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The War to Rule: Ceasefire Capitalism and State-Making in Burma's Borderlands


In March 2011, the world watched as Burma’s first civilian-led government in six decades took office. The transition of power in Burma brought hope for an end to crippling poverty and the world’s longest running civil war. In the resource-rich forests of Burma’s uplands however, the story was not one of peace, but of war continued by other means. The “war to rule” – the fight to bring rebel frontier landscapes and ethnic minority populations under control of the lowland state – continued, and this time the embrace of markets and foreign capital started to accomplish what a century of counter-insurgency was never able to achieve. This dissertation summarizes nine years of study on the agrarian political ecology of violence and state-making in northern Burma’s rebel frontier from the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s to the present day. In areas once dominated by drugs, rebels and warlords, land has turned to capital, and battlefields to marketplaces. These agrarian transformations began as military counter-insurgency, using direct violence against ethnic minority populations, morphed into a form of economic counter-insurgency using a combination of physical force and market reform during the ceasefire era. Land deals located in rebel territories created state property regimes, making state territory and state subjects where previously ethnic minority rebel governments held sway.

This dissertation examines the outcome of Burma’s celebrated opening to global capital in zones under both ceasefires and renewed civil war in two particular ways. First, I examine how political violence embedded within the structures of Cold War legacies became integral to the nature of capital accumulation. Second, I look at how turning land into capital can act as its own sort of battle on behalf of the military and its statecraft. The case studies taken together reveal how turning land into capital has nationalized natures and consolidated state territorial power and authority in the rebel frontier. These violent agrarian changes have set the stage for the post-colonial state to exclude certain racialized populations from the state’s imaginary of the nation.

In a process I call “ceasefire capitalism,” I examine the production of three resource commodities to demonstrate the ways that the spatial placement of land deals and the allocation of land concessions to military cronies and former warlords helped achieve with the market what military force never fully did. Through case studies on rubber, corn, and timber investments, I examine an assemblage of three techniques, processes, and practices that operate together to build frontier state power. First, these resource investments resulted in state territorialization by privatizing, registering, mapping, taxing and physically occupying land and then allocating those territories to loyal Burman state subjects and companies. Second, I demonstrate the ways in which ethic minority populations have been differentially conceived and governed in relation to their land and resource uses and to the political territories they inhabit. Third, I examine how the rule of law – especially efforts to enforce notions of “environmental crimes” – is used as a discursive cover and a weapon to extinguish rebel group activity by denying ethnic rebel governments’ agribusiness and timber revenues.

The first part of the dissertation demonstrates how contemporary land deals rearticulate Cold War political violence through the means of the market. Chapter 2 traces the making of Burma’s early post-colonial state through the government’s reliance on para-militaries who held together the fractured nation in the midst of widespread ethnic-based and communist insurgency. As the Cold War became more pronounced and the drug trade mushroomed starting in the 1960s, Burma’s military again relied on para-militaries to help quell rebellion. The military enticed these ethnic strongmen to side with the state and fight rebel groups in return for unfettered tax and trade in the opium economy. After the end of the Cold War and socialism in the late 1980s and the subsequent rise of China in the region, Chapter 3 details how generals applied these counter-insurgency strategies within the new context of market transformation. Land and resource concessions offered financial rewards to national “cronies” and provincial strongmen for their service to the military. Using land deals to entice ex-rebel strongmen and cronies to work as counter-insurgency agents effectively commercialized counter-insurgency. My study of contemporary Chinese cross-border land deals is set within this legacy of political violence.

The second overall dissertation claim is how the Burmese state’s policy to “turn land into capital” and the implementation of China’s opium substitution program in northern Burma continued to wage war in ethnic territories by other means. In the three empirical field chapters I examine natural resource governance regimes and efforts to turn battlefields to marketplaces in armed territories in Shan State and Kachin State. As the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s, the governments of Thailand and China convinced Burma’s military to grant them access to natural resources in the borderland territories then controlled by ethnic-based rebel groups. Militarism and markets worked together with Burma’s nascent state-making entrepreneurs: national crony companies, provincial strongmen, town moneylenders, and village elites. Chapter 4 highlights the two land laws that rolled out in 2012, which effectively carried the so-called paddy nation into the upland ethnic minority forest frontiers by turning government-labeled “wastelands” into private property. In Chapter 5, I show how these same wastelands were transformed into smallholder fields of corn, but with starkly different economic effects among households. Many poor households in northern Shan State lost their land to ethnic Chinese brokers in towns and state-backed elites in their villages. In Chapter 6, similar dynamics were at work in the forest areas of Kachin State. Despite holding onto forest territories during war-time, under the ceasefire the Kachin rebel group lost their guerrilla forests to regional leaders’ logging and agribusiness concessions and road construction permits granted by the military. The three case studies collectively illustrate how the “repertoire of rule” in Burma enlisted state-like elites, Chinese capital, and the rule of law to turn land into capital and subsequently push rebels further into the forested mountainous margins.

The third main argument advanced in the dissertation is how commodifying nature and turning land into capital opened new pathways for violent forms of state-building and subject-making in the upland rebel frontier. Land deals, processes of racialization, and the “rule of law” built state territories and state subjects out of what I call the borderlands’ “armed sovereignties.” Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 pointed to the legacies of racialized rule in how the military state governed in the lowland paddy nation comprised of majority Burman Buddhists, versus rule by war in the non-Burman, predominately Christian upland forest frontier. Rubber estates profiled in Chapter 4 present cases on how agribusiness contributed to state territorialization and subject-making. Agribusiness concessions demarcated property under state-like armed authorities, and subsequently erased customary claims to the area by farmers who were more sympathetic to rebel governance. Concessionaires built roads, and police forcibly removed villagers who were thought to be associated with rebel groups; sometimes they were resettled into new roadside strategic hamlets. Burman Buddhist landless migrant laborers often moved into the area seeking to work on the plantations. The roads, para-military landlords, state property, removal of ethnic minority villagers, and monocultures cultivated a landscape more conducive to eradicating rebellion. Only by enlisting foreign capital and liberalizing the land and resource sectors has the Burman Buddhist paddy nation made progress in enclosing the upland rebel frontier.

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