Comparing Migrants, Comparing States: Reflections on Lao and Myanmar State Governance and Migrant Activism

Dr Sverre Molland1

1Australian National University

This paper deploys Lao and Myanmar labour migrants as a springboard for comparatively analysing Myanmar and Lao State governance. Based on ethnographic research in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, notable differences exist in terms of how Myanmar and Lao migrants self-organize and engage in labour migrant activism in Thailand. Whereas Myanmar migrants tend to engage in ubiquitous migrant self-help groups (which at times resemble labour unions), Lao migrants tend to evade any such form of corporation. This paper suggests one must go beyond socio-cultural factors to consider political and institutional dimensions of Myanmar and Laos in order to account for these differences. Despite Myanmar and Laos’ shared legacy of authoritarian, socialist, one-party rule, they differ radically in how Myanmar’s military rule – as opposed to Laos’ party-structure – predispose young citizens to engage in modes of self-organising practices outside state structures. In turn, this has crucial implications for how labour migrants engage with informal self-organising practices and migrant activism in Thailand. As such, examining labour migrants in Thailand presents a fruitful vantage point to study Lao and Myanmar State governance in a comparative perspective.


Dr. Molland’s is an anthropologist whose research examines the intersections between migration, development and security in a comparative perspective, with specific focus on governance regimes and intervention modalities in mainland Southeast Asia. He has published widely on human trafficking and migration governance in the Mekong region.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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