Strongmen in Southeast Asia
Time & LocationSession 4
Wed 15:30–17:00 Room 1.401
- Daniel Bultmann Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
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- Circles of Obligation: Autonomous Strongmen on the Myanmar-China Border Andrew Ong National University of Singapore
Myanmar's largest armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), controls a de facto autonomous region on the border with China, run by its strongmen in a form of "rebel governance." UWSA strongmen, however, derive their authority through opposition and not allegiance to the Myanmar state, not as state-society mediators, but the autonomous patrons of their own people and territory. At the same time, they enact a formal posture of subordination to the Myanmar state, rejecting secessionist claims, while simultaneously cultivating the neighbouring Chinese state as alternative patrons. This paper explores the ambivalences of the tripartite relationship between Wa strongmen of the UWSA, the Myanmar military rulers, and Chinese state agents, examining them as patron-client ties informed by local logics of generosity and obligation. I argue that these multidirectional political and economic ties are both confrontational and collaborative, drawing UWSA strongmen into relationships of obligation with the Myanmar military, state, and their Chinese patrons, destabilising impressions of strongmen as simply mediators between “state” and “society”. Ultimately, a sustainable peace requires strengthening ties of obligation in order for the Myanmar state to draw the UWSA closer into its network of influence.
- Rethink on the Role of Johore and Singapore Chinese Leader, Major Tan Hiok Nee Siew Boon Lew National University of Singapore
This paper will discuss the only Major in British Malaya Johore during the late 19th century and early 20th century - Tan Hiok Nee. Tan was a famous and influential Chinese Teochew leader in Johore-Singapore. His life was full of legend. He ranked as Major from an infamous cloth merchant after many years of cultivation. However, research regarding his life and influences has never been the main focus in academia. So far, there are only a few researchers like Patricia Lim Pui Huen and Carl Trocki, who have discussed Tan Hiok Nee’s business in Johore. Trocki especially highlighted Tan Hiok Nee’s power in Johore when discussing the opium trading in Johore-Singapore. Thus, this paper aims to discuss Tan’s influence more comprehensively based on previous research results and new data gathered from the National Archives and different languages newspapers that have not yet received emphasis. This study aims to contribute a new point of view on Tan Hiok Nee’s political and economic roles in Johore and Singapore.
- Strongman Authority at the Periphery of the State: Social Foundations of Bentian Leadership Kenneth Sillander University of Helsinki
The manti of the Bentian of Indonesian Borneo in many ways represents a typical case of Southeast Asian strongmen, characteristic of indigenous groups at the periphery of the state. Their authority has been ambivalently based on state and local authority, ascription and achievement, disinterestedness and self-aggrandizement. The term manti – cognates of which appear widely in Southeast Asia – has two distinct Bentian referents: extended family heads and community leaders, reflecting the condition of unstable political authority typical of dispersed, state-peripheral groups with an egalitarian orientation. The manti are a fundamentally heterogeneous category; there are manti of different ranks and dignity, with different social and political orientations, exhibiting at least two distinct forms of charisma, one expressing enterprise, zeal, and a “will to power,” and the other composure, refinement, and deference. Over time, and in different villages, the nature of their leadership has also significantly varied, due to shifting modes of social organization and differential integration with the state. Through ethnographic examples of individual manti, this paper discusses these variations through history into the present, and the varied ways in which their leadership has been authorized through kinship connections and descent; linguistic skills, oratory and knowledge of customary law; titles and ties to the state; ritual, exchange and cosmological notions.
- Strongmen Across Southeast Asia: The Case of the Bo in Burma’s Shan State John Buchanan Harvard University
During the post-World War II period, the Shan State of Burma became one of the world’s most politically fragmented areas. The configuration of political authority in Shan State experienced a far-reaching transformation in which powerful strongmen exercising social control autonomous of central state leaders emerged. There is a rich literature on strongmen in Southeast Asia that features concepts of traditional and modern strongmen. Many of the strongmen modern strongmen rely on ties to the state for access for the resources critical to their exercise of power.
This paper builds on this scholarship by examining strongmen in Shan State who are autonomous of the central state. It examines the conditions that account for their emergence through a focus on the role of societal dislocation, their accumulation of opium capital and the basis which they exercised social control. Drawing on comparative analysis of other strongmen in Southeast Asia, the paper examines the critical importance of both access to resources and the ability of strongmen to offer people strategies of survival as a basis for their domination of society.
Scholars of Southeast Asia have produced an extensive literature on strongmen. The study of traditional strongmen focuses on men of prowess across Southeast Asia, emphasizing the importance of shared belief systems about the basis of an individual's power and the historical processes that influenced these beliefs. Scholarship on modern strongmen also discuss elements of traditional authority, but often emphasize the reliance of strongmen on coercion and ties to the state as the basis for their domination of society.
This panel brings together scholars from various perspectives to examine a broad range of issues regarding strongmen in Southeast Asia. The goals of the panel are to present recent research on strongmen to broaden our understanding of several dynamics. Among the questions addressed: 1) What is the basis for strongmen’s domination of society? 2) When and how do strongmen ally with/violently challenge the central state? 3) What are the economic and social foundations of their authority?