Figure 1: Timber traders leaving Ban Sekong (all photos by the author)

Last year, while conducting postdoctoral fieldwork in northeastern Cambodia, I received my first ever death threat. At the time, I felt a rush of disbelief, adrenalin and fear. Now I am thinking that this is perhaps the closest I can get to appreciating villagers’ engagements with authorities who control the border. It started when I took a photograph of some timber traders leaving the village where I was staying [Figure 1]. Later, I was forbidden from going to the army checkpoint that marks the border with Laos, despite invitations to accompany others who had relatives there. A village leader emphatically told me it was too dangerous; unspoken by him was the sensitivity of cross-border logging. In dissuading me and almost panicking at my initial disbelief, he eventually told me that the timber traders had told him they could get rid of me because I came alone. My interpretation is that this was mainly a warning to villagers to make sure my presence did not disrupt their trading relationships. Foreigners taking photographs was uncomfortably close to the practices of a recently finished World Bank project that had attempted to control illegal logging in the area [Figure 2].

Figure 2: Poster produced by World Bank project in Virachey National Park

This incident and others prompted me to think about how the Cambodian and Lao states are constituted through threats of violence and practices of legality and illegality along their shared boundary. In this region, booms in cross-border illegal logging, and a passing drug trade, entangles the aspirations of rural villagers with their experiences of past wars, the Khmer Rouge, extensive cross-border mobility, market expansion and the intricacies of post-conflict governments.

The borderlands signify state authority through territorial demarcation as well as the diffusion of that authority in sites distant from political centres. Bordering processes of ‘fragile’ states are often framed by policy-makers as ineffective for ensuring security as well as for regulating migration and cross-border trade. Greater incorporation and integration with state institutions is seen as enabling improved governance whereas border permeability means a breakdown in the border or threatens the essence of nation-states.

While anthropological approaches usefully recognize the complexities of borderlands, there is still a tendency to frame discussions in terms of divides between state domination and local resistance. As Michael Herzfeld puts it in his book on Cultural Intimacy, anthropologists see their role as “to probe behind the facades of national unanimity in order to explore the possibilities and the limits of creative dissent”. Dissent, like resistance, is usually taken as opposition to state power. But what if dissent is part of a broader suite of social relations that reinforces, extends and produces the state? What if illegal cross-border activities do not reflect resistance to the state, but actually reflect the presence of the state in all its complexities? Here, I briefly consider these questions in relation to a village I call ‘Ban Sekong’ – an ethnic Lao village that stretches along the banks of the Sekong River in Stung Treng Province just south of the Cambodian-Lao border.

Background on region

Many policy analyses would consider Cambodia and Laos as similar on the basis that they are among the least-developed countries, are creations of colonial powers and formerly part of French Indochina, are governed by post-socialist states in post-conflict settings, and qualify as fragile states with weak institutions and governance. While a comparison of formal policy would likely place Cambodia ahead of Laos in terms of liberal-democratic ideals, the gap between policy and practice is substantial in both countries. The main difference I see is in the style of authoritarianism. Nominally socialist Laos, which is often posed as ‘unresponsive’ to liberalizing donor pressure, may have greater restraints on violence than nominally democratic, more liberal and ‘responsive’ Cambodia.

In this context, Stung Treng Province in northeastern Cambodia can be thought of as liminal region. It is often regarded as ‘Lao’ in terms of history and culture; Lao are perhaps the largest ethnic group and the area is part of a former Lao kingdom ceded by the French to Cambodia in 1904. Yet, the post-independence Cambodian and Lao states have been making the border into a physical and social reality through administrative, developmental and political interventions [Figure 3]. The border was also clearly marked by recent wars. The Lao government has been a close political ally of the Vietnamese since the socialist revolution in 1975. Because of this, Laos offered safe haven for Khmer citizens from the stridently anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge. Many people from Stung Treng Province – perhaps half the population – fled to southern Laos during the 1970s, some settling permanently there and others returning to Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 that forced out the Khmer Rouge.

