Dancing the Nation: The Politics of Exile, Mobility and Displacement along the Thai-Burma Border

PhD defended at: 

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa


Tani H. Sebro



Dance, song and movement aesthetics are often overlooked in studies of war and diaspora. Yet
synchronized rhythmic movement promotes group coherence within all cultures, religions and
nations, and holds potential for expressing political resistance. Based upon long-term
ethnographic fieldwork in Northern Thailand amongst a displaced group of Burmese refugees
called the Tai, this dissertation attends to how dance, song and theatre reinvigorate displaced
minority groups’ aspirations for sovereignty outside the current global nation-state paradigm. For
Burmese exiles, expressive forms of ethnic nationalism are reproduced upon the bodies of
cultural practitioners through the work of dance training and through shared rhythmic and
aesthetic structures of sentiment towards ‘the nation’ – which produce powerful political affects
and effects. The author argues that nations are not maintained primarily through capital and
reading publics, but rather through the complex transmission of what can be called “aesthetic
nationalisms,” which involve embodied performances and cultural practices that constitute the
body-politic. This trans-disciplinary research project summons Postcolonial Studies, Affect
Theory and Critical Political Theory to elucidate the contestability of the production and
maintenance of states, democracies and diasporas. The dissertation offers a corrective to
disembodied research modalities in international relations that have become commonplace, and
instead advances a trans-disciplinary and embodied approach to the study of exile.

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