At the heart of these efforts stands the collaboration between the Melbourne School of Government (University of Melbourne) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London).
Borderlands and frontiers tend to be geographically peripheral, but they are centrally important to understanding processes of statebuilding, conflict and development. Far from being just reflective of power relations in the capital, they may be constitutive of new political and economic orders at the centre.
There are many important policy dimensions to these regions, including security (insurgencies and illicit economies), development (poverty alleviation, turbulent, but unequal growth), migration (legal and illegal flows), natural resource governance (resource capture, logging, bush fires, climate change), and health (communicable diseases, limited public health facilities) to name just a few possible examples.
The current project focuses primarily on three cases: the Myanmar-China borderland, the Malacca Strait and the Borneo borderland. More (link to about us) The current effort is co-funded by the both institutions and runs until early 2018. We are currently expanding our work.
This project brings together unrivalled social science, humanities and area studies expertise from the Melbourne School of Government (MSOG, University of Melbourne) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). It also involves the Universitas Gadjah Mada (Yogyakarta).
A joint initiative
The project builds upon existing networks and creates new synergies between academics and policy makers working on the challenges of Asian borderlands and frontiers.
More specifically the project is executed by the following researchers:
- Professor Jonathan Goodhand, project leader (SOAS and MSoG)
- Dr Rachael Diprose (MSoG, The University of Melbourne)
- Professor Purwo Santosa (UGM, Yogyakarta)
- Dr Bart Klem (MSoG, The University of Melbourne)
- Dr Patrick Meehan (SOAS, London)
- Dr Kate Macdonald (MSoG, The University of Melbourne)
- Professor Najib Acza (UGM, Yogyakarta)
- Professor John Langmore (MSoG, The University of Melbourne)
- Professor Sundhya Pahuja (SOAS and MSoG)
- Profesor Matthew Craven (SOAS, London)
- Dr Laura Hammond (SOAS, London)
- Professor Adrian Little (MSoG, The University of Melbourne)
- Dr Paolo Novak (SOAS, London)
We define borderlands as zones straddling an international border. Frontiers are more fuzzy political spaces, marking zones of transition between different centres of power and regulation.
Frontiers and borderlands
What they are and why they matter
Frontiers and borderlands, though often presented as ‘lagging regions’, may be at the forefront of processes of rapid social, political and economic change. Many frontier activities and cross-border networks evade the ordering logic and regulatory regimes of the metropolitan centres. Simply labelling these undertakings as illegal and law and order problems has very little analytical purchase. In order to address them, we need to understand them from a borderland perspective.
Breaking out of the territorial trap
Our understanding of the world is limited by ‘methodological nationalism’. Data are organised at the national level, national borders are reified as self-evident, and nation- states present themselves as the natural elements of the international system. This leads us to foreground ‘the formal’, the ‘legal’ and ‘the official’. And it renders challenges to this order as illicit and undesirable.
This perspective, what we call ‘borderland blindness’, needs to be questioned as it fails to capture how borderlands (and frontiers) actually work. They are simultaneously places of fixity and transgressive motion. Many apparently sharp borders are in fact fuzzy and porous. Social-cultural connections often straddle national boundaries. Supposedly illicit cross-border economies can have very productive and benign effects.
A borderlands perspective
Rather than viewing borderlands and frontiers from the centre, we need to take these peripheral areas as the starting point of our analysis. Adopting such a ‘borderlands perspective’ requires, in our view, looking at three inter-connected disciplinary approaches: political economy, political geography and history.
This has great merit academically, but it has major ramifications for policy responses too. Many of today’s key policy challenges emanate from borderlands and frontiers: migration, conflict and insurgencies, climate change, epidemics, poverty and under- development. Therefore borderlands can be understood as zones of concentrated intractabilities, and these policy challenges cannot be adequately met through state- centred approaches.
A borderlands perspective offers a fruitful vantage point to engage with these issues. It provokes some fundamental questions about the utility and effectiveness of state-based policy making, whilst also offering innovative approaches to addressing ‘unruly borderlands’.
Drugs in the Afghan or Myanmar frontier
The production and trafficking of opium are central to the political economies of both countries. Understanding these economies (and social and political networks around them) must involve looking at cross-border dynamics. After all, the border is not just a hindrance, but also an opportunity to make profit. Border regimes do not simply obstruct drug trafficking, they shape it.
Labour migration in transborder economies
Economies thrive on difference. It is thus no surprise that borderlands with a high gradient and porous borders spawn thriving trans-border economies. This often involves large-scale labour migration - be it legal or informal. The economies of states like Singapore or cities like Kuching (Malaysia) crucially depend on the proximity of a reservoir of cheap labour across the border.
