Theses Doctoral

Infrapolitics: The Political Life of Infrastructure in a Myanmar Economic Zone

Aung, Geoffrey

In Myanmar’s southern borderlands, the Dawei special economic zone (SEZ) is one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure projects. With strong backing from the Thai government and private sector, the project includes plans for a deep-sea port, a vast petrochemical estate, an industrial zone, a dam and two reservoirs, dual oil and gas pipelines, and road and rail links to the Thai border. Yet in 2013, the Myanmar government suspended the SEZ project following limited investment, as well as sustained criticism of the project’s social and environmental impacts. Based on fieldwork conducted mainly over 18 months from 2016-2018, this dissertation follows the political activity and ideas that coalesced around the project—in Dawei town and the villages of the SEZ project areas—as rumors swirled that the project would resume. Against the backdrop of Myanmar’s reform period in the 2010s, I bring together a set of changing material conditions and a series of political projects, locating the political life of infrastructure at that dynamic intersection.

This dissertation turns around three central findings. First, the outstanding political fact in Dawei is one of fragmentation over time, principally between town-based youth-led organizations and villagers living in the SEZ project areas. Although condemnation of the project was once widely shared, the period of suspension led many villagers to wish for the project to resume. This fragmentation leads me away from an a priori relational thematization of infrastructure. This theme prevails not only in anthropology’s turn to infrastructure but also in Marxist geography and science and technology studies. Second, I identify two political trajectories, one secular-universal, the other situational-differential. One criticizes the SEZ project through appeals to liberal values, calling for greater transparency, accountability, and local participation. The other sees in the SEZ project a promise of material progress and distributional gain: employment opportunities, financial compensation, better basic infrastructure. These trajectories present less a binary than a set of contingent tendencies that sometimes overlap. Both operate within a normative commitment to development; neither partakes of the rebellious or evasive repertoires of peasant politics past. Third, I argue that this fractured political landscape corresponds to a contradiction at the heart of postcolonial capitalism: between shared desires for developmental progress—a hegemonic complex that drives primitive accumulation onwards—and the splintering force of the accumulation process, which creates a heterogeneous material terrain. Thus, I trace and draw out the political implications of a differentiating accumulation process, tracking how a range of political subjects navigate an uneven landscape as the project’s return loomed.

I suggest that the political activities and ideas I find in Dawei offer provisional answers to a pressing impasse: the need for new knowledge and new politics now that earlier promises of capitalist transition—from the farm to the factory, agriculture to industry—no longer hold. I find that for many of my interlocutors, the promise of developmental time remains, even if the absorptive, incorporative notion of capitalist transition does not. The forms and figures of the political in Dawei are not particularly hopeful or optimistic, nor radical or emancipatory. On the contrary, they inhabit and index a time-space out of joint, a difficult political present unmoored from past certainties. In a place supposed to exemplify the transition from farm to factory, I capture instead an elliptical present of incomplete structures and abandoned sites, horizons receding and beginnings fading from memory. Long on hold, the SEZ project has all the presence of a dream. It is now a kind of fantasy, unreal. For many, it is also an aspiration, unmet.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Chatterjee, Partha
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 2, 2022