The next visitor to arrive was an elderly lady who spoke perfect English. She had been summoned, it appeared, still carrying bags from her recent trip to the market. She had been summoned to deliver a message.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“You have to go back to Loikaw to get to Taungoo. You can't go this way.”
“I can't get to Taungoo from here?”
“No, you can only go as far as Mawchi. After Mawchi it's not possible. You have to go back. There's another road you must take. Just ask somebody where to turn when you get to Loikaw.”
“I know where the turn is — by the lake before getting into Loikaw.”
“Go back to Loikaw and take that road tomorrow.”
In my way of seeing things, this was a horrible idea. Firstly, it was at least four hours of backtracking. Secondly, I wanted nothing more to do with Loikaw, ever. Thirdly, my map — of a certain scale and a strikingly uncertain level of detail — showed the road continuing past Mawchi, all the way to a place called Thandaung and onward to the highway running north-south through Taungoo. I proceeded to assert this detail by borrowing the map back from Husband and using my finger to call attention to the unbroken line. I had yet to come across a situation in which a road depicted on the map didn't exist. Discrepancies between the map and reality typically took the inverse form — roads existed but weren’t depicted.
“You can't go through,” she said.
“But my map shows that I can,” I rebuffed.
Here, in debating the periphery, she and I circled the real issues; an interior inhabited by official matters, government, military, the political. Once those topics were broached, depending on how deep one wanted to go, the spiral continued into economics, natural resources, religion... Onward into history, recent and distant, conquest and revolution... I didn't want to go far, just far enough to get a clear picture of the perils ahead. This explanation, based on her refusal to clarify, was more in-depth than she was willing to go. She was clearly trying to tell me something, but she wasn't telling it to me clearly. Rather than explicitly stating her case, or offering an explanation sufficient for me to make an informed choice, she was forced to use directives — telling me I couldn't do what I wanted to do without explaining why. That approach usually has the inverse effect of its intention, cementing my resolve to defy. Recall that prior to implementing Plan A in its two-part entirety nearly everybody I consulted said it couldn’t be done. Some said it couldn't be done while I was in the midst of doing it. From the start I was primed to disregard all advisors. Recognizing my stubbornness, she altered her approach. “After Mawchi the road isn't good enough for motorbike. You can only go on foot,” she claimed.
“How long does it take on foot?” I answered, calling her bluff.
“Two days.” Touché. “But it's not safe for you.”
“Is it not safe because of the condition of the road?” I asked. This question contained the unspoken and implied secondary question, “Or is something else going on over there (and perhaps right here, where the two of us are seated)?” This question strayed a little too far from the periphery for her to field directly. She simply reiterated that it wasn't safe — that I should retreat to Loikaw and take the other road in the morning. “Nobody else speaks English around here,” she added. I was on my own, in other words. “May I go now?” she asked, making it known that she had only come to offer this advice. Advice I was unwilling (and perhaps too stupid) to accept. She then explained that she lived in a village thirty minutes away and wanted to get back to her home. Only coincidentally had our trajectories crossed while she was in Hpasawng. In parting she offered to host me if I ever came through her village.
Now, had I accepted her story at face value I necessarily had to believe that this Mawchi place sat at the dead end of a rugged mountain road six hours from Loikaw and two days on foot from Taungoo, the two nearest city-ish settlements. I rejected this notion straight away. The other warning, that something beyond Mawchi was “dangerous” for me, I accepted as true — but in a limited way only. One way to perceive of this danger, in light of this being a Karen village, was that beyond Mawchi lived non-Karen people and, conceivably, there was bad blood between the groups. It was a “stay away from those people” type of danger. This notion didn't entirely add up either. Why would they care whether I passed through enemy turf? My final conjecture, the likeliest, was that there was tension between Karen tribes and the military and beyond Mawchi — whether it was the Karen involved or not — the road was actually a highway to the Danger Zone, so to speak.
I also speculated as to why the lady refused to talk openly about the nature of the danger. First and foremost in answer to this question, people in the Myanmar Situation were not supposed to speak with Foreigners about politics or anything remotely “sensitive.” Additionally, I posited, in order to speak of the interior she may have had to say we are fighting the government, not they are fighting the government. And there was the potential that opium was at play in some form. Where there was money there was conflict, and much conflict in the Myanmar Situation involved opium. Regardless of what the government tolerates, the interior may legitimately have been too sensitive to discuss on a first encounter with an out-of-place Foreigner swinging through town on his POSMIC Special, unknowingly heading in the direction of a war-zone, again. I believed her — in Mawchi I would see something that might prevent me from going farther. However, I wasn't convinced that what she labelled as dangerous, for me specifically, was actually dangerous for me. Plus, I had no desire to spend one more minute in Loikaw. Before willingly retreating I required a more tangible reason for doing so.
