Reflections on Bordering with the Asian Borderlands Research Network
11th of October 2012 found me presenting as a very much emerging academic (a year away from completing my PhD), in Singapore for the first time. My paper, I am sure, was not at all memorable, but I will never forget the room. Vista, an ovoid glass pod on top of the National University of Singapore’s University Hall on the Lower Kent Ridge Road campus, was truly one of the most beautiful spaces I had ever been in.
Our panel, “Landscape, Military and Diplomacy in Asian Borderlands”, felt strangely fitting for the room, a space suitable for the battle planning of some futuristic hybrid regime, from which much of Singapore could be seen, but also much more than I deserved at the stage of my career. This was the 3rd conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, hosted jointly by NUS’s Asia Research Institute (ARI) and IIAS, and from this year I have always felt most at home at this unusual caravanserai of an academic conference. I have had many memorable experiences, heard about the liminal, flexible, fluid practices of border culture in Nagaland across the Myanmar/India border, the back routes and pathways through the hills of the Vietnam/PRC China border, where national sovereignty is performed by mobile phone infrastructures, and up to the Sino-Russian-Korean borderland spaces, contested by demographic change and geopolitical rebalancing. I have presented and organised panels at every ABRN since, with scholars and practitioners whom I really consider my semi-annual friends, reconvening our connection and collaboration in some unusual, unexpected, less familiar space. There is nothing else like it in academia, nothing like navigating the streets of Kathmandu (ABRN 5 in 2016), at night where not a single traffic light works in the entire city, hiking up and slithering down the Al Archa gorge with the rest of the conference participants outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (ABRN 6 in 2018), even visiting my own research home turf in Seoul in 2022 (for the delayed ABRN 7), and engaging in an almost psychogeographic navigation of the DMZ. Aside from the glassy beauty of Vista in 2012, I will remember forever my panel’s visit in 2014 (at ABRN 4), to the very last night of the Umbrella Movement’s protest encampment on the Admiralty flyover, where borders and frontiers of possibility seemed to be both remade, and about to be foreclosed. Amidst the fantastical graffiti re-imaginings of Studio Ghibli’s Totoro as a resistive citizen of a future Hong Kong, colleagues and friends came together to break some of the ties that bind us to our sometimes tightly imposed frameworks of nationality and belonging. After these last few years, when many of the drivers of globalization appeared to go uncomfortably into reverse, when the airport lounges emptied, the cross border trains and busses stopped, the stratospheric sinews that stretch across the planet became ever thinner and more tenuous, a new infrastructure of biosecurity manifested in real time, the connective tissues of our shared global humanity became very fragile, as if we had returned to the world of our grandparents and great-grandparents where everywhere becomes once again very much over there or down there, half known about and seldom visited. In these times the continued connection and collision of the Asian Borderlands Research Network conferences are needed even more, needed to provide the opportunity for border scholars and practitioners focused on in-between spaces, to break our own borders, to actually land and engage with spaces we would normally simply fly over. I hope to see you at the next one, I know not where, though I am hoping for Ulaanbaatar. I certainly know it will be far away from me, but as Wim Wenders said “In weiter Ferne, so nah!”
Robert Winstanley-Chesters, University of Edinburgh and University of Leeds, United Kingdom