Seminar by Karin Dean: “Changing Spatialities at the India-Myanmar Borderlands” | Center for Southeast Asian Studies Kyoto University


Seminar by Karin Dean: “Changing Spatialities at the India-Myanmar Borderlands”

Speaker: Karin Dean

Title: Changing Spatialities at the India-Myanmar Borderlands

The vast area that today constitutes the borderland between India and Southeast Asia is defined by rugged mountainous terrain of the eastern Himalayas. The contemporary border between Northeast India and Myanmar runs mostly along the crest of the ranges that form the watershed between the Brahmaputra (India) and Irrawaddy (Myanmar) rivers. It divides multiple indigenous communities sharing the same ethnicity and language, now on both sides of the 1600-kilometre border.

The Indian and Burmese/Myanmarese official discourses have emphasized that the border along the mountain ridges and dividing watersheds is traditional. However, it materialized into an international boundary upon India’s and Burma’s independence, having originally been established by the British as an administrative line between two British Indian colonial provinces, Burma and Assam. These borderlands have deeply entangled histories that were further fused together during World War II, with many British colonial and other records detailing past events and policies affecting the region.

This presentation asks whether discussing the contemporary world, the various political developments can be fully grasped through a singular focus upon the agency of the human subject. It argues that the terrain together with its materialities is one of the key actors variably participating in the making of the contemporary sovereign spaces, at least in mountainous borderlands. The presentation examines how terrain has dictated human actions and mobilities in the borderlands between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam (India) and Kachin State and Sagaing Region (Myanmar) – in alliance with some actors and objecting others, in the past and present. It shows how human engagement with terrain has undergone considerable changes. It identifies the advances in technology enabling humans to engage with terrain and the state efforts of controlling its terrain as the key drivers in bordering Southeast Asia’s volumetric westernmost limits. The presentation relates back to the past key migration routes and the World War II passageways (e.g. the Pangsau Pass) but focuses on the contemporary spatialities, based on recent fieldwork at the border.

Karin Dean is a senior researcher at Tallinn University’s School of Humanities, trained in political geography. She currently leads a EU Horizon project “Advancing Trans-Regional Border Studies” and runs the Eur-Asian Border Lab ( as an active platform to foster trans-regional dialogue in border studies. Dean’s research interest revolves around borders—on how different actors construct, negotiate and cross physical, symbolic or virtual borders in their claiming of political space. Most of her research has focused on the contested spatialities at Myanmar’s borderlands and the Kachin connectivities across China and Myanmar, while most recently she is reaching out to the Indian ‘side’ at Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar borderlands. Her research has also explored local negotiation of large infrastructure developments across Yunnan-Kachin border. Dean obtained her PhD in political geography at the National University of Singapore. She has published in journals such as Political GeographyEurasian Geography and EconomicsTerritory, Politics and GovernanceCitySurveillance & Society, and serves at the editorial board of the Journal of Borderlands Studies