Weapons and ethnonational geographies in the borderlands: The case of the Ta’ang rebel movements in Myanmar

Introduction

How is ethnonationalism, with its attendant political geographies, reproduced and re-perpetuated via the creation of armed forces in Myanmar? I will open with a short story that touches on this question. It is the story of a Kayan political leader we will call Thun.

Thun is both a member of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Forces (KNDF) and an actively engaged political officer with the National Unity Government (NUG). It is a hot Songkhram holiday evening in 2022, and Thun is sitting at a table on the veranda of a friend’s house somewhere in the hills of Mae Hong Son province, just across the border from Karenni State. His family has joined him here to spend some time together and enjoy his two-day break from the heavy fighting in Karenni. Soon, Thun will leave for a diplomatic trip he has been sent on as part of his NUG duties. At the same time, however, he is also on a mission on behalf of the KNDF: He aims to look for contacts to procure much-needed weaponry. It is not long into dinner before he starts testing the waters with an American guest who has longstanding personal connections with both Thai and U.S. authorities and has been invited over by Thun’s friend, the house owner. After a couple of exchanges on the war in Ukraine and U.S. involvement via military support, Thun shifts the conversation to the paucity of weaponry over “here” in Myanmar and Karenni. He notes: “We love everything about the U.S. We love Rambo, and we love the American way. We love freedom and would like a free Karenni State for the free Karenni nationalities. But we need weapons to free them.” The nexus between weapons, the KNDF, and the Karenni polity is quite straightforward in his words, but things become more complicated when one asks something that over that dinner will go silent: Are weapons and the related armed forces really a way to secure liberation? Or do they – and if they do, how do they – re-perpetuate forms of oppression?

In the aftermath of the 1 February 2021 military coup, political resistance to the Myanmar armed forces – which are commonly referred to as sit-tat by the opposition, a Burmese word that translates as ‘armed band/group’ and is deployed to deprive the military of the institutional/royal status it attributes to itself using the suffix “-daw in the name Tat-ma-daw[1] – has decidedly shifted toward armed struggle. Confronted with extreme military-state violence, many of the newly emerging armed formations across the country have experienced serious difficulties in acquiring weaponry and mostly have to rely on craft-manufactured firearms, seizures from or sales by sit-tat frontline units, and/or small to medium-scale weapons trafficking. Yet, some have found it easier to access available weapon sources. For example, at the same dinner, Thun and his American interlocutor discuss a Jane’s Intelligence piece published a few days before. Hotly debated among the resistance, the piece reported how the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) – a formerly communist breakaway faction that split from the Karenni Army in the late 1970s and later accepted the terms of the Border Guard Forces (BGF) program in 2009, which it abandoned after the 2021 coup – would act as a possible interface for weapon flows from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) into Karenni State. It is something that Thun rejects and is very eager to dismiss as “fake news.” Unsurprisingly so, perhaps, given, on the one hand, UWSA’s reputation as a Chinese proxy in Myanmar that, Thun thinks, would discredit possible Western support for the Karenni cause, and, on the other hand, UWSA’s political vision concerning the creation of autonomous states within the union, which rests on the idea of proportionality between ethnic minority populations and their territory. Again, one might ask, do the acquisition of weapons and the creation of entanglement between humans and weapons in the form of an armed force really play a liberatory role? Is acquiring weapons and forming armed forces a purely organizational, logistical, and financial matter, or does it play a distinct role in the reproduction of ethnonationalism and ethnonational political geographies?

The literature on civil wars and armed violence has approached the topic of armed actors’ acquisition of weapons mostly as a function of their organizational or institutional configurations, their governance capabilities, and the “external” state support they can mobilize (see Buscemi 2019). Within predominant approaches to armed rebellion, weapons acquisition is most often de-politicized, devoid of political and historical valence, and neglected as a political field/arena of and for governing (Arjona, Kasfir and Zacharia 2015). Without discarding the relevance of these aspects, this chapter makes two interrelated arguments. First, it argues that the formation of an armed collective via the acquisition of weapons (and related practices to manage the entanglements between humans and weapons) is also shaped by and linked to political rationalities and techniques of governing both weapons and people. These political rationalities are diffused throughout society and rebel polities as a whole. Second, it posits that the acquisition of weapons and the formation of an armed ensemble are harnessed by rebel movements to reproduce collective (ethnonational) identity and related political geographies via discourses and practices.

