This project aims to develop my PhD dissertation that I wrote in French into a book publication in English. This step is all the more important that French scholarship on former Indochina is little known to the Anglo-Saxon academia because of the language barrier. Originally, my PhD dissertation in political science entitled From Communism to Neoliberalism: the Role of Chinese Networks in the Transformation of the State in Laos, shed light on how globalization has transformed the practices and modes of exercising power in Laos, since the country has engaged in a process of economic liberalization in the late 1980s. My research focused on the mountainous borderlands of northern Laos, which crystallize all the challenges the country is currently facing since the construction of the North-South Economic Corridor, one of the major Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) infrastructure projects. Since the end of the Cold War, the GMS – a regional integration process supported by the Asian Development Bank – has witnessed the revival of the ancient caravan trade routes and networks that once traversed the region. In the proximate uplands, where Burma, Thailand and Laos intersect in the junctures of the notorious Golden Triangle, massive Chinese investment and migration have reshaped local political economies.
My objective is to revise the dissertation manuscript in a more comparative perspective. The book explores the ways in which the world’s second largest drug producing area has restructured into a series of tourism and casino hubs under the banner of the GMS’ special economic zones (SEZs) and Economic Quadrangle. At the intersection of political economy and comparative-historical sociology, the approach is to dissect state-society relations occurring in the Upper Mekong borderlands. I will try to describe the range of techniques, strategies, and knowledge implemented by the Southeast Asian States involved in this transnational space to regulate and discipline their populations. The Foucauldian approach will help rethink the paradigm of the nation-state shaken by globalization, which challenges traditional notions of power and sovereignty. The concept of governmentality illuminates how neoliberal practices can coexist with maintaining communist and/ or authoritarian regimes, while the notion of subjugation, considered in terms of power relations and subjectivity makes intelligible the mechanisms of domination, and particularly the hegemony of the plains over the mountains. In this perspective, the economic field is considered as a site of power relations, thus forcing us not to explain the survival of authoritarian regimes only on coercive measures, but rather to look at how economic arrangements fully participate in building a mechanism of domination.
I will try to sketch the contours of the political economy of domination operating in the highlands of the Mekong region. To do this, I will focus on the SEZs developed within the Economic Quadrangle. Frequently viewed as Chinese enclaves and lawless domains, the book argues that this borderlands region is in fact a site of fervent local state activity and intentionality, key planks in state efforts at consolidating lowland rule and extending state sovereignty. Contrary to common assumptions, the study of the Golden Triangle SEZ demonstrates that Southeast Asian states are far from helpless spectators and passive victims within the broader expansion of Chinese capital and migration, informal economy and illegal practices (gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, money laundering, etc.) permeating the region. I foreground the critical role played by borderlands and transnational networks in constructing alternative accounts of region-building and state formation processes. I will demonstrate the way in which local lowland states strategically leverage Chinese presence and activity in the borderland SEZs in order to domesticate their “barbarian” peripheries.