On the border

In the seven years that Ajarn Chintana Sandilands has run the Australian National University’s “Southeast Asian Frontiers: Thailand and Burma” field course a great many things have changed. Part of the initial justification for the course was that it should provide an opportunity for a group of talented, enthusiastic and curious students to see the biggest issues and some of the most important players up-close. It has met that challenge, with each student cohort benefiting from the lessons learned by those who went before. The course has generated new knowledge and galvanised the academic trajectories of many students. It is always heartening to learn of their subsequent achievements.

I recall on the 2009 field course that I co-convened with Ajarn Chintana that we bombarded the students with different ways of seeing the borderlands. One of the most confronting perspectives came from a briefing, based on a sensitive military powerpoint presentation, that described the role of opium and amphetamine interdiction efforts along the border. The Thai anti-narcotics officials gave our students a comprehensive, and harrowing, treatment of the day-to-day realities of front line policing. The colonel leading the discussion recounted, in what were often graphic details, the threats that his men face and the variety of ferocious engagements they deal with. For our students, some still fresh from high school, it was a formative experience. They asked thoughtful questions and sought to understand the issues from the perspective of those tasked, very directly, with stamping out the importation of drugs from Myanmar and Laos to Thailand.

Afterwards I told the students that if, after some months, a diligent, veteran researcher had access to such an official, offering so frank a perspective, then many long and otherwise quiet weeks would have been worthwhile. I think it is only after embarking on his or her own field research that any student will appreciate the truth in this assertion. In that sense, the field course distills a great deal of action into an abbreviated period. It starts from the premise that the students are mature enough, and wise enough, to take advantage of the unusual opportunities that it offers. The students are very aware of the unique access Ajarn Chintana’s contacts can provide. It is apparent to anybody paying attention that this is not an ordinary University course.

For that reason, it is worth reflecting on how we should think about the future of the borderlands, as refracted through the prism of the field course’s annual forays to Southeast Asia. In this summary of the current trends and future prospects, I look at cultures, economics, national politics and the regional geo-strategic landscape. At each level there is a clear need for careful analysis, drawing on the same wide perspectives that inform the field course itself.

Cultural complexity

From their very first exposure to the Thai and Burmese languages, to say nothing of their subsequent taste of minority tongues like Shan or Karen, students in the course are given ample chance to sample the diversity of the borderlands. They learn that the peoples of the borderlands have been forced, for centuries, into contact and conflict with other peoples. Since the beginning of human settlement in this region, different cultural and civilisational strands have emerged and become entangled. In the borderlands some of these entanglements are very clear. You just need to hear the way that each of the local languages picks up shared vocabulary. But such blurring and blending also suggests something else about the way that stark distinctions between different cultural groups start to unravel. Each ethnic group, whether designated as a majority or a minority, as strong or weak, “advanced” or “under-developed”, has a claim to be part of these long-term conversations. Across mountains, valleys and rivers, the geographical obstacles to connection and collaboration have been regularly overcome. This is part of what makes the borderlands such a rich area for cultural engagement. For anthropologists it has been a site of great mystery and exploration.

Now, in this age of Internet-based social interaction there are fewer and fewer corners of the region where genuine isolation exists. Instead, the velocity and ferocity of interaction has increased, with the borderlands more adequately considered a region of hyper-connection, rather than disconnection. This dynamic is especially notable at some of the border crossings benefiting from the ongoing political and economic reforms in Myanmar. From Dawei to Tachilek, and at many other places, there is ample evidence that the relationship between the Myanmar centre and its regions is becoming ever more fully consolidated. Foreign tourists can now use these border crossings to travel straight to Yangon, often through areas that until recently were home to fierce civil war. This set of changes has wider implications for Myanmar’s role in the region. Land travel, difficult at any previous time in history, is now becoming the most accessible and affordable option for moving large numbers of people. They will be using the same roads which have incrementally drawn the Myanmar economy into Thai supply chains. The difference is that it won’t now be just Pringles and Coca Cola making the trip from Thailand’s industrial hubs to the borders. Backpackers, too numerous to count, will start to see Myanmar’s opening from the vantage of an air-conditioned bus as they whizz towards the Kayin State capital of Hpa-an. They will see a landscape in transition, and a range of economic activities given new momentum by Myanmar’s political changes.

Economic ambitions

Once in Hpa-an, for instance, they will find a place that is adjusting, quickly and with much success, to the potential for economic ties to Thailand. Long a garrison town–home base for some of the Myanmar army units that fought the local ethnic armies–it is embracing its potential role as a site for new prosperity. These are precisely the types of changes that have already turned once sleepy Thai border towns like Mae Sot and Mae Sai into bustling urban conurbations. On the field course, there is a stark contrast between some of the villages where students learn about age-old agricultural practices and the hustle-and-bustle of these border posts. In Thailand the enthusiasm for new links into Myanmar is understandably very strong. Indeed, Thailand may have more to gain from these integrative efforts than any other Southeast Asian society.

It is therefore not surprising that the most recent groups of field course students have sought to understand the potential of the ASEAN Community, which will become a fact of life from December 2015 onwards. While it has political and cultural aspects, it is the economic ambition of this new bloc, with over 600 million people, that will determine its sustainability. The free-er movement of people and goods between the different countries, often across very significant cultural and economic barriers, will be a big change. In Thailand, it may mean that the 2.5 million workers from Myanmar laboring in its lowest paying jobs will have a chance to secure labour, health and educational rights, for themselves and their children. At some stage, Myanmar may also be able to lure these workers back to their home regions to contribute more directly to their own country’s economic growth. Such processes are unlikely to be smooth: sadly the turbulence of economic change in Thailand and Myanmar, to say nothing of the wider region, will impact the most vulnerable people hardest. How they respond to these powerful forces will have implications far beyond the market-place.

