Surviving Dispossession: Burmese Migrants in Thailand's Border Economic Zones
This dissertation explores the intersection of gender, violence, and dispossession among Burmese migrants living in precarious circumstances in Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar. In this space, particularly in the town of Mae Sot and surrounding areas, migrants are targets of multiple overlapping technologies of governance, including the Thai state, multinational garment export processing facilities, plantation-style agricultural firms, international humanitarian NGOs, and transnational social and political networks. Through a multi-modal qualitative approach relying on collaborative action research and key informant interviews, I consider how this complex web of discursive and relational power simultaneously renders migrants invisible subjects of global supply chains and yet hyper-visible targets of humanitarian assistance and intervention. Invisible because actors associated with state or market forces performatively enforce upon migrant bodies the violent notion that they are deportable, reiterating the boundaries of sovereignty at each encounter. And visible because as migrants struggle to make ends meet working long hours for illegally low wages, NGOs spotlight their social problems and offer solutions that promote individual biowelfare but not wider transformative change. Despite what appear to be opposing forces, both forms of power contribute to the production of gendered border subjects that are healthy workers; ethical and self-reliant yet docile. Migrants interpret and negotiate these overlapping systems, exerting agency as they rely on their own social and political networks to establish mechanisms of order that are shaped by but not necessarily subordinate to the disciplinary regimes of factories and farms, the juridical frameworks of the state, or the biopolitical gaze of NGOs. This dissertation finds that within these mechanisms, gender becomes a key discursive metaphor both to make sense of the widespread violence of displacement and to maintain collective order. Migrants' own gendered performances of discipline are themselves a product of border precarity and forge pathways of limited agency through which migrants seek to navigate the everyday conditions of that precarity. Throughout, this dissertation reflexively examines its own collaborative action research approach as well as humanitarian intervention on the border to identify ways that both are complicit in gendered border subjectivation. Gender in this analysis manifests itself as a set of discursive resources that NGO staff and migrants make use of as they seek to effect change--albeit in ways that tend to leave unchallenged the larger structural conditions of violence and neoliberal sovereignty that undergird and require the formation of a docile and disposable border population. Thus, in one sense, this dissertation is about how migrants survive in a violent context of dispossession, but it is also just as much about the generative qualities of violent life, the spaces in which agency challenges precarity, and the ways in which performatively reproduced gendered hierarchies are at the center of both precarity and resistance.