I was going to see Mawchi. If I was turned back I would deviate south to Hpa Pun, way off course from my intended deviation. When I pointed to the Hpa Pun dot on my map to get his response as to whether I could or should, Husband shook his head against. This did not sway my intentions, so determined was I to avoid Loikaw. I was willing to go to extremes. For the fuel, water, and food I paid 2500 kyat. We said our thank you’s and waved our goodbyes and we all continued along on our previous trajectories, now slightly altered.
Having driven several remote roadways — alone and exposed to ill will should it exist — with no violent encounters or any indication of violence whatsoever, I felt assured of my safety among the general population. It mattered not whether the people liked me or not, or whether I was in an urban or rural environment. Violence never entered the picture. How many people could I offend, or how many social conventions could I cross, in stopping to ask for water or fuel anyhow? No, if there was danger ahead it was something military or something militant. In the few checkpoints I had encountered so far, the military had been quite accommodating of me and my agenda. I proceeded to Mawchi with little caution.
A few miles beyond Hpasawng the road curved west. Prior to entering the mountainous terrain, another road branched off to the south over a long, exceptionally calendar-worthy steel and concrete bridge. The road over that bridge led to Hpa Pun, my alternative deviation. As it swerved and meandered deeper into the mountains, staying in close synchronization with a narrow, silt-choked river, the paving devolved into a dirt track only slightly more stable than the one I had encountered in the previous war-zone drive-through. Grading efforts in selected curves and road segments indicated visions of a fully paved thoroughfare, or highway into the Danger Zone, if you will. The forests had all been destroyed. Topsoil slipped from the hills into the river, now murky brown. Where certain ravines met the road, one here one there, a lone motorbike was often parked. In the distance, up or down the ravine, a high-pitched whining sound identified the motorbike owner as a rogue logger, scavenging the few remaining trees with a small chainsaw.
Regions like these, conceivably the Myanmar Situation on the whole, functioned as lawless frontier spaces for global capital. When the government plunders on a massive scale and the rogue logger plunders on a minor scale, which side operated on the side of Law? On the frontier, lines between public and private, licit and illicit were ill-defined. They were places where individuals were transformed into governed subjects, but the transformation process was incomplete; where ecologies and ecosystems were ruthlessly converted wholesale into commodity objects, extracted from the flowing evolutions of real time in order to serve the market and its homogenous motions through abstract time.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, based on her research into similar conditions in Indonesia, offers a lucid account of the nature of the frontier:
“Proliferation, too, is a key principle of capitalist expansion, particularly at capitalist frontiers where accumulation is not so much primitive, that is, archaic, as savage. Frontiers are not just edges; they are particular kinds of edges where the expansive nature of extraction comes into its own. Built from historical models of European conquest, frontiers create wildness so that some—and not others—may reap its rewards. Frontiers are deregulated because they arise in the interstitial spaces made by collaborations among legitimate and illegitimate partners: armies and bandits; gangsters and corporations; builders and despoilers. They confuse the boundaries of law and theft, governance and violence, use and destruction. These confusions change the rules and thus enable extravagant new economies of profit—as well as loss.
"The late twentieth century saw the creation of new “resource frontiers” in every corner of the world. Made possible by Cold War militarization of the Third World and the growing power of corporate transnationalism, resource frontiers grew up where entrepreneurs and armies were able to disengage nature from local ecologies and livelihoods, “freeing up” natural resources that bureaucrats and generals could offer as corporate raw materials. From a distance, these new resource frontiers appeared as the “discovery” of global supplies in forests, tundras, coastal seas, or mountain fastnesses. Up close, they replaced local systems of human access and livelihood and ecological dynamics of replacement and replenishment with the cultural apparatus of proliferation, out-of-control interstitial capitalist expansion, the frontier. …
"A frontier is an edge of space and time: a zone of not yet—not yet mapped, not yet regulated. It is a zone of unmapping: even in its planning, a frontier is imagined as unplanned. Frontiers aren’t just discovered at the edge; they are projects in making geographical and temporal experience. Frontiers make wildness, entangling visions and vines and violence; their wildness is both material and imaginative. This wildness reaches backward as well as forward in time, bringing old forms of savagery to life in the contemporary landscape. Frontiers energize old fantasies, even as they embody their impossibilities.