Logging, ecology and land tenure
The globalised commodity networks associated with an extractive frontier like Borneo or Sumatra’s forest are underpinned by vital interests both for states and the private sector as well as local populations. Subsequent concern about ecological impacts of timber extraction and increased assertiveness of frontier inhabitants affect established interests, bargaining positions and alliances.
A purely national response to these challenges is clearly insufficient. Both causes and effects defy the international borders. Global and local interests challenge national governments from above and below. And official policies are undermined by state entities and regional elites fending for themselves.
The research aims to develop borderland biographies of three case studies. Each of these represents a nexus in current dynamics of Southeast Asia.
Empirical research in three borderlands
Case 1: The Myanmar-China borderland (Mainly Shan State and Yunnan)
Case 2: The Borneo borderland (mainly East Kalimantan and Sabah)
Case 3: The Malacca Strait borderland (mainly Riau and Singapore) The map indicating the three cases should come in here somewhere
Each borderland has its own unique history, trajectory of change and contemporary significance. All bear the legacy of colonial rule but have differing geo-strategic importance today. Each case involves borders with a degree of porosity, a high gradient and major cross border flows.
One is directly connected to a globalised economic hub (Singapore); others are connected less directly or through shadow networks of illicit trade (Myanmar-China). Cases 1 and 2 are land borders, which cut across large swathes of forest, while case 3 is a maritime border.
Our analysis of these three cases will involve both field work that generates fine grained analysis at the community level, and macro level mapping and analysis drawing on key informant interviews and existing sources.
Here we will be posting the research outputs of this project as they emerge.
For now, please find some of our earlier work on related themes below.
For a brief over view of this project, please download this flyer.
- Barron, Patrick, Rachael Diprose, and Michael Woolcock (2011) 'Contesting Development: Participatory Projects and Local Conflict Dynamics in Indonesia.' New Haven: Yale University Press
- Diprose, Rachael (2009) 'Decentralization, Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict Management in Indonesia', Ethnopolitics, 8(1): 107-134
- Goodhand, Jonathan (2005) 'Frontiers and Wars: The Opium Economy in Afghanistan', Journal of Agrarian Change, 5(2): 191-216
- Goodhand, Jonathan (2008) 'Corrupting or Consolidating the Peace? The Drugs Economy and Post-conflict Peacebuilding in Afghanistan', International Peacekeeping, 15(3): 405-423
- Goodhand, Jonathan (2012) ‘Bandits, Borderlands and Opium Wars: Afghan statebuilding viewed from the margins', in Thomas Wilson and Hastings Donnan (eds) A Companion to Border Studies. London: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 332-353
- Goodhand, Jonathan (2013) 'Epilogue: The View from the Border', in Benedikt Korf and Timothy Raeymaekers (eds) Violence on the Margins: States, Conflict, and Borderlands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 247-264
- Goodhand, Jonathan (2013) 'Contested boundaries: NGOs and civil-military relations in Afghanistan', Central Asian Survey, 32(3): 287-385
- Goodhand, Jonathan, Bart Klem and Benedikt Korf (2009) 'Religion, Conflict and Boundary Politics in Sri Lanka’, European Journal for Development Research, 21(5): 679-898
- Goodhand, Jonathan and Mansfield, David (2013) 'Drugs and (dis)order. The opium ecoomy, political settlements and statebuilding in Afghanistan', in Schetter, Conrad, (ed.), Local Politics in Afghanistan. A Century of Intervention in the Social Order. London: Hurst, pp. 211-243
- Klem, B. (2014) 'The Political Geography of War's End: Territorialisation, Circulation, and Moral Anxiety in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka', Political Geography, 38(1): 33-45
- Little, Adrian (2015) 'The Complex Temporality of Borders: Contingency and normativity', European Journal of Political Theory, 14(4): 429-447
- Little, Adrian and Kate Macdonald (2013) 'Pathways to Global Democracy: Escaping the Statist Imaginary', Review of International Studies, 39(4): 789-813
We are currently exploring possible modes of collaboration with a range of policy-makers and practitioners. This may involve invited people joining a project advisory board or other forms of strategic partnership.
This may also comprise joint work on specific themes or case studies. And it may involve the co-organisation of policy-oriented public events to disseminate findings and exchange ideas.
We are also keen to strengthen our connections with the wider academic community working on borderland and frontiers and/or on the countries and regions that our study focuses on. Please get in touch if you are interested.
For general enquiries. please contact Bart Klem (email@example.com)
Project launch workshop States, frontiers and conflict. 24-26 November 2014. SOAS, London.
Follow up workshop States, frontiers and conflict. 16-18 September 2015. MSOG, Melbourne.
Follow up workshop States, frontiers and conflict. 27-27 June 2016. SOAS, Melbourne.