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Southeast Asian Movement at Yale

Brownbag Insider

Mar 09, 2022

Repossessing Shanland: Ethnicity and Rock ‘n’ Roll Nostalgia in Upland Southeast Asia

by Hannah Hernandez

Professor Jane Ferguson’s book builds on years of ethnographic research among communities of Shan soldiers and families, detailing the origins and complexities of their ethno-nationalist movement. Her talk raised important issues like identity formation, state-building in the interstices, and the lived experiences of borderlands.

Professor Jane Ferguson began her eye-opening talk on her book Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand, and a Nation-State Deferred (2021) with an overview of the struggles the Shan have faced in their six decade long fight for independence. The 1947 Union of Burma Constitution promised the Shan people recognition as an independent state. However, military governments stymied Shanland from achieving liberation. Today, an estimated five million people in Southeast Asia identify as Shan. Their fight for repossession extends beyond that of militant combat and exists even in cultural survival, which Ferguson articulates through her discussion of music’s role in Shan nationalism.

Most Political Science scholarship on statehood and state formation employs a  Eurocentric focus with the exception of Middle Eastern states, but Ferguson suggests that the discourse on statecraft and nation-state building must digress from discussions of statehood prior to, during, and immediately following the Cold War. Ferguson argues that Shan’s land repossession must be approached through a new lens that considers the Shan’s identity and an understanding of the borderlands through our contemporary political and social environment, history of the British colonization of the Shan, and its location relative to Myanmar and Thailand.

Throughout her talk, Ferguson references the conflict between the Shan and other ethnicities. The Tai claim that the Shan are similar in culture and language and, thus, can more easily assimilate to Thailand. The Shan perceive this as an attempt to obstruct Shan land repossession, and remain unwavered in their commitment to independence.

Towards the latter half of her talk, Ferguson explores the role of music in Shan nationalism and culture. Music preserves Shan culture and the hope of acquiring official recognition of its statehood. In one of the songs, nationalist attitudes are voiced through phrases such as, “Shan don’t let our people die” and “make Shan with the times.” It calls upon the Shan to build a great nation, a great people, and prevent the Shan from collapsing. Other musical genres – such as rock and roll – express similar sentiments. When the speaker system failed to play another Burmese song, a favorite of a woman she interviewed, Ferguson graciously sang it. Afterwards, she detailed how communities utilize songs as a means of community bonding, preserving historical memory, and advancing Shan liberation. In her two and a half years of working directly with a village of Shan revolutionary army soldiers and families, she learned a great deal about music and political issues such as the power of storytelling and the Tai’s attempt to persuade the Shan to assimilate.

Ferguson successfully shared the stories and experiences of the Shan people and their ongoing struggle of independence by offering a comprehensive study of historical memory. Her speech and excitement reflect the dedication she holds for her work, spotlighting the story of the Shan in disciplines that lack scholarly emphasis in Southeast Asia. Ferguson and the Shan have much to teach us about efforts and challenges to achieve sovereignty and the right to self determination in the present-day, especially in understudied regions. ︎


After Professor Ferguson’s talk, SEAM interviewed her about her book. Professor Ferguson engaged us in a lively conversation about playing music, learning Shan, and participant ethnography. Read the full interview here.

Questions? Email the author:

Hannah Hernandez