The Peasant and Her Smartphone: Agrarian Change and Land Politics in Myanmar

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This dissertation investigates how farmers, officials and activists navigate Myanmar’s contemporary political and agrarian transformations. I root my analysis in a particular agrarian landscape—the Kalay Valley—that provides a window onto environmental change and ethnic encounter in a privileged site of Southeast Asian state formation: the seam of the hills and the plains. Ethnographic research in and beyond Kalay allows me to examine how two different ethnic groups, the Burmans and the Chins, negotiate the changing values and meanings of land as collective territory, individual property and a source of livelihoods and community life. Recent economic liberalization and legal reforms have achieved neither democratic nor rural transition, as conventionally conceived. Rather, they have brought new technologies of production, communication and rule into the lives of Myanmar’s 35 million farmers, tools that shape both the stakes and terms of struggles on and for land. Each of three parts of the manuscript makes a distinct contribution that advances scholarship on environment, society and state. First, I bring together scholarship on ethnic and territorial boundary-making with insights from political ecology and agrarian studies to show how the erasure and recovery of political borders is embedded in the creation and closure of smallholder agrarian frontiers. Second, I contribute to debates on property, authority and state formation by analyzing Myanmar’s contemporary land reforms and proliferating land claims through the interlinked analytics of legal debris, elastic land, risky rights and performing property. Third, I bring classic agrarian questions of capital, labor, and class into conversation with work on rural-urban connections and the nascent field of digital geography to analyze the adoption of tractors, combine harvesters and smartphones. I highlight the role of new internet connections in sustaining communities across virtual and physical space, theorizing the ‘digital village’ as a simultaneously rural and virtual sphere, in which both soil and seasons, and the affordances of Facebook, structure social life and land politics.

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292 pages


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land; Myanmar; political ecology; rural; State formation; territory


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Union Local


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Wolford, Wendy W.

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Fiskesjo, Magnus
Friedman, Eli
Kerr, Rachel Bezner

Degree Discipline

Development Sociology

Degree Name

Ph. D., Development Sociology

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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