In Myanmar, ethnonationalism is often invoked as an explanatory factor for the perpetuation of violence and armed conflict. Yet, similarly to what has been argued concerning racism and mass violence (Ong and Prasse-Freeman 2021), ethnonationalism per se and how it is reproduced should be explained. To illustrate these two arguments, I will focus specifically on the military uniform understood as a technology – comprised of an assemblage of a technical object (the actual dress), discourses, and practices to wear it – that regulates the interface between humans and weapons. I will show how, through the military uniform as a technical object, the rationalities that informed the acquisition of weapons and the formation of an armed force by rebel movements are materialized and reproduced; and how, in turn, an ethnonational rebel polity with its attendant political geography is simultaneously reproduced by governing the relations between weapons and people. To illuminate post-coup dynamics, the chapter takes a step back from recent events and considers how ethnonationalism and connected political geographies have been contested and reproduced in the case of the Ta’ang rebel movements in the borderlands of Myanmar. It does so by drawing on extensive and in-depth qualitative fieldwork research carried out by the author for his doctoral and other research projects.

This chapter starts by briefly explaining how political rationalities to acquire weapons and form an armed collective have emerged and consolidated throughout the processes of ceasefire and disarmament experienced by the Palaung State Liberation Organization/Army (PSLO/A) throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Subsequently, it analyzes how the two main interconnected political rationalities of narcotics eradication and ethnonationality have been harnessed to shape the acquisition of weaponry and the formation of a new armed force – that is, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – in 2009. Lastly, it will concisely sketch how these rationalities have been materialized through the TNLA’s military uniform along with ethnonational collective identity and related political geographies of territory.

Ta’ang rebel movements’ ceasefire, disarmament, and re-armament trajectories

The Ta’ang areas of Shan State can be understood as a fluid, self-identified political geography that has remained highly contested since decolonization. We could think of a so-called Ta’ang Land as a frontier space that sweeps across parts of both northern and southern Shan State and that both state and rebel political projects (first and foremost, those of the military-state and the Kachin and Shan ethnic armed organizations (EAOs)[2] have included into disparate geographies of rule. Over the past three decades, the original Ta’ang ethnonational rebel movement has had a 14-year ceasefire agreement and a disarmament process in 2005 that eventually led to its dismantlement and transformation into the People’s Militia Force (PMF), which is based in Manton.

The trajectories of the ceasefire, disarmament, and then re-armament of the Ta’ang rebel movements have to be contextualized against a broader political and socio-economic backdrop that, for reasons of space, I will summarize here along three main lines. First, similarly to others in Myanmar, the peace and conflict processes characterizing Ta’ang areas should be read in the context of a specific system of rule, which anthropologist Elliot Prasse-Freeman, drawing on Michael Foucault’s work on power and rule, defines as blunt governmentality. In very simple terms,[3] blunt governmentality describes a system of regulating populations that 1) relies on blunt categories to know, organize, and foster life at a distance, 2) is characterized by a lack of interest in the promotion of life at aggregate scales, and 3) functions through the deployment of violence as a key governing technique to massify and divide the populations that it takes as its object. Against the backdrop of Prasse-Freeman’s Foucauldian analysis, I would argue that rebel movements’ rule in the borderlands of Myanmar can also qualify as blunt governmentality. In particular, in this context, rebel rule operates its own massifications and divisions of both populations and space primarily by creating, reproducing, and managing its own armed forces as a way to cleave the Myanmar polity apart.

Second, in this landscape, in parallel with different forms of state violence (Ong and Prasse-Freeman 2021), rebel movements and other armed actors have harnessed two major rationalities to massify and to divide populations by acquiring weapons and by conducting the conduct of guns and humans with guns. One is the rationality of ethnonationality, which is expressed by the concepts of Taingyintha and lumyo (“national races” and “type of person,” respectively), and divides Myanmar’s populations into several national races (usually 135, although this number is not codified and often varies) (Cheesman 2017). They are understood to be (1) united in a single political community, (2) indigenous to Myanmar before colonization, and (3) hierarchically organized into a scale of civilizational and socio-political development that (naturally) sees the Bamar at the top. The other is the rationality of narcotics eradication, which has been tied to processes of state-building in the borderlands (Meehan 2011), various foreign drug-control policies with cross-border reverberations (Kramer and Woods 2012), and public condemnation of drug smuggling and the figures of “drug-lords.”

