Southeast Asian Massif

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The term Southeast Asian Massif[1] was proposed in 1997 by anthropologist Jean Michaud[2] to discuss the human societies inhabiting the lands above approximately 300 metres (1,000 ft) in the southeastern portion of the Asian landmass, thus not merely in the uplands of conventional Mainland Southeast Asia. It concerns highlands overlapping parts of 10 countries: southwest China, Northeast India, eastern Bangladesh, and all the highlands of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Peninsular Malaysia, and Taiwan. The indigenous population encompassed within these limits numbers approximately 100 million, not counting migrants from surrounding lowland majority groups who came to settle in the highlands over the last few centuries.

The notion of the Southeast Asian Massif overlaps geographically with the eastern segment of Van Schendel's notion of Zomia proposed in 2002,[3] while it overlaps geographically with what political scientist James C. Scott called Zomia in 2009.[4] While the notion of Zomia underscores a historical and political understanding of that high region, the Southeast Asia Massif is more appropriately labelled a place or a social space.

The Southeast Asian Massif (in red) next to the Himalayan Massif (in yellow)[5]


As the notion refers first to peoples and cultures, it is neither realistic nor helpful to define the area precisely in terms of altitude, latitude and longitude, with definite outside limits and set internal subdivisions. Broadly speaking, however, at their maximum extension, these highland groups have historically been scattered over a domain mostly situated above an elevation of about three hundred meters, within an area approximately the size of Western Europe. Stretching from the temperate Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) which roughly demarcates the northern boundary, it moves south to encompass the high ranges extending east and south from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the monsoon high country drained by the basins of the lower Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong, Song Hong (Red River), and Zhu Jiang (Pearl River).

In China, the Massif includes extreme eastern Tibet, southern and western Sichuan, western Hunan, a small portion of western Guangdong, all of Guizhou and Yunnan, with north and west Guangxi. Spilling over the Southeast Asian peninsula, it covers most of the border areas of Burma with adjacent segments of northeastern India (Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland with portions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam) and southeastern Bangladesh, the north and west of Thailand, all of Laos above the Mekong valley, borderlands in northern and central Vietnam along the Annamite Cordillera, and the northeastern fringes of Cambodia.

Beyond the northern limit of the Massif, the Chongqing basin is not included because it has been colonised by the Han for over one millennium, and the massive influx of population into this fertile rice bowl of China has spilled well into parts of central and western Sichuan above 500 metres. The same observation applies to highlands further north in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. At the southern extreme, highland peninsular Malaysia should be excluded as it is disconnected from the Massif by the Isthmus of Kra, and is intimately associated with the Malay world instead.[6] That said, many of the indigenous highland populations of peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli, are Austroasiatic by language, and thus linked to groups in the Massif such as the Wa, the Khmu, the Katu, or the Bahnar.

The Tibetan world is not included in the Massif, as it has its own logic: a centralized and religiously harmonised core with a long, distinctive political existence that places it in a "feudal" and imperial category, which the societies historically associated with the Massif have rarely, if ever, developed into.[7] In this sense, the western limit of the Massif, then, is as much a historical and political one as it is linguistic, cultural, and religious. Again, this should not be seen as clear-cut. Many societies on Tibet's periphery, such as the Khampa, Naxi, Drung or Mosuo in Yunnan, the Lopa in Nepal, or the Bhutia in Sikkim, have switched allegiances repeatedly over the centuries, moving in and out of Lhasa's orbit. Moreover, the Tibeto-Burman language family and Tibetan Buddhism have spilled over the eastern edge of the plateau.

Historical, linguistic and cultural factors[edit]

To further qualify the particularities of the Massif, a series of core factors can be incorporated: history, languages, religion, customary social structures, economies, and political relationships with lowland states. What distinguishes highland societies may exceed what they have in common: a vast ecosystem, a state of marginality, and forms of subordination. The Massif is crossed by six major language families, none of which form a decisive majority. In religious terms, several groups are Animist, others are Buddhist, some are Christian, a good number share Taoist and Confucian values, the Hui are Muslim, while most societies sport a complex syncretism. Throughout history, feuds and frequent hostilities between local groups were evidence of the plurality of cultures.[8] The region has never been united politically, not as an empire, nor as a space shared among a few feuding kingdoms, not even as a zone with harmonised political systems. Forms of distinct customary political organisations, chiefly lineage based versus "feudal",[9] have long existed. At the national level today, political regimes in countries sharing the region (democracies, three socialist governments, one constitutional monarchy, and one military dictatorship) simply magnify this ancient political diversity.

