Tomas Cole, PhD student, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

Spectral Sovereignty: Conflict, Conservation and Ghostly Governance in the South-eastern Highlands of Myanmar

In the chronically conflict ridden south-eastern highlands of Myanmar, at the frayed edges of the central government’s sphere of influence, plans are afoot to reconfigure these former battlefields into what the de-facto sovereign of these lands, the Karen National Union (KNU), and a local environmental activism network, KESAN, are calling the Salween Peace Park. This landscape is envisioned to become a space for “all living things sharing peace”. However, during my prolonged fieldwork in these mountains I quickly learnt that not only did the KNU state apparatus equally struggle, to paraphrase Scott (2008), to “climb hills” but local/customary leaders that could stand in their stead were either lacking or largely ceremonial. To better come to grips with the working of this anarchic state of affairs in this paper I explore the everyday practices of sovereignty, conservation and justice performed by the indigenous peoples of this realm that are open ended and draw their authority from the knowledge of and interventions from unseen, spectral beings such as the k’sah, the “real owners” of the landscape. Here people see themselves as simply borrowing the land they farm and the animals they hunt from higher, hidden, powers. I then build on these findings to critically engage with the literature on these non-state, anarchic, spaces, from Leach to Scott, to unsettle both common binaries of hierarchical/egalitarian societies and given notions of sovereignty. I then forward the idea of spectral sovereignty as a way to help grasp the entanglements of more-than-human beings, animals, mountains and ghosts, with the everyday workings of politics, justice and conservation in these highlands and beyond.

Tomas has been a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Stockholm University since 2015. Prior to coming to Stockholm he conducted research among disabled ex-soldiers of the Karen National Liberation Army who were living as refugees in Thailand. His current research has taken him across the border, to the de-facto autonomous zone of Kawthoolei in Southeast Myanmar to explore the entanglements between protracted armed conflicts, local cosmologies, conservation, ecology, and peace building.

All seminars in the series.