The Last Enclosure

Only the modern state, in both its colonial and its independent guises, has had the resources to realize a project of rule that was a mere glint in the eye of its precolonial ancestor: namely to bring nonstate spaces and people to heel. This project in its broadest sense represents the last great enclosure movement in Southeast Asia. It has been pursued—albeit clumsily and with setbacks—consistently for at least the past century. Governments, whether colonial or independent, communist or neoliberal, populist or authoritarian, have embraced it fully. The headlong pursuit of this end by regimes otherwise starkly different suggests that such projects of administrative, economic, and cultural standardization are hard-wired into the architecture of the modern state itself.

Seen from the state center, this enclosure movement is, in part, an effort to integrate and monetize the people, lands, and resources of the periphery so that they become, to use the French term, rentable—auditable contributors to the gross national product and to foreign exchange. In truth, peripheral peoples had always been firmly linked economically to the lowlands and to world trade. In some cases, they appear to have provided most of the products valued in international commerce. Nevertheless, the attempt to fully incorporate them has been culturally styled as development, economic progress, literacy, and social integration. In practice, it has meant something else. The objective has been less to make them productive than to ensure that their economic activity was legible, taxable, assessable, and confiscatable or, failing that, to replace it with forms of production that were. Everywhere they could, states have obliged mobile, swidden cultivators to settle in permanent villages. They have tried to replace open common-property land tenure with closed common property: collective farms or, more especially, the individual freehold property of liberal economies. They have seized timber and mineral resources for the national patrimony. They have encouraged, whenever possible, cash, monocropping, plantation-style agriculture in place of the more biodiverse forms of cultivation that prevailed earlier. The term enclosure seems entirely appropriate for this process, mimicking as it does the English enclosures that, in the century after 1761, swallowed half of England’s common arable land in favor of large-scale, private, commercial production. ...

The hegemony, in this past century, of the nation-state as the standard and nearly exclusive unit of sovereignty has proven profoundly inimical to nonstate peoples. State power, in this conception, is the state’s monopoly of coercive force that must, in principle, be fully projected to the very edge of its territory, where it meets, again in principle, another sovereign power projecting its command to its own adjacent frontier. Gone, in principle, are the large areas of no sovereignty or mutually canceling weak sovereignties. Gone too, of course, are peoples under no particular sovereignty. As a practical matter, most nation-states have tried, insofar as they had the means, to give substance to this vision, establishing armed border posts, moving loyal populations to the frontier and relocating or driving away “disloyal” populations, clearing frontier lands for sedentary agriculture, building roads to the borders, and registering hitherto fugitive peoples.

On the heels of this notion of sovereignty came the realization that these neglected and seemingly useless territories to which stateless peoples had been relegated were suddenly of great value to the economies of mature capitalism. They contained valuable resources—oil, iron ore, copper, lead, timber, uranium, bauxite, the rare metals essential to the aerospace and electronics industries, hydroelectric sites, bioprospecting and conservation areas—that might in many cases be the linchpin of state revenue. Places that long ago might have been desirable for their deposits of silver, gold, and gems, not to mention slaves, became the object of a new gold rush. All the more reason to project state power to the nethermost reaches of these ungoverned regions and bring their inhabitants under firm control.

Occupying and controlling the margins of the state implied a cultural policy as well. Much of the periphery along national borders of mainland Southeast Asia is inhabited by peoples linguistically and culturally distinct from the populations that dominate the state cores. Alarmingly, they spill promiscuously across national frontiers, generating multiple identities and possible foci of irredentism or secession. Weak valley states have permitted, or rather tolerated, a certain degree of autonomy when they had little choice. Where they could, however, all states in the region have tried to bring such peoples under their routine administration, to encourage and, more rarely, to insist upon linguistic, cultural, and religious alignment with the majority population at the state core. This meant, in Thailand, encouraging, say, the Lahu to become Thai-speaking, literate, Buddhist subjects of the monarchy. In Burma it meant encouraging, say, the Karen to become Burmese-speaking Buddhists loyal to the military junta.

Parallel to policies of economic, administrative, and cultural absorption has been the policy, driven by both demographic pressure and self-conscious design, of engulfment. Huge numbers of land-hungry majorities from the plains have moved, or been moved, to the hills. There, they replicate valley settlement patterns and sedentary agriculture, and, over time, they demographically dominate the dispersed, less numerous hill peoples. The combination of forced settlement and engulfment is nicely illustrated by a series of Vietnamese mobilization campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s: “Campaign to Sedentarize the Nomads,” “Campaign for Fixed Cultivation and Fixed Residence,” “Storm the Hills Campaign,” and “Clear the Hills by Torchlight Campaign.” ...

Internal colonialism, broadly understood, aptly describes this process. It involved the absorption, displacement, and/or extermination of the previous inhabitants. It involved a botanical colonization in which the landscape was transformed—by deforestation, drainage, irrigation, and levees—to accommodate crops, settlement patterns, and systems of administration familiar to the state and to the colonists.