Third, the ceasefire, disarmament, and re-armament trajectory should be read against larger convergencies, processes, and forces of neoliberal foreign capital investment and extraction and accumulation by dispossession characterizing Shan State as a whole – and Ta’ang areas and communities specifically– since at least the late 1980s.

Ceasefire and disarmament in Ta’ang areas

The PSLO/A’s decision to agree to a ceasefire with the sit-tat on 21 April 1991 came at the intersection of precise political geographies of violence. In what is perhaps one of the most underreported and least-known textbook cases of the infamous sit-tat’s four-cuts counterinsurgency strategy, Ta’ang communities in Manton, Namhsan, Namtu, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, and Namkham were heavily targeted with forced relocation and scorched earth tactics. Moreover, in the previous two years, several EAOs all around PSLO/A influence areas had entered ceasefire agreements and had been granted “special regions” within Shan State. These military and political developments had also profoundly changed the geographies of access to the flow of weapons for the Ta’ang rebel movement. PSLO/A had relied most prominently on its connections with other armed actors at the Thailand–Burma border and the 4th brigade of the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A), which had reached terms with the military shortly before the PSLO/A.

A few months later, part of the leadership, as well as the rank and file, rejected the ceasefire and constituted a new political front named the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF). Purely political in its approach to the necessity to continue fighting with the military-state toward the creation of a democratic federal union that would comprise a state of autonomy for Ta’ang communities, the PSLF was created at the National Democratic Front (NDF) headquarters in Manerplaw, far from the PSLO/A’s operational areas.

The formation of the PSLF at this stage was informed by a clear-cut rationality of ethnonationality. The new political front was founded on 12 January 1992, that is, on what is celebrated every year as the Ta’ang revolutionary day due to the anniversary of the formation of the Palaung National Force (PNF), the very first rebel movement from which the PSLO/A had transformed in the 1970s. The choice of such a date has to be understood as part of an attempt to construct continuity and unity among the Ta’ang resistance movement representing a Ta’ang polity. Similarly, the name chosen for the new organization maintained the exonym Palaung rather than using the endonym Ta’ang. While the political significance of the latter may be discussed (the use of the endonym Ta’ang might be specific to certain political elites and has certainly been connected to more recent political projects), Palaung has been the term used by the Taingyintha regime of “truth” to classify the Ta’ang as a sub-group of the Shan national races placed in a specific territory within Shan State. Reaffirming the term Palaung in the name of the PSLF was connected to a re-affirmation of the political and geographical place of the Ta’ang polity, and the new political front vis-a-vis the Myanmar polity, as well as other ethnonational rebel movements in the borderlands. Furthermore, the PSLF emerged as a synthesis among different threads of what can be thought of as a larger Ta’ang resistance movement. There were PSLO/A leaders and rank and file in Ta’ang areas of northern Shan that had gone underground after rejecting the terms of the ceasefire agreement. There was a contingent of PSLO/A troops and leadership detachment that had been dispatched to Manerplaw as a mission to the NDF headquarters at the Thailand–Burma border. And some new political figures and activists had emerged in the context of the 8888 uprisings. The concept of unity within an ethnonational Ta’ang polity – a concept that permeates other ambits of political thought in Myanmar as well (see Walton 2015) – informed the agreement among these components at different political and geographical scales that there should be only one armed force. A geographic distinction was agreed according to which the PSLO/A would have continued to pursue the ethnonational cause within Myanmar, while the PSLF would have worked for political resistance outside the constraints imposed by the ceasefire agreement (which had relegated the PSLO/A to the townships of Manton and Namhsan).

The years following the ceasefire agreement marked a moment of deep transformation for Ta’ang communities and Ta’ang areas. The PSLO/A saw its military and political influence shrink progressively to the advantage of regime-affiliated militias located on the edges of the PSLO/A’s pre-ceasefire territorial areas. On top of the “ceasefire capitalism” schemes noted above, which unfolded all around Ta’ang areas of northern Shan, the expansion of poppy cultivation and smuggling by militias were particularly relevant. The Pansay militia expansion in the Namhkam and Pansay areas was rapidly turning previous PSLO/A areas into frontier spaces for the Ta’ang rebel movement.

