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Invisible Actors and Factors of Infrastructure: Ethnicity, Gender, and Work across Mainland Southeast Asia

Sat, April 2, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Washington State Convention Center, 3rd Floor, Room 308

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel

Abstract

This comparative panel explores hidden material processes and labor practices in diverse forms of infrastructure in Mainland Southeast Asia. While political actors have long prized the role of transportation in economic development, scholars have more recently begun to interrogate the processes underlying such projects and the social transformations they produce. The finished projects—from bridges to airports—were and remain significant not only for their economic role but also as nodes of and for symbolic investiture. There is also often a crucial, yet not always explicit, relationship between economic stakeholders and the laws that govern such projects. Whether building airspace networks in Burma/Myanmar or roads in colonial Indochina and revolutionary Vietnam, labor mobilization was always rooted in particular social geographies, which intersect -- and can exacerbate -- marginality, often including issues of gender, class, and ethnicity. Exploring the bureaucratic and ideological forces at work in transportation projects reveals disproportionate exploitation of women and ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, the finished projects can serve to glorify the ethnic majority state, and increasingly, trans-regional economic development. There are sometimes opportunities for subversion of this process as well. By comparing old and new cases across Southeast Asia, the panel offers historical depth as well as regional breadth into studies of infrastructure.

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