Figure 3: Road crossing for Lao-Cambodian border, opened 2008

While wartime tensions have now dissipated, the region has gained a reputation as part of a major drug trafficking route. The ‘porosity’ of Cambodian and Lao borders is seen as making them ideal transit countries. Tellingly, the loud and expensive speedboats passing the village a few times each day were only used by timber traders, government agents and drug traders. Amphetamines and heroin go past Ban Sekong without stopping, but villagers were aware of their passage and of the local elites who are involved [Figure 4].

Figure 4: Stung Treng provincial centre boat landing with poster warning about amphetamines

Desires for prosperity and the rosewood boom

Of all cross-border activities, the most significant for villagers is the collection of natural resources such as timber, wildlife, fish, resin and gold. Recently, international furniture markets have seen especially high demand for a luxury timber called Siamese rosewood. In Cambodia and Laos, the mention of rosewood often prompts wariness, admiration and desire. During my fieldwork, many villages near the border were concentrating on rosewood logging if they could [Figures 5 and 6]. Vietnamese and Cambodian timber traders and soldiers from the border checkpoint had encouraged villagers to log with the promise of high returns. Hence, a young woman in Ban Sekong whose husband was away on a logging trip told me: “we are not doing paddy, this year we discard everything, we only have rosewood!”

Figure 5: Villagers leaving Ban Sekong on a logging trip

Figure 6: Villager returning to Ban Sekong with rosewood

The appeal of rosewood is understandable given that the per capita income in Cambodia and Laos is about US$2000 and villagers could make a profit of US$300 to US$3000 per trip. The lower amount would be a cause for worry and disappointment, the higher amount would see happy drinking of rice whisky and singing at one of three houses that now has karaoke in the village.

The quest for rosewood also brings villagers into regular contact with representatives of the Cambodian and Lao states. Villagers living in the borderlands cross into Laos to collect natural resources due to greater abundance there, and this movement is enabled by previous experiences of living in Laos during the Khmer Rouge period, cross-border family connections and fluency in Lao language. In contrast, Lao citizens cross into Cambodia much less frequently.

To cross the Cambodian-Lao border, villagers must pay informal ‘taxes’ at soldier and police checkpoints located on the banks of the Sekong River. While lower-value products require payment of only a few dollars, rosewood attracts tax of US$100-300 [Figure 7]. So villagers’ profits from cross-border activities are dependent on their relations with border authorities. At times, villagers, authorities and traders actively collaborate to avoid controls, like those imposed by the World Bank project. A minority of well-connected villagers have even built houses at the border checkpoint and can borrow equipment like boats and chainsaws from soldiers they know.

Figure 7: Cambodians negotiating tax at the Lao police checkpoint on the Sekong River.

But interactions on both sides of the border are not always smooth. Villagers were occasionally arrested in Laos and rumours circulated about Lao authorities’ demands for exorbitant ‘ransoms’. On the Cambodian side, it was normal for villagers to attempt to reduce or evade taxes depending on their contacts at the border. Villagers also complain as they attempt to delegitimize certain practices and authorities at the border. Essentially, villagers wanted to sell rosewood direct to traders and bypass soldiers who were trying to make all timber sales take place at the army checkpoint. Villagers complained about soldiers demanding high and multiple taxes, setting low timber prices at the checkpoint, and on-selling timber after confiscation. As one man said: “the soldiers only sit, drink rice whiskey and beer, and take our money.”

Local perspectives of the state

The concerns raised by discussions of rosewood were not isolated and were actually part of a broader understanding of the state. I suggest that villagers’ perceptions of the state are shaped by memories of violence and interactions with authorities that impact on their livelihoods.

On the first point, older villagers in Ban Sekong variously described how they lost family and friends, were injured, forced to work in farming collectives, faced starvation, fled in fear to Laos and were recruited as children to the Khmer Rouge. While life was seen as much improved from the recent past, violence, social order and state-making are still closely intertwined in contemporary life. This was made explicit when a woman laughingly explained that villagers cannot do anything about the army checkpoint because “soldiers have guns”. Implicit is the notion that soldiers, and the government, are threats rather than protectors of Cambodian society.