Drug addiction turned into an extremely thorny and multi-layered social issue throughout Ta’ang communities. Many farmers evicted due to land grabbing in relation to infrastructural projects, sit-tat encroachment, or militia expansions of poppy production were pushed into slave labor with opium as a wage, while women had to take over as the sole breadwinners in the household as a significant proportion of the male population fell into addiction. When placed into perspective with the encroachment of the Myanmar military and militia actors, among Ta’ang communities the spread of narcotics came to be understood as a genocidal strategy against Ta’ang populations. With the crumbling of the PSLO/A in northern Shan, the eradication of narcotics became strictly entangled with the issue of the lack and need for the constitution of an armed force that would preserve Ta’ang populations and spaces. The drugs-related research and political activism activities carried out by civil society organizations (CSOs) established in connection to the PSLF at the Thailand–Myanmar border in the late 1990s/early 2000s – such as, in particular, the Palaung Youth Network Group (PYNG) and the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO) – were key in delineating a logic of narcotics eradication. Moreover, through their social work, these Ta’ang CSOs actively contributed to molding a Ta’ang polity transcending the strict territorial boundaries imposed by the ceasefire agreement.

The issue of acquiring weapons and recreating an armed force as a way to cope with the preservation of a Ta’ang polity, as well as withthe problem of the spread of narcotics, started to become more and more relevant by the mid-2000s. At this point, the military regime was trying to enforce a series of political reforms to further incorporate the borderlands. Rebel movements all around Ta’ang areas were placed under mounting political and military pressure to disarm in light of the imminent adoption of a “semi-democratic” constitution, while the PSLO/A was forced into disarmament on 21 April 2005. Following the 2005 disarmament, Ta’ang areas of northern Shan experienced an intensification of the dynamics characterizing the previous 14 years. The region’s militarization increased through both the expansion of Kachin and Shan ethnonational rebel movements and a rise in relatively small village community militias created by the sit-tat, which recycled weaponry handed over by the PSLO/A upon disarmament and former PSLO/A rank-and-file combatants. At the same time, there was also a rise in narcotics production, smuggling, and consumption, which further affected Ta’ang households (PWO 2006).

In public discourse, the crumbling and lack of a Ta’ang armed collective, as well as the organizational networks related to it, was linked to the incorporation of (collective and/or individual) Ta’ang bodies and spaces through their reterritorialization into sit-tat or other EAOs’ polities via the Burmanization and Shannization of Ta’ang communities.

How the creation of the TNLA was inflected by rationalities of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication

The actual re-armament of the PSLF in 2009 was heavily informed by the political rationalities of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication. Because of a lack of space, I offer here only a concise sketch of how the processes and practices of weapons acquisition and the formation of an armed collective named the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) were impacted by this logic.

Let us, first of all, consider the very name of the armed force, which in October 2009 the PSLF termed the “Ta’ang National Liberation Army” rather than the “Palaung National Liberation Army.” The use of the endonym “Ta’ang” was part of a broader (ongoing) re-shaping of the ethnonational collective identity that had become more urgent since the ceasefire accord and especially since the 2005 PSLA disarmament. One year earlier, the 2008 military-drafted constitution of the Union of Myanmar had enshrined the political and geographical framings imposed by the sit-tat’s Taingyintha regime of truth. A “Palaung Self-Administered Zone” for the Palaung people inside the Shan State had been established in the townships of Manton and Namhsan, thus curtailing broader conceptions of and aspirations for a Ta’ang polity. The choice of the endonym Ta’ang for the armed force of a political front, which nonetheless continued to be named “Palaung,” should be read as a dual move of contestation and a reproduction of the Taingyintha system. The choice of the name Ta’ang expressed the idea that the Ta’ang polity and Ta’ang communities that the TNLA should free from all forms of oppression (i.e., state and ethnonational rebels oppression) were different from and broader than social and geographical limitations established by external identifications and impositions. While the territory that is understood as part of Ta’ang land remains fluid and changing (and while up-to-date, the PSLF/TNLA, like many other EAOs, is particularly reluctant to make and sensitive about making political maps publicly available), there was one specific concern in this attempt at re-articulating the Ta’ang polity and ethnonational identity: the inclusion of those communities living far away from PSLO/A’s historical areas of influence and the Manton and Namhsan townships. Ta’ang communities living in southern Shan State, in particular, which throughout the 1990s had experienced intense waves of violence in relation to sit-tat military campaigns against Shan rebel groups that often forcibly recruited them, were taken as the epitome of oppression, dispossession, and denial of a Ta’ang identity.

