AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 269

[ Southeast Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 269: Militarized Natures and Development Narratives in SE Asia

Organizer: David A. Biggs, University of California, Riverside, USA

Discussant: Shelley Feldman, Cornell University, USA

Like much of Asia, Southeast Asia’s forests, mountains and cities have in different times and places been characterized as some of the world’s most violent places. This is largely due to the historically high levels of military activity – occupation, insurgency and counter-insurgency – from World War II to the early 1980s. While much attention has been placed on narratives of national struggle to realize hegemonic control of mapped territory and the resources within, comparatively little attention has been aimed at the many ways that militarism from this era continues to linger not only in ecologies but also in visions of economic development, conservation, and community identities vis-à-vis increasingly technocratic state regimes. In order to understand the persistence of violence or why some places never seem to “improve” in social, economic or ecological terms, it is important to return to past moments of heightened military activity and consider militarism’s role in shaping development narratives, storylines that come to generalize certain social or environmental predicaments. These three papers do this in unique and different ways: studying food and minority politics in the requisitioning of grain in the northwest highlands of Vietnam; examining patterns of environmental decline and resilience near former military base sites in Central Vietnam; and reflecting on the role of counter-insurgency in shaping Thai forestry policy. Discussant Shelley Feldman (Cornell) will situate these Southeast Asian accounts of militarism in a broader comparative framework by drawing on relevant examples from South Asia.

Feeding the Revolution: Highland Identity and the Mobilization for War at Dien Bien Phu
Christian C. Lentz, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

How can a community sustain organized violence? How can organized violence produce community? This paper uses local food production and state procurement to investigate contradictory processes of militarization. After French paratroopers landed in Dien Bien Phu in November 1953, Vietnamese infantry relied on local swidden farmers and wet-rice cultivators to provide them with daily rations. Over the next six months, military claims on local food steadily increased just as stocks decreased and mass mobilization diverted labor away from agricultural work. Agrarian resources figured at the center of an evolving relationship: many local residents first encountered soldiers, cadres, and officers associated with, and waging war on behalf of, an emergent Vietnam. Agents of state justified claims as “contributions” to nation and “sacrifice” on its behalf; half a century later, this language still saturates official commemorations of “national victory” in May 1954. Yet, at the time, local residents often self-identified not as Vietnamese but as Thái or Hmong and responded in complex ways to procurement and legitimation work. Some chafed at colonial rule and requested “liberation.” Others provided food based on exchange for salt and farmtools. Still others grew suspicious, such as one Thái man who asked, “Why all these meetings? They only take our rice and meat.” Disgruntlement with state claim-making pointed to the uneven social costs of supporting organized violence. Indeed, when the soldiers departed, they left a devastated landscape and a hungry community worried about its own social reproduction.

Hedgerows Versus Hardpan: Reading Military Occupation in the Lowland Landscapes of Central Vietnam
David A. Biggs, University of California, Riverside, USA

The rapid expansion and operation of large base complexes in central Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s left vast areas of land in a kind of ecological and political limbo that continues to the present. Stunted plants, large swaths of severely eroded red clay, and the crumbling ruins of tarmac – hardpan – indicate areas not only occupied by thousands of troops but also potentially sterilized by now-invisible traces of diesel and herbicidal defoliants, buried mines and incendiaries, and abandoned stocks of ordnance and hazardous materials buried underground. The widely visible debates on the legacies of Agent Orange and its highly toxic byproduct TCDD dioxin have drawn attention away from the more mundane but pervasive environmental degradation surrounding hundreds of former bases. Today, many of these lands are suspended in a kind of political limbo where jurisdiction is shuffled between military and private concerns as discoveries or fears of invisible hazards raise or lower their perceived value. Meanwhile, the persistence of village hedgerows and other agricultural landscapes before, during and after this destructive war suggests a different story also as yet untold - that of incredible resilience. Relying on historical maps and air photos as well as documents and field study, this paper examines hedgerows and hardpan as two metaphoric tools for advancing a more nuanced narrative of war’s impacts on Vietnamese landscapes.

Political Ecologies of War and Forests: Counter-insurgencies and the Making of National Natures
Nancy Lee Peluso, University of California, Berkeley, USA

During the Cold War, particularly between the 1950s and the end of the 1970s, natures were remade in relation to nation-states in part through engagements with “insurgencies” and “emergencies” staged from forested territories. These insurgencies represented alternative civilizing projects to those of the nascent nation-states; they also took place in historical moments and sites where the reach of centrifically focused nations was still tentative. War, insurgency, and counter-insurgency helped normalize political forests as components of the modern nation-state during and in the aftermath of violence. The political violence also enabled state-based forestry to expand under the rubric of scientific forestry. Military counter-insurgency operations contributed to the practical and political separation of forests and agriculture, furthered and created newly racialized state forests and citizen-subjects, and facilitated the transfer of technologies to forestry departments. The crisis rhetoric of environmental security around “jungles,” as dangerous spaces peopled with suspect populations, particularly near international borders, articulated with conservation and other national security discourses which emerged concurrently. Counter-insurgency measures thus strengthened the territorial power and reach of national states by extending their political forests.