Along with other transnational highlands around the Himalayas and around the world, the Southeast Asian Massif is marginal and fragmented in historical, economic, as well as cultural terms. It may thus be seen as lacking the necessary significance in the larger scheme of things to be proposed as a promising area subdivision of Asian studies. However, it is important to rethink country based research when addressing trans-border and marginal societies.

Inquiries on the ground throughout the Massif show that these peoples share a sense of being different from the national majorities, a sense of geographical remoteness, and a state of marginality that is connected to political and economic distance from regional seats of power. In cultural terms, these highland societies are like a cultural mosaic with contrasting colours, rather than an integrated picture in harmonized shades – what Terry Rambo, talking from a Vietnam perspective, has dubbed "a psychedelic nightmare".[10] Yet, when observed from the necessary distance, that mosaic can form a distinctive and significant picture, even if an imprecise one at times.

Historically,[11] these highlands have been used by lowland empires as reserves of resources (including slaves), and as buffer spaces between their domains.


Zomia is a geographical term coined in 2002 by historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam[12][13] to refer to the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands.[14] It largely overlaps with the geographical extent of the Southeast Asian Massif, although the exact boundaries of Zomia differ among scholars:[15] all would include the highlands of north Indochina (north Vietnam and all Laos), Thailand, the Shan Hills of northern Myanmar, and the mountains of Southwest China; some extend the region as far west as Tibet, Northeast India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These areas share a common elevated, rugged terrain, and have been the home of ethnic minorities that have preserved their local cultures by residing far from state control and influence. Other scholars have used the term to discuss the similar ways that Southeast Asian governments have handled minority groups.[16]

Zomia covers more than 2,500,000 square kilometres (970,000 sq mi) over the Southeast Asian Massif and comprises nearly one hundred million marginal people. This large area is inside the fringe of eight states and the entirety of one, stretching across the standard regional designations (South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia). Along with its ecological diversity and its relation to states, it arouses a lot of interest. It stands for an original entity of study, a type of international appellation, and a different way in which to study regions.

In 2009, political scientist James Scott[17] argued that there is a unity across the Massif – which he calls Zomia – regarding political forms of domination and subordination, which bonds the fates of the peoples dwelling there, virtually all of whom had taken refuge there to avoid being integrated into a more powerful state, or even allowing the very appearance of a state-like structure within their own societies.


The name is from Zomi, a term for highlander common to several related Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in the India-Bangladesh-Burma border area.[18]

James C. Scott[edit]

Professor James C. Scott of Yale University used the concept of Zomia in his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia to argue that the continuity of the ethnic cultures living there provides a counter-narrative to the traditional story about modernity: namely, that once people are exposed to the conveniences of modern technology and the modern state, they will assimilate. Rather, the tribes in Zomia are conscious refugees from state rule and state-centered economies. From his preface:

[Hill tribes] seen from the valley kingdoms as 'our living ancestors,' 'what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization' [are on the contrary] best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.

Scott goes on to add that Zomia is the biggest remaining area of earth whose inhabitants have not been completely absorbed by nation-states, although that time is coming to an end. While Zomia is exceptionally diverse linguistically, the languages spoken in the hills are distinct from those spoken in the plains. Kinship structures, at least formally, also distinguish the hills from the lowlands. Hill societies do produce "a surplus", but they do not use that surplus to support kings and monks. Distinctions of status and wealth abound in the hills, as in the valleys. The difference is that in the valleys they tend to be enduring, while in the hills they are both unstable and geographically confined.[19]

Differing perspectives[edit]

Jean Michaud explains the many dilemmas that arise from the language used to address the group of people residing in Zomia in his Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif.[20] The people of Zomia are often referred to as "national minority groups," and Michaud argues that contention arises with each of these words. In regards to the word "national," Michaud claims that the peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif are in fact transnational, as many groups span over several countries. According to Michaud, "minority" is not the legitimate way to label the group either, since the populations are so vast. Michaud even claims that the word "group" is problematic because of its connotation with community and “social cohesion” that not all groups share.[21][22]

In 2010, the Journal of Global History published a special issue, "Zomia and Beyond".[23] In this issue, contemporary historians and social scientists of Southeast Asia respond to Scott's arguments. For example, although Southeast Asian expert Victor Lieberman[24] agrees that the highland people crafted their own social worlds in response to the political and natural environments that they encountered, he also finds Scott's documentation to be very weak, especially its lack of Burmese-language sources, saying that not only does this undermine several of Scott's key arguments, but it brings some of his other theories about Zomia into question.

