(photo from main page credited to Jerome Palawng Awng Lat)
This 2018-19 essay condenses material in several chapters of a book of mine, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants, published by W. W. Norton in 2019 (https://wwnorton.com/books/Giants-of-the-Monsoon-Forest/)
Nighttime Release and “Zomian” Elephant-Based Transportation in Kachin State (Burma/Myanmar) and Arunachal Pradesh (India)
Kachin State in Myanmar (Burma) and its immediate environs comprise one of the most heavily forested zones in all of South and Southeast Asia. In many ways, it is the only remaining region where Asian elephants can at least somewhat approximate the range of mobility they enjoyed in ancient times. This binational forested region, which also extends into India’s Arunachal Pradesh, continues to have many elephants, likely around three thousand who are domesticated (captive) and a comparable number who are in the wild. Such numbers are very imprecise, not least because of the very conditions which make the region attractive to elephants in the first place: the Kachin-Arunachal region is an area of relatively weak state presence. This means, on the one hand, that the region is “underdeveloped” in the sense of there being relatively little paved road infrastructure and associated developed, deforested land; and, on the other, the weak state presence means that a conservationist bureaucracy cannot easily survey the area to get a handle on the region’s overall elephant population geography.
Two of the Kachin-Arunachal region’s main ethnolinguistic groups are the Kachin people—a kind of confederation of many different tribal and clan-based groups with overlapping dialects and languages—and a Tai-Shan group called the Hkamtis. The Kachins and Hkamtis have drawn the attention of political anthropologists and similar observers since the heyday of British colonialism in the region. In the late 19th century, the journalist and colonial official James G. Scott (who alternately went by the name Shway Yoe) remarked that these groups appeared to have formed through processes of escape from expanding military powers over the centuries. Writing in the 1950s, anthropologist Edmund Leach researched different forms of Kachin political organization, noting that, at least in his time, some villages were relatively more hierarchical and others more acephalous or anarchic in their organization. More recently, the political theorist James C. Scott (not to be confused with James G.), synthesized these observations and argued that groups like the Kachin and Hkamti have been “Zomian” in their organization and distribution within the region. This term, borrowed from Willem van Schendel and Jean Michaud, seeks to describe groups in the uplands of South and Southeast Asia whose cultures and modes of livelihood have emerged through historical experiences of flight from lowland, rice-growing, forest-clearing kingdoms and states. The term “Zomia” refers to the word zomi, which in the patois of the Naga Hills means “highlanders.” Swidden agriculture usually looms large as an example of a “Zomian” social or ecological practice, as does oral memory-keeping and ethnic shapeshifting. Such practices, James C. Scott and others have argued, function in part to keep the power of the state at arm’s length—or even (as James C. Scott in particular has argued) to prevent the fugitive culture from itself providing the basis of a new state.