John Buchanan has forgotten more about Shan State than I will ever know about anything. In this new Asia Foundation monograph, Militias in Myanmar, he gives a great overview of the country’s historical and, especially, contemporary militia scene. This is a particularly welcome addition because so much attention to Myanmar (including my own) focuses on current and former insurgent groups, but these are only a small slice of a far wider range of armed actors. It provides a level of granularity missing from most of the current press coverage of Myanmar’s conflict zones. Militias in Myanmar is a nice complement to the Foundation’s earlier The Contested Corners of Asia and to growing political science interest in militias.
But Buchanan also offers the sobering note that “In the case of militias, much basic data is also beyond reach. The exact number of militias and militia personnel is unknown and perhaps unknowable.” Like with the JVP’s wars, Manipur, or Balochistan, among many others, there is a huge amount we just don’t know about even very simple descriptive issues. Which should remind us all to be extremely humble in the kinds of claims we can confidently make.