At the margins of a “development darling”: civil society, territory, and development in Karen State, Myanmar

At the margins of a “development darling”: civil society, territory, and development in Karen State, Myanmar
This thesis explains development actors’ role in making territory in the postcolonial world. From the vantage point of Karen State, Myanmar, where civil war has been a feature of everyday life for seventy years, I examine how partnerships between development actors and civil society actors transform socio-spatial relations. Here, civil society actors navigate the confluence of three processes that came to a head in the past decade: the adoption of civil society partnerships as development orthodoxy, an influx of development assistance into Myanmar, and contestations between state and rebel authorities in post- ceasefire Karen State. My approach is ethnographic, relational, and comparative, hinging on participant observation with two civil society organisations in Karen State, which I use to examine civil society actors in state/mixed-authority areas and rebel-controlled areas.

I argue that the potential of civil society actors to transform power relations is the contingent effect of relations between civil society actors, rebel and state authorities, and development actors in each locality. In Hpa-An, a state/mixed-authority area, civil society actors are caught in a power configuration I call locked-in localism. Their ability to articulate alternatives to the status quo is constrained by relations between place and power mapped by the state, which are reinforced by development actors. In contrast, in rebel areas, civil society actors are embedded in a configuration I call transformative localism, through which they exhibit the potential to remake relations between rebel authorities and war-affected civilians, by leveraging place-based relationships with development actors and rebel officials. Throughout, I understand Karen State as a product of its postcolonial history; as an ethnicised, contested area, marginal to historical processes of decolonisation and nation-building. These localities in Karen State, where war conditions everyday social processes, provide a foil to existing studies of civil society and development, which presume the existence of relatively coherent state- society relations. This thesis is thus an in-depth study of civil society on the margins of the postcolonial world, where state-society relations are fraught.

Furthermore, this thesis proposes a postcolonial approach to territory, that has thus far been underexplored in political geography. Political geographers recognise the European origins of the modern concept of territory, and how this spatial template has been imposed on postcolonial states to disastrous effect. However, they underplay the existence of persistent conflicts between the Westphalian concept of territory and other forms of spatial ordering, and the role of non-state actors in this process. Using ethnographic material, I argue for conceiving of territory as the product of unequal encounters between state and non-state actors, colonisers and the colonised, which trigger new, hybrid configurations of power. Moreover, I contend that development is a central process by which territory is made in the postcolonial world. I see development as a process that creates solidarities, tensions, and contradictions between a range of disparate actors. In particular, I draw attention to civil society actors, who can use their positioning in the international development regime to assert their ambivalence towards dominant ideas of territory. Finally, a postcolonial approach also sheds light on the salience of “non-Westphalian” forces in making territory, particularly ethnicisation and rebellion. A relational approach to space, attuned to both conflictual and cooperative relations between actors, is crucial to understanding territory in this way.


Shona Loong

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford


Social Sciences




International Relations and Politics
War / Peace