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The heart and soul of our project. Learn all about what Zomia is and what it means here. 




Southeast Asian Massif


The Art of not being Governed


Who are the Zomians?


Zomia today


Taking the concept further


What is Zomia?

To answer that question we must first discuss the Southeast Asian Massif- the term “Southeast Asian Massif” itself was proposed in 1997 by anthropologist Jean Michaud to discuss the human societies inhabiting the lands above approximately 300 metres (1,000 ft) in the southeastern portion of the Asian landmass, thus not merely in the uplands of conventional Mainland Southeast Asia.


 It concerns highlands overlapping parts of 10 countries: southwest China, Northeast India, eastern Bangladesh, and all the highlands of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Peninsular Malaysia, and Taiwan. The indigenous population encompassed within these limits numbers approximately 100 million, not counting migrants from surrounding lowland majority groups who came to settle in the highlands over the last few centuries.


The Southeast Asian Massif overlaps geographically with what political scientist James C. Scott called “Zomia” in 2009. While the notion of Zomia underscores a historical and political understanding of that high region, the Southeast Asia Massif or “Zomia” is more appropriately labelled a place or a social space. 

Zomia Map


The notion of “Zomia” refers first to peoples and cultures, it is neither realistic nor helpful to define the area precisely in terms of altitude, latitude and longitude, with definite outside limits and set internal subdivisions. Broadly speaking, however, at their maximum extension, these highland groups have historically been scattered over a domain mostly situated above an elevation of about three hundred meters, within an area approximately the size of Western Europe.


Stretching from the temperate Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) which roughly demarcates the northern boundary, it moves south to encompass the high ranges extending east and south from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the monsoon high country drained by the basins of the lower Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Chao Phraya, Mekong, Song Hong (Red River), and Zhu Jiang (Pearl River)


In China, the Massif includes extreme eastern Tibet, southern and western Sichuan, western Hunan, a small portion of western Guangdong, all of Guizhou and Yunnan, with north and west Guangxi. Spilling over the Southeast Asian peninsula, it covers most of the border areas of Burma with adjacent segments of northeastern India (Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland with portions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam) and southeastern Bangladesh, the north and west of Thailand, all of Laos above the Mekong valley, borderlands in northern and central Vietnam along the Annam Cordillera, and the northeastern fringes of Cambodia.


Beyond the northern limit of the Massif, the Chongqing basin is not included because it has been colonised by the Han for over one millennium, and the massive influx of population into this fertile rice bowl of China has spilled well into parts of central and western Sichuan above 500 metres. The same observation applies to highlands further north in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. At the southern extreme, highland peninsular Malaysia should be excluded as it is disconnected from the Massif by the Isthmus of Kra, and is intimately associated with the Malay world instead. That said, many of the indigenous highland populations of peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli, are Austroasiatic by language, and thus linked to groups in the Massif such as the Wa, the Khmu, the Katu, or the Bahnar.


The Tibetan world is tentatively included in the Massif as it has its own logic: a centralized and religiously harmonised core with a long, distinctive political existence that places it in a "feudal" and imperial category, which the societies historically associated with the Massif have rarely, if ever, developed into In this sense, the western limit of the Massif, then, is as much a historical and political one as it is linguistic, cultural, and religious. Again, this should not be seen as clear-cut. Many societies on Tibet's periphery, such as the Khampa, Naxi, Drung or Mosuo in Yunnan, the Lopa in Nepal, or the Bhutia in Sikkim, have switched allegiances repeatedly over the centuries, moving in and out of Lhasa's orbit. Moreover, the Tibeto-Burman language family and Tibetan Buddhism have spilled over the eastern edge of the plateau.

Image by Joule Benjarat
Image by Joule Benjarat

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Image by Jireh Foo
Image by Jireh Foo

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Image by Udara Karunarathna
Image by Udara Karunarathna

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Image by Joule Benjarat
Image by Joule Benjarat

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Historical Linguistic and Cultural Practices

To further qualify the particularities of the Massif, a series of core factors can be incorporated: history, languages, religion, customary social structures, economies, and political relationships with lowland states. What distinguishes highland societies may exceed what they have in common: a vast ecosystem, a state of marginality, and forms of subordination. The Massif is crossed by six major language families, none of which form a decisive majority. In religious terms, several groups are Animist, others are Buddhist, some are Christian, a good number share Taoist and Confucian values, the Hui are Muslim, while most societies sport a complex syncretism. Throughout history, feuds and frequent hostilities between local groups were evidence of the plurality of cultures. The region has never been united politically, not as an empire, nor as a space shared among a few feuding kingdoms, not even as a zone with harmonised political systems. Forms of distinct customary political organisations, chiefly lineage based versus "feudal", have long existed. At the national level today, political regimes in countries sharing the region (democracies, three socialist regimes, one constitutional monarchy, and one military dictatorship) simply magnify this ancient political diversity. Along with other transnational highlands around the Himalayas and around the world, the Southeast Asian Massif is marginal and fragmented in historical, economic, as well as cultural terms.


