Religion, Economy and Gender in the Upper Mekong Region: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

The project also involves Dr. Aranya Siriphon (Chiang Mai University, Thailand) as collaborator.Thanks to increasing investment in infrastructure in the Economic Quadrangle formed by China, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, regional integration and transnational trade are currently developing at a fast pace in a region targeted as an integral part of the China-promoted ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ These changes and apertures are provoking in turn an unprecedented transformation of cultures and livelihoods among populations in the area, a transformation characterized by expectations of economic improvement on the part of previously marginalized groups, as well as by renewed processes of exclusion and dispossession.

In order to understand how these developments affect the position of women and gendered economic relations in general in the Upper Mekong region, this project focuses on the interplay between religious, economic, and gender discourses and practices among the Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna (Ch.: Xishuangbanna), a small border prefecture in Yunnan Province of China. In the last decades, this locality has become an important tourist destination in Yunnan Province, and is at present one of the fastest-developing areas in the region. This, together with the rich multi-ethnic character of the prefecture, makes it a perfect site to investigate social change in the borderlands where China meets Southeast Asia. Through its focus on a very specific geographical area, the study addresses issues of general theoretical significance regarding the transformative effects of modernity and market economy among minority groups and rural communities.

The project is a Austria-Japan cooperation co-funded by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). Dr. Roger Casas leads the Austrian side of the project from ISA, while Prof. Kumiko Kato (Nagoya University) is the Principal Investigator in the Japan research team. The project also involves Dr. Aranya Siriphon (Chiang Mai University, Thailand) as collaborator. Finally, Yu Wanjiao, a PhD candidate from Sipsong Panna, is currently working at ISA within the framework of the project. With the title ‘Tai Lue businesswomen and shifting gender relations in China’s southwest frontier,’ her research aims at understanding how the new economy may be facilitating or hindering access to the local public sphere for Tai Lue women in Sipsong Panna, and the ways in which this process may be affecting gender relations among the group, in a context where the crisis of Buddhist monasticism is threatening traditional avenues of social mobility and prestige of local men.