After the formal establishment of the TNLA at the Thailand–Myanmar border provinces of Mae Sot, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Mai (where the PSLF was still based), the ideas and practices underpinning the recruitment of soldiers to boost the ranks of the armed force after 2009 were inflected by the logics of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication in four concurrent ways (which in part have continued to be relevant throughout the past decade).

First, the PSLF aimed to dismantle village community militias created by the sit-tat over the past two decades in part to then reinsert Ta’ang village community militiamen into the ranks of the TNLA. Located mostly in areas of Ta’ang Land – such as Pansay, the western portions of Kutkai, Hsenwi and Namtu townships, or southern Namhkam – that had progressively become the frontiers of the Ta’ang polity and the PSLO/A during the ceasefire and post-disarmament years, larger militia formations cooperating with the military-state were also the target of a similar strategy to insert the TNLA in these spaces. The poppy fields connected to these larger sit-tat integrated militias, in particular, were heavily targeted and with them the Ta’ang farming communities working the fields that the TNLA tried to bring under its influence also via recruitment.

Second, the PSLF/TNLA started to perform recruitment drives in northern Shan that relied heavily on press-ganging drug addicts into military service. In a sort of a counter-narcotics version of the four-cuts strategy, the TNLA rounded up villages and cut off any kind of communication and sustenance network to drug addicts residing in the area. Forcing addicts into withdrawal, they could then be identified and forced into the PSLF/TNLA’s blunt rehabilitation programs. While newly recruited Ta’ang addicts’ labor was immediately useful in ambits like military camp construction and maintenance or similar support tasks, the main idea behind this practice was to identify deviant subjects affecting the Ta’ang ethnonational body population and reinsert them into society, possibly also in/via the ranks of the TNLA.

Third, the recruitment endeavor was based on a “one Ta’ang household, one Ta’ang body” policy to turn Ta’ang families throughout Ta’ang areas into the recruitment base of the armed forces. There were exceptions for those households with only one daughter or son with the idea not to impede the household’s ability to sustain itself. Interestingly, recruitment was (and has been up to now) restricted to Ta’ang individuals, something that the PSLF/TNLA’s leadership continues to pride itself on. While the ethnicity of those being recruited remained a fluid, constructed category that the act of recruitment per se would not reify, it is worth noting how such recruitment practices embody the PSLF’s conception of the Ta’ang polity. The PSLF has maintained a conception of Ta’ang Land that differs slightly from the conception that, for example, Shan ethnonational rebel movements have maintained of Shanland (see Ferguson 2021: 103). From the PSLF’s perspective, Ta’ang Land comprises other ethnonational communities too, but the organization – at least, in principle – remains sensitive about the issue of both uniting and subjugating them under the Ta’ang polity via recruitment of non-Ta’ang populations into the TNLA. More radical Shan ethnonational postures and chauvinistic stances instead understand the Shan polity and Shanland as constituted by a diverse tapestry of communities that in a sense belong to the Shan and are to achieve unity, autonomy, and harmony “within” the Shan struggle (Ferguson 2021: 103). In this regard, one could note, for example, how the PSLF/TNLA has not refrained from including non-Ta’ang individuals in its anti-narcotics programs, which entail some kind of labor in/for the TNLA, but normally does not insert non-Ta’ang individuals into the armed forces at the end of the “rehabilitation.” While Ta’ang Land has to be freed from drugs regardless of issues of ethnicity, recruitment and military (especially combat) service into the TNLA is harnessed to build a Ta’ang polity. Along similar lines, a further major idea and practice underpinning recruitment on a one-household/one-body ratio was that of re-articulating the Ta’ang body population collectively by placing people who had maintained a very localized understanding of being “Palaung” next to each other. Organizing and calculating recruitment on a household basis was not only a way of producing a territory that would exceed the P-SAZ, it also simultaneously represented a way to build a different spatial understanding of being Ta’ang for people who had been geographically apart in Kyaukme, Kutkai, Muse, Mogoke, Mongyawng, or Mong Hsu, for example. This involved not only recruits themselves but also their families and communities.

