Royal Thai Rangers on border patrol along the Thai/Burma border near Mai Sot.
To understand how the introduction of borders was a dramatic alteration to mainland Southeast Asia (SEA) it is necessary to illustrate what the implications of borders are.
When the colonial powers arrived in SEA it was a region characterized by borderless kingdoms that were territorially ambivalent.
When the Europeans were finally chased out, the region had been demarcated into states. What follows is a brief account of how mainland SEA made the transition from mandala to Westphalia.
In a previous post - A Paradox of Histories - there was a brief explanation of how pre-modern SEA was politically organized along the mandala paradigm When the colonial powers of England and France began carving their possessions out of Asia they introduced a dramatically different idea of governance – the Westphalian nation-state.
Although the origin of the nation-state does not have an exact date it is often associated with the Peace of Westphalia.
Fatigued by war on their continent, European leaders gathered in 1648 in what is now the German town of Westphalia to bring peace through a new form of territorial governance.
The nation-state, a work of considerable political fiction in which a homogenous population would live peacefully within a sovereign state, was subscribed to.
Although history clearly demonstrates that the nation-state is more often the cause of war than war’s resolution, the political paradigm has thrived and is now the norm for an entire globe demarcated into nation-states.
As the European powers sailed into Asia they began transforming kingdoms into colonies based upon the nation-state model – albeit with each nation subservient to European control.
Borders based upon European conquest, rather than following local political/ethnic/religious reality, began to be drawn.
There was some congruence with local politics, as Europeans often co-opted local rulers in their quest for colonies, yet resemblance to traditional political structure was often negated by the colonial powers tendency to maximize their territory beyond traditional boundaries.
The rise of various SEA nationalisms before World War II, the dramatic region-wide Japanese military take-over during the war, and the determined efforts of powerful independence movements eventually dislodged the Europeans from SEA.
Yet the young states that independence leaders had fought to control had essentially been drawn into existence by European cartographers.
It is not that there wasnt powerful kingdoms and sultanates across SEA but what the independence leaders wrestled from the Europeans were dramatically different political entities than had once existed.
Thailand is often cited as the historical exception in SEA because it was never officially under colonial rule yet the story is essentially the same.
The cartographers that had drawn the borders of British Malaya, Burma, and French Indochine had, by default, also drawn Thailand into existence.
The country’s kings, succeeded by various constitutional governments, did the work of self-colonization modeled exactly (often directly administered by European nationals) upon the western nation-state paradigm. T
he Kingdom has taken a different historical path yet arrived at the same destination as the rest of Southeast Asia – a distinctly territorial polity striving to be a nation-state.
The old mandala political structure was erased by the colonial powers and then the new polities were focused by the region’s nationalist leaders into modern states.
The local political structures that had once been ambivalent about territory and distinctly multi-ethnic had been reinvented into unconditionally territorial nation-states.
The last transformation, and a transformation that is still in progress, is the attempt to create ethnic homogeneity out of a region characterized by heterogeneity.
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