’s 2009 “anarchist history”, was nowhere to be found.
Thailand, since then, has rumbled along in its usual fashion: coups have caused new consternation but the Thai society of today is one that earlier generations of Thai-Yunnan academics would recognise well. Indeed, they wrote about “Thailand since the coup“, just as we do. The gadgets and high octane modernity change some of the cosmetic impressions but, behind them, the building blocks of Thai society – hierarchy, obedience, violence, impunity, materialism, loyalty, pride, scheming and so on – are as apparent as ever. For studies of Thai-Yunnan these elements, arguably some of the classic tropes of lowland Southeast Asian civilisation, offer a certain timelessness to our studies of society, culture and politics. I’m not much for the romantic, but I see something in the Thai-Yunnan project’s early output that resonates today, and with what came before.
To put such history in its appropriate frame, let us turn to Myanmar, or Burma as the earlier generations consistently knew it. During the phases of research most commonly associated with the Thai-Yunnan project, Myanmar remained an enigma: research permission was almost impossible to come by and there were few of the institutional hooks that made Thailand, by comparison, hospitable ground. This has changed during recent decades, and those of you who follow conditions closely will appreciate that academic freedom in Thailand is nowadays much constrained. Even foreign researchers, so long able to come-and-go from Thailand as they pleased, are faced with stark choices about their work’s public presentation. There are those who hold academic appointments, and specialize in the study of that country, but can no longer get past Suvarnabhumi International Airport. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, but one that shows no immediate signs of revision. Many Thai academic colleagues have fewer options, and in the past years some have judged it necessary to leave their country behind in the hope of pursuing scholarly enquiry in environments where restrictions on commentary about important social and political issues are not so significant.
The irony, perhaps, is that research in Myanmar today is arguably easier, in terms of official research access, liberty of interaction with informants, and all the rest, than ever before. I judge that today’s conditions are temporary. Yet even in sensitive borderland environments researchers are able to carve out sufficient space to adequately, and critically, engage with Myanmar societies and cultures, at this time of great flux. The other presentations here this morning have amply demonstrated the potential of such studies.
When research in Myanmar falls, as it probably will, into a period of constraint and caution we will look to those who managed to build new understandings, and harness fresh data, for guidance. They will be the benchmark for years to come. It is also worth mentioning that as the number of scholars focused on other parts of mainland Southeast Asia has remained steady, or fallen, a mini-boom has emerged for Myanmar. This isn’t just an Australian National University phenomenon but it’s clear that our University is well-positioned to forge new paths through what remains often difficult academic terrain.
And yet what is most apparent is that our grounded perspectives, based in the fluency of culture and language that prolonged periods of field research can bring, now need modification for the new spaces that are more explicitly at the margins of knowing. It is these cyber-spaces, online spheres, pixilised universes, that are increasingly re-shaping how all borderlands can be conceived.
It is a little known fact that the inspiration for New Mandala, founded by Professor Andrew Walker and I back in June 2006, is firmly rooted in the Thai-Yunnan Project. Andrew, alongside Professor Nick Tapp, inherited much of the responsibility for mainland Southeast Asia research during the rebuilding phase that followed Gehan and Ted’s untimely deaths. Those of you who know Andrew will appreciate that he has often sought to push the boundaries: he is the classic borderlands scholar in that sense. New Mandala was the response to the constriction that was occurring in academic debates as moribund publishing models failed to keep pace with the requirements of an enmeshed, entangled, electronic world.
The borders that New Mandala has hopped have been many. In eight-and-a-half years the website has garnered a reputation that challenges some of our expectations of academic work and the people who produce it. Fair to say, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. And yet, from my vantage, it fits quite neatly into the evolution of publishing, researching and interacting that informed the genesis of the Thai-Yunnan Project, and sustained it through so many successful years.
With this cursory treatment of research practice across the borderlands of Thailand, Myanmar and more out of the way, let me make some final reflections. They could just as easily be thought as provocations.
First, it is clear that when we stop experimenting and fail to learn what we can from other ways of being and doing, the entire academic experience, for those of us who accept the vocation, begins to unravel. The grumbling about the state of modern Universities is, for mine, not a crisis of political economy, or ideology, or society. It is, more squarely, a crisis of imagination.
Second, border crossing and borderland research made sense in the context of the Thai-Yunnan project because the frontiers had for too long been thought impregnable. To do research from China, to Vietnam, to Burma, to northern Thailand, to even perhaps dream of venturing to northeast India, was to break down all of the basic expectations that came with academic research. It would never again be neat, bounded and predictable. For that we owe the grandfathers or great-grandfathers of Thai-Yunnan research our many thanks.
Third, there is the fundamental challenge of building meaningful collaborations, nurturing institutions, and making some impact at the conceptual level while still keeping a weather eye on the logistical foundations of what we do. The Thai-Yunnan Project was famous for the style in which it could communicate research across borders, to multiple audiences, to feed the basic human instinct of curiosity about other people. None of this was easy. Indeed the force multiplier technologies at our disposal today mean that we have no excuse for failing to get our messages out, particularly compared to those who laboriously edited the hard-copy Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletters, and then sealed those hundreds of envelopes.
By concluding with these points of provocation I would suggest that the Australian National University has not seen the end of the creative and imaginative work that led to the Thai-Yunnan heyday. It is a credit to Roger Casas and Dr Phillip Taylor, and so many others, that the effort continues. Indeed as the research on borderlands presented here today suggests, we have new concepts and intriguing new fields where our ideas can be tested.
It is a splendid thing to be part of a long line, an anthropological lineage, where the genesis of the next big idea is still out there, somewhere across the border.
Dr Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala and is based in the Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies. He holds an Australian Research Council fellowship for a study of Myanmar’s political cultures “in transition” This text was prepared for a workshop held at the ANU on 27 November 2014, titled “At Risk, Under Care: Nurturing culture, the environment and the human in the Thai-Yunnan region”.