Fourth, women played a particularly relevant role in the recruitment endeavor of these initial years. Facing the realities of Ta’ang communities deeply affected by a variety of narcotics-related social issues (PWO 2011; PWO 2010), the PSLF’s networks focused on engaging with women as the actual pillars of the household in a situation in which, on the one hand, narcotics consumption was especially impactful on the male population and, on the other hand, women could be leveraged to authorize in-household recruitment and legitimize the formation of an armed force. The voices of women were mobilized to rally support for the ethnonational armed force and its renewed war, particularly in light of the intertwined logics of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication, while women’s unpaid labor was mobilized in support and services-delivery roles.[4] This kind of recruitment was discursively and materially constructed as a practice to liberate Ta’ang Land from drugs by freeing Ta’ang households and communities from drugs. Here again, recruitment embodied a specific political geography by placing different localities in relation to one another and a Ta’ang polity’s territory.

Such rationalities and practices of recruitment contributed and were connected to specific modalities of access to weapons and dynamics of weapons circulation as well. At the time of the TNLA’s official proclamation, the PSLF had been struggling to acquire weaponry, confronted as it was with an overall unfavorable conjuncture that had seen weapon flows and availability gradually shifting away from the Thailand–Myanmar borderlands toward the UWSA and KIO/A’s areas since the early 2000s. The front had managed to acquire firearms via contacts with the Karen rebel movements and the Wa National Organisation/Army (WNO/A).[5] Yet, it remained extremely difficult (but important) to maintain access to weapons in Ta’ang areas of northern Shan. The ethnonationality and narcotics eradication rationalities that inflected the recruitment drives analyzed above were important ways to build consensus among disgruntled members of the PSLO/A who, since the (more or less tacit) rejection of the ceasefire (and later, the disarmament) had stashed weapons away. The spatial elements intrinsically connected to the formation of a Ta’ang armed force that I aimed to foreground above were also important in embodying former PSLO/A officers’ political aspirations, which had been deeply frustrated by the imposition of the ceasefire accord and the 2008 constitutional arrangements. In the meantime, Ta’ang militiamen serving in village community militias or sit-tat integrated militias were also deciding to join the cause and bringing along their weaponry with them. After the first years, however, the support received also in the form of weapon supplies by other EAOs in northern Shan State (namely the KIO/A and SSPP/SSA-N) was particularly crucial. The political stances of these two EAOs, which rejected military-state demands to integrate into Myanmar’s defense structure via the BGF and/or PMF programs and were, thus, facing mounting military offensives, were key in agreeing to support the development of the TNLA (2011–2014/5).

The most crucial dynamic in terms of access to weapons and consolidating the Ta’ang armed force has been the relationship between the PSLF and the UWSP/A. While a thorough reconstruction of this relationship is beyond the scope of this chapter, the acquisition of weaponry, training, and military support from the Wa EAO has been heavily inflected by the two rationalities of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication. The two rebel movements are argued to share a common Mon–Khmer ethnic background and longstanding linkages that go back to at least the joint sit-tat and UWSA military offensive against Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army (MTA) in the mid-1990s, when the PSLO/A had responded to a call for support by the Wa armed group. Most importantly perhaps, they share a common understanding of the ethnonational cause as a struggle unfolding at different scales: a struggle not only vis à vis the central “Bamar” military-state authorities and state institutions but also against inclusion into a Shan polity and the assimilation of ethnonational communities via a “Shannization” process. Moreover, a common political agenda concerning the need for a war on narcotics in Shan State has been linked up with a shared understanding of the relationship between territory and ethnicity. Both rebel movements have upheld the idea that territory should be divided according to a proportionality criterion on the basis of the presence of ethnic minority populations. As Tar Bong Kyaw, the PSLF/TNLA’s first secretary-general recently put it while commenting on the territory of a future Ta’ang state: “We are not greedy – we are not demanding control of the cities, that will just lead to endless clashes. We are just demanding the regions where the majority of the people are Ta’ang” (Frontier Myanmar 2021).

