Contested Frontiers: Land Enclosures and Indigenous Politics in Myanmar’s Chin State

Contested Frontiers: Land Enclosures and Indigenous Politics in Myanmar’s Chin State
Rainer Einzenberger


Myanmar's border regions have experienced fundamental changes over the past few decades, due to military-led reforms following the crisis of 1988. The transition from a nominally socialist centralized economy to a market-driven economy has again intensified since the general elections in 2010 and the presidency of Thein Sein (2011-2016) who introduced farreaching economic and political reforms. This study examined the changing center-periphery relations and contemporary processes of incorporation of Myanmar’s periphery in the context of the so-called political and economic “transition” or “metamorphosis”. While the Thai-Myanmar border or China-Myanmar border have been subject to academic research, the India-Myanmar border – including Chin State – has been largely neglected. For this reason, Chin State was selected as case study area. A multi-sited field research was conducted over several months from 2015-2017 in Chin State, Sagaing Region and Yangon, focusing on conflicts over land and natural resources and local responses. The qualitative research adopted the theoretical framework of the frontier, emerging from the field of border studies, to analyze processes of incorporation and negotiation in peripheral upland areas. Thereby the study draws in particular on the theoretical contribution of Cottyn (2017) who proposed three analytical categories for the analysis of frontiers: a historical process (time), the production of capitalist space, and process of contestation and negotiation (agency). These categories informed the overall structure of this study. It argues that Chin State can be considered a post-colonial frontier region of Myanmar. The process of frontier-making in this region was a long historical process that can be traced back at least to the end of the 19th century when the Chin Hills became part of the British Empire. The latest phase of incorporation into a ‘state-in-the-making’ and the (inter)national market began in the early 1990s with the beginning of the “Burmese way to Capitalism”. The production of modern frontiers entails primarily the production of capitalist spaces and transformation of spatial relations. It is argued, that Chin State is also experiencing land enclosures and dispossession, although to a lesser extent than other ethnic states (such as Kachin State). In response, local actors increasingly draw on indigenous peoples rights frameworks, insisting on the recognition of customary land tenure and autonomy concerning the governance of land and resources. This study argues that the recent emergence of indigenous identity constructions is an example of frontier agency. It is an attempt to proactively negotiate and shape the contested process of incorporation and the center-periphery relation during times of transition.


Rainer Einzenberger

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Vienna, Department of Development Studies


Social Sciences


Southeast Asia