National politics

It is the political dimensions of change to the societies of the borderlands that offer great promise, and the gravest risks. Many of these areas were, until recently, home to the world’s longest running civil wars. Groups like the Karen National Union, the New Mon State Party and the Shan State Army – South, fought tortuous battles with Myanmar’s central government. It is only with the reforms implemented by Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government, headed by President Thein Sein, that there is a new glimmer of optimism about the resolution of these wars. Ceasefire talks in 2013 and 2014 are indicating that peace may emerge before Myanmar’s next general election, scheduled for 2015. In the meantime, the peoples of the borderlands are enjoying new opportunities to see their representatives working on their behalf in Myanmar’s new parliamentary institutions in far-away Naypyitaw. There, the representatives elected in 2010, in an election that was neither free nor fair, are doing what they can to ensure that ethnic minority issues are adequately discussed at the national level.

What is most striking about their presence in Naypyitaw is that representatives from the borderlands areas have such an important job. Recently, I calculated that at the lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw) level the 52 electorates, out of 330, that have a connection to a national border take up almost one third of the national terrain. This includes the vast areas in southern and eastern Myanmar that share a border with Thailand. Of course, on the Thai side of the border there is much more experience of elected government. Still, the threats to the security of Thailand’s democracy have not dissipated, and the period when the field course has been running has remained turbulent. Since the coup of May 2014 the military has, of course, been back in charge. There is the chance that at some stage Myanmar will be considered a democratic success, perhaps just as Thailand reverts to the petty nationalism and military-ordained authoritarianism that has been such a feature of its history. While there may have been times when strategies of avoiding engagement with the central government have been popular, there is every reason to imagine that in future there will be ever greater incentives for the peoples of the borderlands to work closely with distant powers, whether from Bangkok or Naypyitaw.

Geo-strategic players

Those capital cities will be juggling their own expectations of the future, in a neighbourhood where the jostling between China, India and the United States may prove to be the prevailing characteristic of 21st century geo-politics. The Thailand-Myanmar borderland is one area where such wider trends will disrupt ordinary expectations of power distribution. As competition between China and India increases, and as the United States and other western democracies seek to create space for their ambitions over the years and decades ahead, both Thailand and Myanmar will be on the proverbial “front-line”. In both cases, this may bring reminders of the “Cold War”, a period when the countries confronted their strategic destinies in very different ways. In Thailand, this period saw the almost complete embrace of the strategic priorities of the United States. Thailand’s status as a close ally was cemented in the 1960s and 1970s when hundreds of thousands of US service personnel used the country as a base for the wars in Vietnam and Laos. A very different political calculation saw Burma weather the Cold War with its own idiosyncratic neutrality, based on socialist principles, ensuring that its focus remained ever inwards.

From the perspective of the borderlands and its peoples there are indications that neither of these approaches will prove enough to manage the geo-politics of the decades ahead. New roads, pipelines, industrial developments and railways will change some of the calculus. China’s need to project its influence into the Indian Ocean means that all of the states on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea littoral will be praying for calm waters. The potential for a showdown between India and China, perhaps even one sought pre-emptively by the Chinese navy would catapult Southeast Asia and the wider world into a dangerous maelstrom. During the 20th century, a number of global political events–the expansion and contraction of the British empire, the Second World War, the formation of the People’s Republic of China, the battles between democratic and communist forces, and the rise and fall of ideological purity–all influenced the way that people lived along Southeast Asia’s frontiers. We should not pretend that such forces have stopped or that there will not be further challenges emerging from the very different political and social context of the years ahead.

What next?

So, how do we measure the success of this field course? I expect it’s in the glint of the eye of a student just returned from the field, telling their stories. It’s also in the essays they write and the plans they forge. Some students determine, after seeing the borderlands for themselves, that the fundamental challenge of understanding this region is one they seek for themselves. before long, the “Southeast Asian Frontiers” course is likely to operate on the other side of the Myanmar-Thailand borderline. To take students into towns like Hpa-an, Loikaw and Kengtung would offer experiences far from the ordinary Southeast Asian tourist trail, during a period of great social upheaval and uncertainty in Myanmar.

From an academic perspective, the value of this course has always been its capacity to demonstrate, in practical and realistic ways, how students can appreciate the challenges of a new landscape, with its diverse societies, interlocking histories, and persistent, everyday hardships. The course also brings joy to its students and those they meet along the way. Strong friendships are formed. Many of our students are inspired to take up the vocation of serious study of this borderland area. Some have opted to pursue further studies – with honours, masters and doctoral work. Others have made the region the core of their professional activities, including in official capacities. Then there are the many students for whom the course provided merely one aspect of their education. In all cases, Ajarn Chintana’s course shows that our University can stretch itself far beyond the classroom. With this course we go to the borders, and beyond.

Nicholas Farrelly is a Fellow in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Beginning with an honours thesis at the ANU, he has been a student of Southeast Asian borderlands for around 15 years. He remains involved with the “Southeast Asian Frontiers” field course each year. The next course will run in mid-2015.