Zomia is a geographic term for an area in the Southeast Asian highlands. Its exact borders are up for debate. The name is derived from zomi, a term for "Highlander" in several languages spoken in Bangladesh, Burma, and India.
The term was invented by Willem van Schendel, an Asian-studies specialist at the University of Amsterdam, who suggested that some peripheral areas like Zomia were overlooked in research. A more recent debate has been spurred by the Yale University professor of political science and anthropology James C. Scott, who describes the region in his 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.
Scott identifies Zomia as "the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states." Though the scholars who have imagined Zomia differ over its precise boundaries, Scott includes all the lands at altitudes above 300 meters stretching from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India. That encompasses parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma, as well as four provinces of China. Zomia's 100 million residents are minority peoples "of truly bewildering ethnic and linguistic variety," he writes. Among them are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Mien, and Wa.
He depicts an alternative past for the inhabitants of Zomia. The majority of the people who ended up in the hills were either escaping the state or driven out by it, he says.
While others might describe the hill peoples as "primitive" because they did not have permanent abodes or fixed fields, adhere to a major religion, or adopt other modern practices, Scott turns that idea around. He argues that those many minority ethnic groups were, in a sense, barbarians by design, using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them.
Over the past two millennia, "runaway" communities have put the "friction of terrain" between themselves and the people who remained in the lowlands, he writes. The highland groups adopted a swidden agriculture system (sometimes known, pejoratively, as "slash and burn"), shifting fields from place to place, staggering harvests, and relying on root crops to hide their yields from any visiting tax collectors. They formed egalitarian societies so as not to have leaders who might sell them out to the state. And they turned their backs on literacy to avoid creating records that central governments could use to carry out onerous policies like taxation, conscription, and forced labor.
- Ruth Hammond. "The Battle Over Zomia", The Chronicle Review, September 4, 2011. Referenced 2011-09-05.