Are the World's 'Lawless' Regions Really as Backward as We Think?

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 [1]. 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.

But there's more here than meets the eye. (For example, on the map above, Tajikistan is mislabeled as Uzbekistan.) Jacobs writes of Zomia:

In 2009, the Yale political scientist James C. Scott examined the fractious nature of Zomia's politics in a "counter-narrative" [8] -- in other words, from the local point of view. These highlanders, he contended, are not unassimilated because they are untouched by modernity, but because they reject it. This puts them in league with, or at least in the same league as, the non-conformists of Alsatia. This also illuminates, and complicates, our understanding of the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflicts, which might not be all about secular modernity versus religious orthodoxy, but maybe also about city versus village (or, more likely, valley).

What's interesting is that this assumes that modernity means answering to a central government, even one you didn't choose. I can't speak to Scott's argument -- I own but have not read his book -- but these transitional regions probably resist their governments for reasons other than some rejection of modernity. Afghanistanis and Pakistanis do not reject modernity writ large: they love running water and sanitation and schools and iPhones and electricity and the Internet. Even the Taliban enjoy and appreciate these aspects of modernity. What they are rejecting is a government they view as abusive and unrepresentative. Moreover, most Afghans still identify as Afghans, even (or perhaps especially) when explaining why they reject the rule of President Hamid Karzai. So it's not as simple as rejecting a national identity or modernity.

A similar thread connects the other regions of Central Asia. Southern Kyrgyz don't reject modernity -- they'd love to all drive a Mercedes and live in a big house and have nice things. What they reject is the broken politics of Bishkek. In Tajikistan, it's hard to say even that the countryside is rejecting the state -- the state is so absent in many places it's tough to determine whether the people there believe very strongly in it one way or another at all.

The idea of a lawless region as an object of analysis is fraught with issues. These regions are not even really "lawless," as Jacobs calls them. They just operate under different rules that are neither drafted nor enforced by the state. The tribal areas of Pakistan, for example, actually follow a long-established pattern of competition between local and central methods of control. Similarly, Southwest Kyrgyzstan isn't rejecting modernity by any stretch, it is just coming under the control of mafia dons who have taken up high-level positions in the local and regional government. It's not lawless, it's just a different kind of law, however un-ideal and crappy it might be.

To be fair, you can see what Jacobs is getting at: that some regions of the world, seemingly clustered in Central and South Asia, reject their governments' control. That's correct. But what's less fair is to extend that point to then argue that the people in this vast expanse exist in lawlessness and reject modernity.