Institutt for sosialantropologi

Common Dreams and Individual Goals. Negotiating Identity Across the Thai-Burma Border


By Karine Røthe

Supervisor: Associate Professor Eldar Bråten


Within a socio-historical framework of how modern nation-states and ethnic labels came to be in the Southeast Asian Mainland, this thesis sets out to explore how young individuals, currently engaging as cross-border activists in two distinct ethno-political communities, use the borders in their everyday lives to conceptualize feelings of identity in relation to community - as ethnic group, and self - as individual. Together, the two fields presented in this thesis form a comparative analysis to explore the driving forces within current ethno-political communities along the Thai-Burma border.

While I argue that the differing histories of the two ethnic groups - Mon and Karen - is a necessary framework to understand their current position towards the national politics of Burma and surrounding countries, the individual border-crossers seem to be subject for similar means and expectations while engaging as activists. While the Post 10 students at the Karen migrant school negotiate feelings of identity in relation to the possible future life paths presented through the different social networks they are currently part of, the female staff at the Mon woman’s organization have to balance their roles as ‘static symbols’ according to established expectations from their local communities, and ‘dynamic actors’ through their current engagement as cross-border activists.

I argue that while ethnic identity as Mon and Karen continue to be tied to current discourses about national identity in Burma; personal identities among the individual border-crossing activists are increasingly tied to ‘global flows’ contributing to the increased development of a specialized skills set acquired at the border as ‘space-in-between’. As such, the border as used by the people who cross them as part of their everyday lives, could be seen as ‘alternative spaces’ to the legitimized geographical spaces of modern nation-states. While the borders represent lines of demarcations on geo-political maps, they represent spaces of transformation for the people engaged as cross-border activists. While the ‘common dreams’ of the Karen Migrant School and the Mon Woman’s Organization as part of larger ‘imagined communities’ might be seen as driving forces of the two communities, an increased awareness and capability to reach ‘individual goals’ seems to form a parallel outcome.