Sunday, April 26, 2009

Asia / Refugee Stuff : South East Asian Cutural Boundaries and the modern world.

Ah! I wish I could go back to graduate school and make writing and researching about Asian culture and history the focus of my life. Alas! It shall not be so anytime soon.

Therefore, for the moment, I must be content to speculate, pontificate and elucidate in these pages instead of elsewhere.

One of the joys of academic research is when you get those wonderful "Eureka" moments. That great "Ah ha!" feeling sweeps throughout you and you realize that a great deal of once complex information suddenly makes sense and fits a pattern. (Of course, one must be careful of assuming this feeling actually means your conclusions are making sense. Conspiracy theorists and schizophrenics, for instance, are blessed with brains that misfire this way all the time. Still, the sensation is blissfully exciting, which explains perhaps why schizophrenics and conspiracy theorists spend so much time lost in their own odd thoughts.)

Recently while reading "In Search of Asia" I had such a moment while viewing this map. The map is entitled "Centers of power in Southeast Asia at the end of the Eighteenth Century" and appears on page 98 of the 1987 edition of "In Search of Southeast Asia."

Essentially what the map shows is the extent of cultural power and cultural influence in various centers in southeast Asia at the beginning of the modern era. At the time the kingdoms and cultures that are now dominant in Burma, Thailand and Vietnam did not have boundaries in the sense of anything resembling the modern sense of the term. And the role of the king was often different than in Europe of the time as well. Simplifying greatly for ease of transmitting a concept, the king hd less of a political role and more of a ritual role in the lives of his citizens. His power was not seen as uniform through a given geographical territory. Instead, his power radiated outward from the center, becoming weaker the further one was from that center. Instead of there being a strict boundary to the state, instead the state just sort of faded away becoming less and less important until it faded away altogether at the edge of civilization. Then came the rugged lands of hills and forest and jungle, the lands where the uncivilized people who existed outside the pale of civilization.

And that's what this map shows. The black "core area" is the center of the civilized area. Beyond it is a gray realm, where civilization exists but there's a certain lack of sophistication although the people are still part of the dominant culture. Light gray is a "fringe area" and the striped lines represent the areas where two different relatively equal states vie for control.

Now if one examines the map of Burma what you essentially see is the way in which Burma is divided between a dominant, Burmese culture, and a surrounding area with many other minority cultures. And it is from these minority cultures, i.e. the Karen, the Chin, that many refugees come. And to some extent the reason they come here is over a dispute over their relationship with the central government of the state now known as Myanmar.

In neighboring Thailand this map also shows the difference between the areas where hill tribes (some of which overlap with Burma) live.

As for Vietnam, the map shows the area where the so-called montagniards live.

A similar map could easily be made for China.

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