Welcome to Zomia, the little-governed and misunderstood stretch from Afghanistan to Vietnam.
We can learn a lot from studying regions outside of state control. But sometimes our preconceived notions about what makes a society work and why can make it difficult to see them as they are.
Frank Jacobs has a really interesting piece at the New York Times website about border areas and government control.
But there exists another type of border, one that doesn't reflect back our image. In vampiric asymmetry, it offers only the void. There are no barriers, no officials, no capitals on the other side. The world as we know it -- reciprocal even across national borders -- ends here. One thinks of the American West in the mid-19th century, or parts of Brazil into the 20th. The borderline does not merely separate two territories, but two paradigms: law and order from anarchy, progress from primitivism. Or perhaps, seen from the other side: freedom from oppression, purity from decadence.
In earlier times, such lawless anomalies were surprisingly common, even in the middle of "civilization." London was riddled by as many as a dozen legal safe havens, where debtors and criminals could seek refuge from arrest . Emerging first in the Middle Ages, they persisted until Parliament abolished the last of them in 1723.
Lawless regions as an analytic construct is of interest to Central Asia hands, if only because there are a few of them in the region and they can sometimes adversely affect international politics. Jacobs highlights an intriguing region, termed "Zomia" by Dutch historian Willem van Schendel, where states exercise little or no control over the people who live there. Recently, van Schendel expanded this Zomia region to include several of the states of Central Asia, as highlighted in the map above.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan is perhaps the best-known part of Zomia, and that can give you an idea of what the construct means: a region where a government might exist in some form but where control is either absent or violently contested by locals. It is intriguing, to be sure.