Furthermore, Lieberman argues that Scott is overestimating the importance of manpower as a determinant in military success. While the bulk of Scott's argument rests on the efforts of lowland states to dominate the highlands, Lieberman shows the importance of maritime commerce as an equally contributing factor.

Lieberman also says that examples not included in Scott's analysis need to be taken into consideration. Scott firmly believes that the culture took shape as a defensive mechanism, as a reaction to surrounding political and social environments. Lieberman, however, argues that the highland peoples of Borneo/Kalimantan had virtually the same cultural characteristics as the Zomians, such as the proliferation of local languages and swidden cultivation, which were all developed without a lowland predatory state.[25]

More recently, Scott's claims have been questioned by Tom Brass.[26] Brass maintains that it is incorrect to characterize upland Southeast Asia as "state-repelling" "zones of refuge/asylum" to which people voluntarily migrate. This is, he argues, an idealization consistent with the "new" populist postmodernism, but not supported by ethnographic evidence. The latter suggests that populations neither choose to migrate to upland areas (but go because they are forced off valley land), nor – once there – are they beyond the reach of the lowland State. Consequently, they are anything but empowered and safe in such contexts.

Edward Stringham and Caleb J. Miles analyzed historical and anthropological evidence from societies in Southeast Asia and concluded that they have avoided states for thousands of years. Stringham further analyzes the institutions used to avoid, repel and prevent would-be states. He further concludes that stateless societies like "Zomia" have successfully repelled states using location, specific production methods, and cultural resistance to states.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michaud, Jean; Meenaxi B. Ruscheweyh; Margaret B. Swain, 2016. Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif. Second Edition. Lanham • Boulder • New York • London, Rowman & Littlefield, 594p.
  2. ^ Michaud J., 1997, "Economic transformation in a Hmong village of Thailand." Human Organization 56(2) : 222-232.
  3. ^ Willem van Schendel, 'Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping scale in Southeast Asia', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20, 6, 2002, pp. 647–68.
  4. ^ James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
  5. ^ Michaud, J. 2010, Zomia and Beyond. Journal of Global History, 5(2): 205.
  6. ^ Hall, A History of Southeast Asia. Tarling, The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia.
  7. ^ Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1989.
  8. ^ Herman, Amid the Clouds and Mist. Robert D. Jenks, Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou. The Miao Rebellion, 1854-1873. Honolulu (HA), U. of Hawaii Press, 1994. Claudine Lombard-Salmon, Un exemple d’acculturation chinoise : la province du Guizhou au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, Publication de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, vol. LXXXIV, 1972 .
  9. ^ See Michaud J. , 2016 "Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Scale, Magnitude, and Range in the Southeast Asian Massif." Pp. 1-40 in Michaud, Jean; Meenaxi B. Ruscheweyh; and Margaret B. Swain, Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the South-East Asian Massif. Second Edition. Lanham • Boulder • New York • London: Rowman & Littlefield.
  10. ^ A.T. Rambo, ‘Development Trends In Vietnam’s Northern Mountain Region’, In D. Donovan, A.T.Rambo, J. Fox And Le Trong Cuc (Eds.) Development Trends In Vietnam’s Northern Mountainous Region. Hanoi: National Political Publishing House, pp.5-52, 1997, p. 8.
  11. ^ Lim, Territorial Power Domains. Andrew Walker, The Legend of the Golden Boat Regulation, Trade and Traders in the Borderlands of Laos, Thailand, China and Burma. Honolulu: U. of Hawaii Press, 1999.
  12. ^ "Willem van Schendel". International Institute of Social History. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  13. ^ Kratoska, P. H.; Raben, R.; Nordholt, H. S., eds. (2005). Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space. Singapore University Press. p. v. ISBN 9971-69-288-0.
  14. ^ van Schendel, W. (2005). "Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: Jumping scale in Southeast Asia". In Kratoska, P. H.; Raben, R.; Nordholt, H. S. (eds.). Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space. Singapore University Press. ISBN 9971-69-288-0.
  15. ^ Michaud 2010 Archived October 3, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Michaud, J. (2009, February). "Handling Mountain Minorities in China, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos: From History to Current Concerns." Asian Ethnicity 10: 25–49.
  17. ^ James C. Scott, The art of not being governed