Inquiries on the ground throughout the Massif show that these peoples share a sense of being different from the national majorities, a sense of geographical remoteness, and a state of marginality that is connected to political and economic distance from regional seats of power. In cultural terms, these highland societies are like a cultural mosaic with contrasting colours, rather than an integrated picture in harmonized shades – what Terry Rambo, talking from a Vietnam perspective, has dubbed "a psychedelic nightmare". Yet, when observed from the necessary distance, that mosaic can form a distinctive and significant picture, even if an imprecise one at times.

Historically, these highlands have been used by lowland empires as reserves of resources (including slaves), and as buffer spaces between their domains.

Zomia is a geographical term coined in 2002 by historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam to refer to the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands. 


The name is from Zomi, a term for highlander common to several related Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in the India-Bangladesh-Burma border area.

It largely overlaps with the geographical extent of the Southeast Asian Massif, although the exact boundaries of Zomia differ among scholars, all would include the highlands of north Indochina (north Vietnam and all Laos), Thailand, the Shan Hills of northern Myanmar, and the mountains of Southwest China; some extend the region as far west as Tibet, Northeast India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These areas share a common elevated, rugged terrain, and have been the home of ethnic minorities that have preserved their local cultures by residing far from state control and influence. 


Zomia covers more than 2,500,000 square kilometres (970,000 sq. mi) over the Southeast Asian Massif and comprises nearly one hundred million marginal people. This large area is inside the fringe of eight states and the entirety of one, stretching across the standard regional designations (South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia). Along with its ecological diversity and its relation to states, it arouses a lot of interest. It stands for an original entity of study, a type of international appellation, and a different way in which to study regions.


In 2009, political scientist James Scott argued that there is a unity across the Massif – which he calls Zomia – regarding political forms of domination and subordination, which bonds the fates of the peoples dwelling there, virtually all of whom had taken refuge there to avoid being integrated into a more powerful state, or even allowing the very appearance of a state-like structure within their own societies. 


Scott used the concept of Zomia to argue that the continuity of the ethnic cultures living there provides a counter-narrative to the traditional story about modernity: namely, that once people are exposed to the conveniences of modern technology and the modern state, they will assimilate. Rather, the tribes in Zomia are conscious refugees from state rule and state-centered economies. From his preface:


“[Hill tribes] seen from the valley kingdoms as 'our living ancestors,' 'what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization' [are on the contrary] best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.”


Scott goes on to add that Zomia is the biggest remaining area of earth whose inhabitants have not been completely absorbed by nation-states, although that time is coming to an end. While Zomia is exceptionally diverse linguistically, the languages spoken in the hills are distinct from those spoken in the plains. Kinship structures, at least formally, also distinguish the hills from the lowlands. Hill societies do produce "a surplus", but they do not use that surplus to support kings and monks. Distinctions of status and wealth abound in the hills, as in the valleys. The difference is that in the valleys they tend to be enduring, while in the hills they are both unstable and geographically confined. He continues:

"Historically, of course, there have been states in the hills where a substantial fertile plateau and/or a key node in the overland trade routes made it possible. Nan Chao, Kengtung, Nan, and Lan-na were among the best known. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. While state-making projects have abounded in the hills, it is fair to say that few have come to fruition. Those would-be kingdoms that did manage to defy the odds did so only for a relatively brief, crisis-strewn period."

Southeast Asian Massif

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The Art of not being Governed

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Who are the Zomians?

Countries included in Zomia: 











Broadly, they can be differentiated as speakers of the following language families:







Ethnic Groups of Bangladesh
  • Biharis (1.5%)

  • Chakmas (0.5%)

  • Garos (0.1%)

  • Khasi (0.1%)

  • Santal (0.1%)

  • Tippera (0.1%)

  • Others (0.1%)

    • Marma,​

    • Mro

    • Tripuri

Ethnic Groups of Cambodia
  • Khmer Loeu (1%)

  • Chinese (0.5%)

  • Vietnamese (0.5%)

  • Cham (0.5%)

  • Khmer Islam (0.5%)

  • Lao (0.2%)

  • Thai (0.1%)

  • Other (0.1%)

    • Kuy

    • Tampuan

    • Brau

    • Kravet

    • Kreung

    • Phnong

Ethnic Groups of India

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Ethnic Groups of Laos

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Ethnic Groups of Malaysia

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Ethnic Groups of Myanmar

Blang - Blang/Samtao (Palung)

Ethnic Groups of Taiwan

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Ethnic Groups of Thailand

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Ethnic Groups of Vietnam

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