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  • Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma by Mandy Sadan

Kachin, borderlands, Burma, Myanmar, historiography, Edmund Leach, James C. Scott, Singpho, Jingpo

Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma. By Mandy Sadan. Oxford: Oxford University Press and the British Academy, 2013.
  • Review Essay I:Nicholas Farrelly
  • Nicholas Farrelly (bio)

“What if they just change the name to ‘Northern Region’?” The question, when put to me, hangs awkwardly in the steamy tropical air. The subtext, a plea for recognition and status, is one that I have heard before. It is born of trepidation about the future of the Kachin, and their Kachin State, in Myanmar’s new politics. Names are powerful. In 2014 the notion that Kachin State makes a natural contribution to the world’s geopolitical imaginary is facing one of its most serious threats. The fear is that Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution could, under certain circumstances, be used to “re-name” Kachin State. For many Kachin, this is a direct rebuke to the multi-ethnic foundations of Myanmar’s union. Yet any nascent plan to neutralize the widely understood ethnic nomenclature carries its own potent message about the multi-ethnic character of Myanmar as a whole, and of Kachin State as a place where the Kachin live side by side with Shan, Bamar, Chinese and so many others. But that perspective receives scant respect from those who have fought for the right to be Kachin. They live in a society dominated by a government in [End Page 467] distant Naypyitaw, a society in which they are forced to learn the language of those they consider colonizers and made to accept a subordinate position in the national culture. The least that they ask is to keep the name of their state.

It is the historical treatment of such matters — practical, political and personal — that makes Mandy Sadan’s study of the Kachin, and the adjacent Singpho and Jingpo societies, so timely and important. As the foremost historian of these borderlands, it is fitting that her Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma is bold and exciting scholarship, straddling the mountainous, dishevelled terrain between India, China and Myanmar. Her work skillfully integrates stories of complex historical forces to explain the ways that local, regional, national and global logics of affiliation have become part of everyday lived experiences. Sadan, it must be said, takes full advantage of the “borderworld [as] a complex, uneven social and political construct” (p. 6). She ranges, ethnographically and historically, from west to east, and in a roughly chronological order, to take in the colonial experience of Assam, the challenges of the twentieth century in northern Burma, and the imperial dynamics in today’s Chinese borderlands. The analysis draws heavily on vernacular and what Sadan calls “indigenous” sources (p. 459). The book ends with an account of the unravelling of colonial and postcolonial enterprises in northern Myanmar, and in the wider borderlands where the Kachin, as a people and a concept, are fused to an array of trans-frontier society-building projects. In wondrously effective style, it reconfigures our understanding of the colonial period, presenting Kachin ethno-nationalism in all its historical richness, before ending on the need for contemporary negotiation, in so many far-reaching ways (p. 468).

The thoroughness of this treatment means that many pages are defined by their footnotes. These mini-essays range across topics such as India’s village panchayat system, the concept of the “lost book” (Shanhpyi Laika), and the Jinghpaw term Hkaku — an ambiguous notion referring to groups “upriver”. Many of these lengthy footnotes also reproduce otherwise difficult to locate source [End Page 468] material. An aside about the “Bolshevik threat on the North East Frontier” (pp. 204–5), dating from 1926, is one such fragment. Technical discussions proliferate, with a surprising number of the details of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history having previously eluded this reviewer. For specialist readers these materials offer access to Sadan’s meticulously developed understanding of ritual, culture, history and politics among the scattered peoples of these borderlands. In the years ahead, mining these details...


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