Cultivating Subjects: Opium and Rule in Postcolonial Vietnam
Swidden cultivators in the Southeast Asian highlands may work far from lowland centers, but certain crops attract powerful interests. During the First Indochina War (1946-54), French and Vietnamese political actors climbed the hills in pursuit of the Black River region’s opium production and trade. Even after combat formally ended, opium contests continued into an independent Vietnam, intersecting with larger struggles over ethnic difference, state resource claims, and market organization. Using upland cultivators to examine postcolonial statemaking, this article tells a new story about opium’s tangled relationship with socialist rule in Vietnam. In so doing, it opens a new chapter in studies of narcotics production and Cold War machinations in the Golden Triangle Region of Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and Thailand.
Drawing on French and Vietnamese archival records, “Cultivating Subjects” traces the operation of successive opium regimes through war and into restive peace. Based on new evidence of opium tax and purchase operations conducted by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), it argues that regulating the commodity sensitized cultivators to their long, fraught relations with state power. Far from passive, cultivating subjects engaged revolutionary ideals, negotiated resource rights, and mounted a social movement that peaked in 1957. A discussion of opium’s role in nation-state rule contributes to debates about “Zomia” and considers historical comparisons with decolonization processes in China and Southeast Asia.
“Cultivating Subjects” was lead article in Modern Asian Studies vol. 51, no. 4 (July 2017): 879-918.