The term “Zomia”, derived from the word “zomi”, which means highlander in various Chino-Mizo-Kuki languages which exist in the area of India and Myanmar, (Mazard, 2014, 217) was coined by the contemporary Dutch historian Willem van Schendel to describe a large portion of Southeast Asia, crossing several nation-states, which, according to the author, have not been assimilated into the legal and social framework of the nation-states where Zomia is located. (Goldberg, 2014) This means that the people which live in this territory, also known as the Southeast Asian massif, are essentially ungoverned by the ruling authority of the nation-states of which Zomia is part, such as China, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh. (Goldberg, 2014)
Accordingly, the concept of Zomia is of especial interest because it essentially is based on the relationship of various academic fields of study: politics, geography, and sociology. In terms of geography, Zomia is constituted by the highland massif, a long and extensive sequence of rugged mountain peaks and deep valleys, of highlands and plateaus, which altogether account for a massive land mass of approximately 2.5 million square kilometers. (Goldberg, 2014) The term in particular is used to describe the higher areas of the Zomi land mass, that is to say, those which are in excess of 300 meters in altitude. (Goldberg, 2014) The concept of Zomia is thus highly defined by geography, representing an essentially homogeneous although massive land massif.
At the same time, the geographical location of Zomia has had profound implications on the lives of the approximately 100 million people which inhabit the area. (Goldberg, 2014) Because of the rugged terrain, the high altitudes, and the difficult to access areas which constitute Zomia, the peoples which occupy the region have largely led lives determined by geographic isolation. (Mazard, 2014, 217) This means, at the same time, that they have preserved a traditional style of life, which has largely been uninfluenced by foreign presences due to the inaccessibility of the territory. As Goldberg (2014) notes, the greater civilizations of the area tended to form in the lowland areas, simply because the geography of the lowland areas, made up of freer movement, was more becoming to the establishment of urban centers, trade, agriculture, as well as centralized authority.
It is this latter aspect of centralized authority which introduces the political element of Zomia. Namely, various authors, such as the aforementioned Willem van Schendel, have stressed the importance of Zomia in precisely these terms: because of the inaccessibility of the Southeast Asian massif, government and state authorities have largely had little to no control over the peoples that inhabit Zomia. (Mazard, 2014, 217) The highland culture has developed in almost a complete autonomy to more established and centralized spheres of power. In this regard, Zomia becomes an important geopolitical concept, showing that the development of human social groups is not necessarily directed towards some type of centralized and state government. Rather, it is possible, as Zomia indicates, for people to develop more anarchic forms of life, whereby forms of authority that are traditionally wielded by central powers, such as monarchies and nation-states, are ineffective. This means that the Zomia people can essentially live by their own traditions and norms, without the imposition of force from forces that come from the outside.
Of course, this is a possibility that is only granted by the geography of the area.
The inaccessibility of Zomian territory, the difficulty with which to reach it, and its general lack of attractiveness for expanding powers because of the difficulty of its terrain and its hostility to more sedentary forms of power such as agriculture, means that Zomian culture has largely been untouched by greater civilizational developments. The fact that Zomia remains an interesting concept for geographers as well as political scientists is further underscored by the fact that even in the 21st century it appears that the reach of the nation-state model has its limits.
The geography of Zomia has therefore been used for various political theses, such as those presented by Scott, which uses Zomia to show the possibility of more anarchic forms of lifestyle which are unbound and out of the control of centralized political authority. (Mazard, 2014, 217) Scott, therefore, argues that the history of Zomia shows the conflict between peoples of “states” and peoples of “non-states”. (Mazard, 2014, 217) The non-states peoples are those occupying the highlands; at the same time, those who, historically, have been dissatisfied with life in the lowlands, that is, life under authoritative and centralized political power, have migrated to the highlands. (Mazard, 2014, 217) This migration thus becomes a politicized migration which uses the natural geographical features of the region to make a political statement: the highland peoples of Zomia continue to live in more difficult living conditions precisely because of the freedom which these geographic area confers them. For thinkers such as Scott therefore Zomia is not only a geographical concept, but a political and sociological concept: Zomia is a rejection of the nation-state or urban model as the correct structure of human relationships; at the same time, it is a sociological concept, which shows how alternative forms of social arrangements can be formulated.
Of course, all these alternatives are only possible to the extent that the geography of Zomia is conducive to them. Without the massif features of the land, the people of Zomia would have been assimilated to the historical horizon of power of previous civilizations and modern nation-states. This has led the people of Zomia to have an unprecedented autonomy in the region, an autonomy that is ultimately the gift of geography.