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The Nationalization of the Frontier and its People: the Yunnan-Burma Frontier in Modern Times

Yong YAO (Sun Yat-sen University)

During the transformation of China from empire to nation- state, the borders of native chieftancies (tusi) in western Yunnan which had previously been understood in terms of chieftains' domains came to be seen in terms of national borders. Their peoples were converted from barbarous tribes to national citizens. This process began with the expansion of British colonial power in neighbouring Burma, for which neither the state nor the indigenous people were prepared. Out of the encounter emerged the practice of periodic meetings of the YunnanBurma border commission. Officials from both sides met annually to address frontier issues and adjudicate trans-border disputes. These meetings, which lasted from 1901 to 1942 when Burma was occupied by the Japanese, strengthened the notions of borders, sovereignty and nationality. Through their participation in these meetings, indigenous peoples also became aware of these concepts. In this period of nationalist transformation, indigenous sovereignty was neglected and dismissed by state-makers, making it difficult for indigenous officials to participate in the integration of their community into the nation. Nonetheless the competition between China and Burma created some space for them to maneuver. In this complex contest, border peoples made use of the political differences between the two sides to shape the development of the frontier, finding opportunities to survive and pursue their interests.

Journal of History and Anthropology