  18. ^ Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Agrarian Studies. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. pp. 14–16. ISBN 978-0-300-15228-9. Notes to pages 5 – 14: Other explicit proponents of a systematic view from the periphery include Michaud, Turbulent Times and Enduring Peoples, especially the Introduction by Michaud and John McKinnon, 1–25, and Hjorleifur Jonsson, Mien Relations: Mountain Peoples, Ethnography, and State Control (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). F. K. L. Chit Hlaing [F. K. Lehman], "Some Remarks upon Ethnicity Theory and Southeast Asia, with Special Reference to the Kayah and Kachin," in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, ed. Mikael Gravers (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007), 107–22, esp. 109–10.
  19. ^ In addition, he maintains that many traits that are viewed in mainstream cultures as "primitive" or "backward" and used to denigrate hill peoples are actually adaptations to avoid state incorporation, such as lack of a written language, shifting messianic religious movements, or nomadism. Their presence is absent from most histories, since, as Scott puts it, "it is the peasants' job to stay out of the archives." Nonetheless, in reality he sees the relationship between upland and lowland peoples as reciprocal, since upland peoples are essential as a source of trade. Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Agrarian Studies. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. pp. 14–16. ISBN 978-0-300-15228-9. Notes to pages 5 – 14: Other explicit proponents of a systematic view from the periphery include Michaud, Turbulent Times and Enduring Peoples, especially the Introduction by Michaud and John McKinnon, 1–25; Turner, S., C. Bonnin and J. Michaud (2015) 'Frontier Livelihoods. Hmong in the Sino-Vietnamese Borderlands' (Seattle: University of Washington Press); and Hjorleifur Jonsson, Mien Relations: Mountain Peoples, Ethnography, and State Control (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). F. K. L. Chit Hlaing [F. K. Lehman], "Some Remarks upon Ethnicity Theory and Southeast Asia, with Special Reference to the Kayah and Kachin," in Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, ed. Mikael Gravers (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007), 107–22, esp. 109–10.
  20. ^ "Jean Michaud, Ph. D., Anthropologist". Université Laval, Québec, Canada. Retrieved September 22, 2011. Jean Michaud is a social anthropologist and specialises since 1988 on issues of social change among highland populations of Asia.
  21. ^ Michaud, Jean (April 2006). "Introduction". Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif. Historical Dictionaries of Peoples and Cultures #4. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8108-5466-6. Retrieved September 8, 2011. For this dictionary, a compromise solution has been adopted, which was to accept official national ethnonyms but correct mistakes whenever possible and cross-reference to alternative names. Close to 200 ethnonyms thus have their own entries, which is the largest number the relatively humble format of this series allows.
  22. ^ Michaud, Jean (2010). "Editorial – Zomia and beyond*". Journal of Global History 5, London School of Economics and Political Science. Université Laval. 5 (2): 187–214. doi:10.1017/S1740022810000057. This editorial develops two themes. First, it discusses how historical and anthropological approaches can relate to each other, in the field of the highland margins of Asia and beyond. Second, it explores how we might further our understandings of the uplands of Asia by applying different terms such as 'Haute-Asie', the 'Southeast Asian Massif', the 'Hindu Kush–Himalayan region', the 'Himalayan Massif', and in particular 'Zomia', a neologism gaining popularity with the publication of James C. Scott's latest book....
  23. ^ Michaud, Jean (2010). "Journal of Global History". Journal of Global History. Cambridge Journals Online. 5 (2). ISSN 1740-0228. Retrieved September 7, 2011. Published for London School of Economics and Political Science
  24. ^ "Victor B. Lieberman". Marvin B. Becker Collegiate Professor of Southeast Asia, pre-modern Burma, early modern world history. University of Michigan. Retrieved September 7, 2011.
  25. ^ Little, Daniel; Michael E. Smith; et al. (October 18, 2010). "Zomia reconsidered" (blogspot). web-based monograph. UnderstandingSociety. p. 1. Retrieved September 7, 2011. [Lieberman's] most recent volumes, Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (v. 1) and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, are directly relevant to Scott's analysis.
  26. ^ Tom Brass (2012), "Scott's 'Zomia,' or a Populist Post-modern History of Nowhere", Journal of Contemporary Asia, 42:1, 123–33
  27. ^ Stringham, Edward (2012). "Repelling States: Evidence from Upland Southeast Asia". Review of Austrian Economics. 25 (1): 17–33. doi:10.1007/s11138-010-0115-3. S2CID 144582680. SSRN 1715223.

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