Ta’ang military hats and badges: How rationalities are inflected into a uniform (and how a uniform reproduces the polity)

I end with a very brief analysis of how the political rationalities of narcotics eradication and ethnonationality that have informed the processes of weapons acquisition and armed forces formation have been made tangible and material in technical objects and techniques. To this end, I delve into a specific military-technical object, that is, the military uniform of the TNLA (particularly, the badges and hat of the uniform).[6] Military uniforms – and related techniques to wear the garment – should be understood as a technology to regulate and govern the relationship between people (individuals and collectives) and weapons, regardless of whether it is the very same body of the person becoming a soldier or a firearm, for example. In turn, I also sketch here some of the ways in which, by governing the relationship between people and weapons, the military uniform and related techniques to wear it contribute to symbolically and materially reproducing a Ta’ang polity.

The service combat uniform that the PSLF adopted for the TNLA in 2009 included a specific hat and two shoulder badges. The hat of the uniform presented striking similarities with the one that was in use among the KIO/A, thus suggesting how – not only concerning weapons but also for militaria more broadly – there are common supply chains among rebel movements in the borderlands. Yet, the cap differed clearly from the Kachin one due to a band cutting the upper panel horizontally. The TNLA’s hat drew instead from the one that was in use by the PSLO/A, either via old stocks or new supplies designed on the same model. Military training manuals and training techniques reported in detail on the components of the hat and their meaning, something that every recruit would have to learn about. The peculiar horizontal band that connects the left and right sides of the hat through the upper panel symbolizes the Ta’ang people and the armed force joining hands in symbiosis to constitute both the TNLA and the population it preserves. A further band running along the circumference of the head reinforces this role of the TNLA which, like a band surrounding soldiers’ heads, delimits and surrounds Ta’ang spaces and populations. Moreover, besides these bands, the hat is made of a cloth panel folded six times into the specific shape it presents. The set of six folds giving shape to a unitary cloth is taught of as a reference to the PNF, the very first Ta’ang armed resistance group. The two brigades forming PNF in 1963 merged into the Shan State Army (SSA) at its constitution in 1964 as the latter’s brigades 5 and 6. When brigades 5 and 6 broke away from the SSA a few years later, the PNF was first recreated by both brigades jointly and then eventually restructured under the leader of brigade 6, Captain Kham Thaung. Captain Kham Thaung and his brigade 6 factions comprised the strands of the PNF more inclined toward a political struggle for a Palaung state inside a democratic federal union, as opposed instead to brigade 5’s leadership, which expressed more conservative political stances and focused more on recreating the administrative system of the Sao Hpa in Shan State. Thus, the six folds of the hat are presented as a reference to brigade 6 and the process of the PNF’s restructuring as a key moment in the ethnogenesis of the Ta’ang and the formation of a Ta’ang polity. In summary, the TNLA’s military hat and the training manuals and techniques (as an integral part of the uniform) are a technology that – through the act of wearing the uniform – connects the armed force with Ta’ang populations and resistance movements across space and time.

But what/who are Ta’ang spaces and people? The uniform’s shoulder badges offer some clues. The left-sleeve badge depicts a green, three-peaked mountain range against a light blue background nested between tea leaves branches with a tea flower right at the center. Towered over by a stylized red sun, the range, tea leaves, and flower make symbolic reference to the social and politico-economic legacies of the Ta’ang communities and Ta’ang polity in northern Shan State specifically, where the production of tea in these hilly regions has long played a central role. However, the three different peaks and the sun towering over the composition enlarge the scale of Ta’ang Land: They express the rejection of state-framed scales of Ta’ang Land and the Palaung SAZ limited to specific areas of northern Shan State. The three peaks of the mountain range refer to the three main borderland regions where Ta’ang people are to be found – that is, northern Shan, Southern Shan, and the Myanmar–China and Myanmar–Thailand borderlands. While the red sun recalls a cosmology shared by Ta’ang communities throughout the three regions, according to which the Ta’ang people were born out of the encounter between father sun and mother dragon, who gave birth to the egg containing the first human beings. The right-sleeve badge instead displayed two Ta’ang “traditional” swords, named “Boh,” on a red background with the letters TNLA underneath. The military training manuals detail how the swords are a reference to the Unknown Soldier of the Ta’ang polity, who fought until the very end – figuratively recalled by the traditional swords – to defend the polity. Above all, the idea of refusing to lay down the Ta’ang polity’s weapons and disarm at any cost, even if this would entail fighting with two traditional “Boh,” is also embodied by the badge. As key components of the uniform, the two badges contribute to molding the bodies of recruits from different parts of Ta’ang Land into a single ethnonational body and territory-space that, via the uniform, is depicted and performed as both distinct from and broader than state-framed identifications of the Palaung and their zone of “autonomy” within Shan State.

