Great Game East and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier

Great_game_eastJohn Keay at Literary Review:

The original Great Game, those bouts of strategic shadow-boxing that preoccupied the intelligence communities of British India and tsarist Russia in the 19th century, was played out under the big skies of Central Asia and across the high passes of the western Himalayas. Camels and yaks did a lot of the heavy work; beards and turbans made for easy disguise. Bagging forbidden cities and bartering for rare bloodstock rivalled the gunrunning and the surveying. Heavy books and solid reputations resulted.

The arena earmarked by Bertil Lintner for what he calls the 'Great Game East' could not be more different. Squeezed between the Tibetan plateau, the southeast Asian rainforest and the Bay of Bengal, the leech-infested triangle where northeast India meets southwest China (with some nudging from Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan) is one of the most impenetrable zones on earth. Heavy rainfall, dense forest and interminable hills defy developmental initiatives and harbour a scattered and impossibly diverse population. Adjacent settlements speak mutually incomprehensible languages; even 'tribe' proves to be a colonial term of convenience corresponding to little more than highly localised kinship. Ethnolinguistic identities – Indo-Bengali, Tai-Shan, Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer – are crisscrossed with confessional allegiances, ranging from messianic Christianity to militant Islam, with Buddhism, Hinduism and numerous indeterminate forms of animism as default settings. Anthropologists have long thrived here. Ideologists have found the going tougher.

more here.