Related to this is the second point about villagers’ localized interactions with representatives of the state and their impacts on livelihoods. Unlike international donors and policy analysts, villagers in Ban Sekong were relatively unconcerned about democratization and national politics. For example, most villagers were familiar with Hun Sen – the Prime Minister of the last three decades – but many were not sure of his position or his party. Likewise, many villagers I asked told me that the current king was long-reigning Norodom Sihanouk (now called ‘King-Father’), whereas actually his son, Norodom Sihamoni, became king in 2004 [Figure 8.] At the same time, a lack of knowledge of national politics does not mean a lack of knowledge of the social processes that underlie politics.

Figure 8: House altar in Ban Sekong with posters of King-Father Sihanouk

Private discussion of issues that were important for villagers’ immediate livelihoods often led to reflections on the state that indicated a critical awareness of its practices. Common concerns in addition to rosewood included the inadequacies of infrastructure, education, health services and support when rice crops failed.

For instance, a young woman talked of her sick child and asserted that the government does not help villagers. She concluded by saying, “Hun Sen is bigger than everyone else, he consumes more than everyone else”. An elderly man was equally critical. He said: “I heard on the radio this country gave Cambodia one million, that country gave one million, but we never see anything here, where does it go?…You see the road is still not done, isn’t it? They just put the money in their pockets. The elites help the elites, they do not help us. …There are elections, but we cannot change the government. We do not have rights”.

When talking to another middle-aged couple, the wife explained at length how villagers cannot change the government or complain; “we do not have rights” her husband added in agreement. She said that if officials ask during village meetings then people always say everything is fine, they do not say their real thoughts. She explained that villagers do not speak out because “the police will say we are making problems and damaging the peace. We are scared, scared of prison and a new war”. She then quietly described practices at elections and said, “everyone votes for Hun Sen, everyone in the village and everyone in the country. …He wants it to be Hun Sen always”.

Local political discourses, like these from Ban Sekong, are very important for contextualising national politics like election results. They also reflect scholarly assessments of Cambodia. The pro-rural and pro-poor ideology of the Khmer Rouge became associated with so much violence that it now makes it easier for elites to subvert the rights of non-elites. While villagers in Ban Sekong may be relatively uninformed or disinterested in the details of national politics or international ideals, they are often very aware of the social dynamics that shape politics in Cambodia.


In this piece, I drew on experiences from Ban Sekong to show how practices in the remote borderlands provide insights on the social construction of the state. I have two main conclusions, both relating to notions of borderlands as politically distinctive spaces.

Common understandings of the state portray it as, particularly, a suite of formalized institutions, governmentality and neoliberalizing order extending from political centres out to the borderlands. Yet, the case of illegal, cross-border logging showed that villagers’ interactions with border authorities contributed to their critical conception of the state as a vehicle that serves the interests of elites over the interests of poor, rural people. The Cambodian-Lao border makes state authority relevant for many local residents, and border practices – legal and illegal – are what actually make the state. Hence, villagers in Ban Sekong never attempted to justify their logging in Laos in terms of their Lao ethnicity, family connections or past experiences of living in Laos; it was more a necessary illegality that reflected the illegality and illegitimacy of the Cambodian state. The ‘hidden transcripts’ that James Scott describes in Domination and the Arts of Resistance are not necessarily confined to non-state actors who embody the ideal of resistance; the hidden transcript can be the reality of the state.

The second point regards political engagement. The remote borderlands are often seen as socially and politically isolated, and the rural populace of Cambodia is often seen as marginalized, ill-informed and repressed. Yet, we must recognise that villagers are aware of local practices in their area – like state-sanctioned illegal logging, drug trafficking and non-provision of basic services – and the underlying social practices that shape politics in Cambodia. Villagers do not necessarily expect law-abiding officials, but they do expect authorities not to deny their attempts to improve their own lives. Significantly, the notion that granting rights to rural people will prompt a return to societal disorder is used as a legitimising discourse for the Cambodian state, and has also come to mark the Cambodian-Lao border.

Sarinda Singh is Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Queensland. This article was first published in The Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter, No. 119 (September 2010).