If the act of wearing the uniform, with all the associated doctrines and techniques that (together with the technical object) aim to regulate the body at its interface with weapons, activates specific affections, the opposite is also true – that is, not wearing the uniform similarly contributes to reproducing the ethnonational polity and its territory. Drug addicts who have been press-ganged into military service and “rehabilitation” in the TNLA, for example, do not wear the same PSLF/TNLA military uniform (at least, not immediately). Addicts are shaved and provided with second-hand olive-green uniforms that often do not really “uniform” those who wear them: A top may be different from another, some may be given tracksuits, others either pants or tops only. “Rehabilitation” into the TNLA’s so-called “Drug Fighting Centers” essentially entails forced withdrawal via two main types of activities, both of which are highly informed by military discipline techniques. First, the “rehabilitation” is performed via military-like drills, physical and disciplinary training  carried out without weapons. (Only at later stages will weapons be introduced in the form of wooden props for those who will become TNLA soldiers after “rehabilitation”.) Second, “rehabilitation” is performed via social services – most often entailing military camps cleaning and maintenance labor more than real local community services. Only a portion of the addicts press-ganged into the PSLF/TNLA’s centers will then be integrated into the armed force, and only they will eventually wear the service military uniform. As the diffusion of narcotics has long been conceived as a genocidal strategy practiced by the sit-tat and the military-state institutions to target the ethnonational Ta’ang population, the main logic behind practices of “rehabilitation” is the idea of cleaning up Ta’ang society and Ta’ang Land. This entails the re-shaping of addicted bodies, households, and communities into drug-free bodies, households, and communities to be reinserted into a drug-free Ta’ang polity and territory. Thus, not wearing the uniform during the “rehabilitation” process functions, by contrast, as a material practice that singles out the “addict” from the polity and its territory to gradually reinsert it into them and to gradually recompose the polity and the territory (in part via the re-insertion of part of the “rehabilitated” bodies as soldiers into the TNLA).

Conclusion

Offering a concise reconstruction of the trajectories of the ceasefire, disarmament, and re-armament of Ta’ang rebel movements in the borderlands of Myanmar, this chapter analyzed the political rationalities that have shaped the processes and practices of (re)acquiring weapons and (re)forming the TNLA by the political front of the PSLF. In so doing, it highlighted the highly political role of the processes and practices of acquiring weaponry beyond any organizational or logistic issue. It also remarked on the diffused societal character of the two main rationalities of ethnonationality and narcotics eradication: They are not merely ideological elements mobilized by a political movement but political logics rooted in and diffused through micro- and less micro-societal practices to govern weapons, people, and the relations between them.

It has been observed how it is in the very rationalities and practices of acquiring and holding guns and constituting an armed force that ethnonationality and its attendant political geographies are reproduced. By combining military doctrines, manuals, recruitment practices, and technical objects (e.g., the service uniform) throughout the process of disciplining and governing the relations between weapons and the bodies of those entering the TNLA, the PSLF has managed to re-articulate a Ta’ang ethnonational collective identity and territory. Both this identity and territory simultaneously contest and reproduce an ethnonational system of rule informed by the military state’s Taingyintha logic.


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[1] Throughout the text, I follow this practice and refer to the Tat-ma-daw as sit-tat.

[2] It should be noted that, in the current post-2021 coup political scenario, many in the resistance to the military-state have rejected the EAO terminology since it is felt closely connected with the Thein Sein government-initiated peace process and the so-called National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). There is also a perception that such terminology downplays the revolutionary character of the struggles it tries to define to the extent that many have started to speak of ethnic revolutionary organizations (EROs) instead.

[3] I cannot provide here a full conceptualization or review of these concepts and literatures, and direct instead the reader to Prasse-Freeman’s works (2022 and 2021).

[4] Similarly to what Hedström and Olivius (2021) have found in relation to the wars in Kachin.

[5] At the headquarters of which it had maintained a small contingent of troops even before TNLA’s creation: see Buscemi 2019.

[6] I take here into consideration the first hats and badges of the TNLA’s uniform that were adopted in 2009. While still used by some of the troops, they were official replaced with renewed ones in late 2021.


 

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