I touched down in Suvarnabhumi Airport a week ago, and each day since then has been filled with an appreciation for the worldiness of Bangkok, this cosmopolitan hub teeming with over 9 million people. Walking down the street or riding the MRT subway, I listen to a hum of different languages being spoken, a constant reminder of the incredible diversity in this region.
In fact, the landmass of SE Asia – also called Zomia by some — is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the world. According to historian James C. Scott, rugged terrain and geographic obstacles contributed to a splintering of different cultures who, pre-WWII, were not historically subjected to the yoke of centralized statehood. Tribes resisted assimilation into kingdoms and later, nation-states.
By definition, a frontier is where power looks upon the edge of its own limits. Historically in Zomia, State confronted frontier, peering into a world it did not control. And now in present day as a collection of more and less developing countries, it’s become another kind of frontier, with fortunes to be made and much else at stake.
This first week, I’ve attended a regional forum on hydropower in Cambodia, where villagers shared stories of personal devastation caused by dam projects and voiced their resistance. I observed a workshop with Burmese journalists hailing from a country where not so long ago such a profession would have carried a risk of imprisonment or worse. And at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok, the walls showcased an exhibit by a photojournalist tragically killed in the 2010 political unrest.
Yes, the frontier is palpable here. Everywhere people were talking about the shape of the future to come. There’s a rosiness and also a pessimism in these discussions that’s always underpinned by questions of power and control.
There’s a lot to absorb, learn and understand here, and I’m grateful to be in a position where I can spend time digging into these issues. More to follow…