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The Dong Van Karst Plateau, on Vietnam's border with China, typifies the region of Zomia: that vast 'non-state' upland space into which different Southeast Asian peoples are said to have fled, seeking sanctuary from oppressive lowland regimes (Scott 2009). The limestone plateau in today's Ha Giang province is home to some 160,000 Hmong people, whose ancestors began migrating from China three hundred years ago. Until recently, they maintained a tenuous connection to Vietnam’s lowland power-centers. Since the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the mid-1950s, Dong Van has been brought into Vietnam's state through assertive road building, agricultural management, subsidised social services, and tourism enterprise development. Similar programs elsewhere have been described as a form of 'internal colonialism' (Evans 1992), leading to a loss of autonomy, identity, and security. According to some critical scholars, Hmong do not belong comfortably in cultural or ideological terms as national citizens and continue to resist or evade state rule. Official perspectives are more positive about state support as a means to stabilize lives, ensure security, and improve education and health. Nevertheless, report after report shows that the Hmong remain in the bottom tiers of officially-defined wealth and development; they 'lag behind', are recalcitrant, or fail despite multiple assertive programs over decades. What is the interaction of the Hmong with the Vietnamese state? More importantly, ow do Hmong in Dong Van characterise this relationship?
This chapter from my in-progress Ph.D. thesis explores the notion of political belonging. It asks if and how Hmong of the Dong Van Karst Plateau experience a sense of belonging to the nation state of Vietnam. Based on one year's ethnographic fieldwork in Meo Vac, Ha Giang, it analyses Hmong responses to four state-initiated programs. They are: construction of an access highway in 1959-1965; opium eradication; poverty alleviation; and the promotion of heritage-related tourism development. These initiatives can be described as attempts to transform Zomia into a state space, ensure national security and development in a frontier area, and draw the Hmong people into the national community. Hmong reactions to these programs have been ambivalent: unexpectedly supportive of some, while perplexed, or resigned, with respect to others. Meanwhile, Hmong have actively drawn the state into their own worlds, giving meaning to state projects and participating in state programs for their own reasons. Although they continue to experience critical material deprivation, Hmong actually enjoy a certain power over the state as a liminal or 'in-between' group and use state programs to supplement traditional livelihoods and engage in locally meaningful communal and cosmopolitan engagements.