"Most descriptions of resource frontiers take for granted the existence of resources; they label and count the resources and tell us who owns what. The landscape itself appears inert: ready to be dismembered and packaged for export. ... Landscapes are simultaneously natural and social, and they shift and turn in the interplay of human and nonhuman practices. Frontier landscapes are particularly active: hills flood away, streams are stuck in mud, vines swarm over fresh stumps, ants and humans are on the move. On the frontier, nature goes wild.”
The Myanmar Situation, if it succeeds in unifying as a nation and thereby eliminates its frontier nature, will emerge as the newest “state-finance nexus” — a condition in which global capital in conjunction with a subservient national government controls and plunders a national territory and those inhabiting it. But is that not already what had happened in the Myanmar Situation, now operating as an unsettled frontier space? Was the authoritarian military regime not already able “to disengage nature from local ecologies and livelihoods, “freeing up” natural resources that bureaucrats and generals could offer as corporate raw materials?” To again quote Tsing's book Friction:
“Imagine for a moment a contradiction between capital and governance. Governance requires rationalization, clarity, and order. Capital, in contrast, thrives where opportunities are just emerging. The exceptional profits that allow a firm or corporate sector to get ahead are made where bureaucratic visibility is not yet firmly in place. In the deregulation zones where government is at the end of its tether, capital can operate with the hyperefficiency of theft. Capital cooperates in the spreading of governance measures that facilitate and legitimate this theft; some visibilities and rationalizations develop rapidly, while other economic standards are fluid and even purposely muddy. In the midst of contrasts between clarity and haze, discipline and free-for-all are uncannily bundled together. Obfuscation appears as a state plot, and as a people’s uprising. Either way, proliferation is the result.”
When the frontier is closed, the uprisings put down, and the conversions of human subjects and natural objects is completed and social relations are made subservient to market relations, the governed subjects who have been alienated from all independent means of providing for themselves will be inserted into production lines. Mechanistically they will churn out products built from plundered and objectified natural resources to be sold as commodities for the primary purpose of delivering socially manifested surplus wealth into the private pockets of the clock watchers. Provisions for society and its working masses will be of secondary or tertiary consideration in this inverted mode of production. The closing of the frontier, while it may be the end of the free-for-all, is the beginning of the Myanmar Situation's rationalized insertion into the global order. Through this process lawless pilfering gives way to industrial tree plantations, factories, and wage labor.
The Myanmar Situation was a window from which the history of nation-making could be observed in simulacra — following similar historical patterns of unification and control. Or rather, providing by force all of the rudimentary ingredients necessary for grounding a sovereign: passive, economically dependent subjects whose resources and means of self-provision have been rounded-up and centrally plundered or controlled. Included in the subjectification process, as a cog feeding the motions of global capital up and away, all newly minted citizens — much the way nature is made to function on the clock — must be disciplined to function on the predictable tic-tocs of abstract factory time in order to earn an insufficient factory wage. In the name of being free, living a free life in a so-called democracy, these terms must be accepted. Once accepted, newly minted citizens are then free, once and again here and there, to cast a vote for a new face to hang on the faceless overlord. With a so-called democratic government in place, should it occur, the Myanmar Situation will be better able to provide the schooling and training, or governmentality, necessary to feed factories and plantations with skilled and time-disciplined workers. The exploitation will continue but in modified form on a slightly altered trajectory. For the average person in the Myanmar Situation this bleak picture — of a government more integrated with the global order, the two working in tandem to settle, homogenize, and time-discipline its citizens — will be hard to consider as anything but a step forward.
Installing a democracy in the current global system, grounded in the capitalist mode of production, is not at all an exclusively internalized process of holding free elections. If it had simply been an internal matter the military elite could have made a show of becoming more democratic 30 years ago, ceding small powers to a so-called democratic party and its electorate, but keeping the money and control in the same hands and negating the publicly stated aims of the international sanctions without disrupting the internal control structure. But it was never strictly an internal issue. In deciding to open up, the small powers the elite must internally cede to non-military politicians and its newly minted citizens are minimal in comparison to the powers they will more than likely cede to the global order and the motions of global capital, both of which are backed by military and financial weapons (i.e., sanctions). For the Myanmar Situation’s government, given its current inner workings, this bleak picture will be hard to consider as anything but a step forward.