The Rise of the Bo: Autonomous Strongmen, Opium Capital, and State Formation in Mainland Southeast Asia (1948-1996)
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The Shan State of Burma became one of the most politically fragmented areas of the post World War II period. In rural areas, autonomous strongmen exercised social control independently of central state leaders and became a pervasive form of political authority. This dissertation examines the conditions under which autonomous strongmen emerge. It draws on a state and society approach to argue that where local access to resources coincide with societal dislocations individuals can, by careful use of rewards, sanctions, symbols, and meaning-laden practices, gain acceptance of their rulemaking authority from society. It starts with an examination of the booms in opium production taking place in Mainland Southeast after 1940. Next, it examines the dislocations in Shan State and the emergence of autonomous strongmen. A final part looks at the configuration of authority in Kachin State of Burma, northern Thailand, and northern Laos. Comparative analysis of these sub regions shows the importance of the configuration of society, the availability of revenue from resources, and whether strongmen can offer segments of society strategies to meet their material and psychological needs in accounting for the emergence of autonomous strongmen. My argument challenges several tenets of the conventional wisdom about strongmen. One, it contests the belief that coercion or financial inducement is the primary basis for their domination of society. Two, it disputes the view that the presence of valuable resources, such as opium, accounts for the emergence of powerful strongmen. Additionally, the argument refutes the notion that state weakness in peripheral areas allows for their emergence. Finally, my findings indicate that autonomous strongmen are likely to remain a feature of the contemporary world order.
- Political science