Reposessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand, and a Nation-State Deferred

Siu-hei Lai

In Repossessing Shanland, Jane Ferguson offers a historically thorough and ethnographically thick account of the Shan ethnonational project of gaining independent from Burma (Myanmar). The book traces the cultural roots and ongoing dynamic interrelationships of Shan – both the place and its peoples, advocates of Shan independence and the opponents – to turns of colonialism, the Cold War, narcotic insurgencies, and the recent market capitalisms of undocumented border crossing and labor migration. Arguing that Shan is a legitimate nation-state deferred, Ferguson suggests that the changing discourses of being and becoming Shan – as land and as peoplehood – are inextricably linked to the modern territorialization and sovereignty-making of Burma and Thailand, who make Shanland marginalized and invisible. Hence, the work proposes that a precise examination of Shan’s nationalistic endeavors is not possible without interrogating its ongoing dialogues with dominant neighbours. By ‘repossession,’ Ferguson means “a process through which the party that has right of ownership to a property takes said property back from the party that is currently holding it” (p. 15). It is presented as action and as an aspirational promise – a better ‘not yet.’ Throughout the book, she addresses what comprises “rightful ownerships” and how the people of Shanland reclaim their ownership of the place and its citizens, politically and culturally.

The book is structured in two parts, though this is not made explicit by the author. The first part situates the repossession project – how it is contested, negotiated, and attempted – within the geopolitical shifts of British colonialization and its aftermath, the Cold War, regional heroin wars, and local insurgencies. Ideologically, the project of repossessing Shanland implies the rescue of a nation from other people’s history – i.e., constructing a unique history of Shan that is independent of both Burmese and Thai narrativities. However, the pre-colonial Shan State was comprised of many political autonomous principalities ruled by individual sao hpa (hereditary princes), which were themselves loosely connected by tributaries. Shan State was (and is) inhabited by multifarious ethnic groups of diverse cultural, ethnic, and historical backgrounds in addition to the Shan people, who indeed consists of numerous Tai-speaking subgroups. Thus, in Chapter 1, Ferguson questions how the notion of Shan as a single racial, ethnic, national, territorial, and political entity emerged. It was the British colonizers who brought the idea of territorial sovereignty to the people in and of Shan, putting this in place through territorializing Shan State as a region in the Frontier Area under an indirect administration via Shan sao hpa.

Ferguson argues that the consequential presence of the Shan elites in the colonial bureaucracy provided the conditions for the emergence of a collective identity as ‘Shan chiefs’ among these sao hpa, who then projected the ‘one Shan’ idea onto non-elite members. Meanwhile, the rise of Shan nationhood was prompted by the Siamese nationalism since King Rama V, which promulgated Tai-speaking groups as the same race (chat) and, by implication, a territorial nation. Despite ethnic tensions since British colonialization and rivalries during the Japanese invasion of World War II, Shan elites, along with other ethnic elites, reached an agreement with the Barmen presentative Aung San in joining the Union of Burma for the common goal of gaining independence from Britain. The consensus was ratified in the Panglong Agreement in 1947, which underpinned the Constitution of this newly independent federal state. Chapter X of the Constitution stated explicitly that individual states could exercise the right of secession after the tenth year of the formation of the Union. These two documents served as the ‘title deed’ for the repossession of Shanland.

During the volatilities of the Cold War and local political oscillations in Burma – the assassination of Aung San, the military authorism and the 1962 coup, and the nationalization of the economy under Ne Win’s socialism – Ferguson shows (in Chapter 2) that the peaceful and prosperous life for people in Shan was in vain. Shan attempted to repossess the Shanland through armed movements, as a response to the Barmar juntas’ machinations and as a means for escalating Shan State to the international order (p. 64). Unpacking the complex dynamics between the forces – the Tatmadaw, the Yunnanese Kuomintang (KMT) who fled China after 1949, the Communist Part of Burma (CPB), the Shan ethnic forces, other ethnic paramilitaries in the region, and the Kakweye (KKY) ‘home guard’ mercenaries – Ferguson provides a compelling and careful analysis of how these forces kept shifting their affiliations and orientations in view of political-economic interests and how these forces came together in light of a shared ideological connection, creating a “surface compatibility” (p. 63) despite their different objectives within the shifting geopolitical context of Cold War. For Shan militias, ideological alliances served as the pool of resources and a motivating force for the armed campaigns. For example, both Kawn Song (in Chapter 2) and Khun Sa (in Chapter 4), two figures in the Shan insurgencies, framed their military campaigns as anti-communist to draw supports from other forces and international agents. In so doing, they served as the ideological antithesis to the Barmar socialist regime. In sum, the repossessing project during the Cold War was not just ethnic but also ideological.

This seismic period also marked a power shift in Shan State from the hereditary princes (and the underpinning feudal economy) to the capitalistic illicit market of narcotic trade and poppy growing, with drug warlords as de facto rulers. Ferguson spends Chapter 4 discussing Shan State under the reign of Khun Sa, a Han Chinese-Shan of interethnic descent. Apart from manifesting the ups and downs Khun Sa’s career from the 1960s to the 1990s, she unveils lay Shan people’s ambivalences towards Khun Sa – namely, whether he was a devotee to Shan independence or a Chinese businessman making use of Shan nationalism as a façade for his drug trade. She argues that Khun Sa was both a Shan nationalist and a merchant, stating that ethnicity is about both politics and economics (p. 146). Besides the armed movements, the Shan ethnic militias also invested a lot in cultural industries (e.g., print media and education) as a means of reclaiming Shan (Chapter 3). Hence, the repossession project is not merely a military movement but also a cultural war.

The second part of the book addresses Shan identity and how the unaccomplished repossession continues by examining Shan diasporas in Thailand. In Chapters 5-6, Ferguson demystifies the Thai discourse of phinongkan (Shan and Thai being ethnic siblings, sharing a common ancestry and cultural root). These chapters demonstrate that Shan are structurally deemed to be aliens in Thailand. They are neither refugees nor citizens but rather undocumented migrants or ‘hilltribes’ of partial citizenships. They face social discrimination from Thais as poor ‘Burmese,’ and they are culturally looked down upon as not possessing ‘authentic’ Thainess. Although Shan heritages, such as tattoos and language, are essential in publicizing Shan identity and serving as the cultural symbols of repossessing Shanland, these become negative markers when living in Thailand. Exploring festivities and religious events of a Northern Thai Shan community straddling the Thai-Burmese border (in Chapters 7-8), Ferguson shows that the Shan diaspora reasserts its Shan identity, cultivates its social networks across locales, and resists Thai assimilation through music, imagining a unique social world for Shan, and rehearsing their visions of future (p. 219). All of this is part of the repossession. The procession in the Poi Hsang Lawng ritual, Ferguson argues, serves as a “hypervisible” (p. 241) moment of Shan, who are socially and politically invisible (and perhaps neglected) amid the two dominant neighbours. The festivities and rituals allow the Shan diaspora to activate remittances to the borderland for continuing the repossession project, tasting the imagined future, a fantasy perhaps, of Shan State for the people of Shanland.

I was captivated by Ferguson’s empathetic writings about the Shan people and their striving for an independent Shanland. She presents attentive analyses to unpack the forces and historical contingencies – and their interrelationships – shaping the repossession project. I recommend this book to scholars and students who are interested in borderland studies, migration, ethnic relations, and politics and cultures of ethnic minorities in Burma and the Thai-Burmese borderland. It is also a timely publication about ethnic insurgencies and military authoritarianism in Burma after the 2021 coup.