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Tomas ColePhD

About me

Tomas Cole joined the Department of Social Anthropology in September 2015. He holds a MSc in anthropology with a focus on experiences of armed conflict, disability, and care in the Thai-Myanmar borderlands, from the University of Copenhagen. He also holds an MPhil in Psychology from NTNU in Trondheim, Norway where wrote about the phenomenology of autism.


In December 2020 he received his PhD from the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University with his thesis entitled – Possessed Earth: Power and Possession in the Salween Peace Park of Southeast Myanmar. The thesis followed an ensemble of indigenous people, environmental activists, and armed revolutionary groups as they translated and rescaled indigenous practiced and cosmologies of possessing landscapes into a 5,500 km2 people-centered protected zone in the war-torn highlands along the Salween River in Southeast Myanmar. It argues that indigenous practices and cosmologies of possessing landscapes be approached as alternative modes of ownership and sovereignty, and explores how they might help us imagine new and radical forms of environmental governance, peace-building, and struggles for autonomy – that are increasingly becoming entangled.

Teaching

  • Environment and Society (2021-ongoing)
  • Medical Anthropology (2022)
  • BSc thesis supervision (2018-ongoing)
  • Economy: Value, Resources and the Environment (2016-ongoing)
  • Migration, Culture and Diversity (2015)
  • Political Ecology: Land Use and Natural Recourses in a Local to Global Perspective, at the Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University (2019-ongoing)
  • Culture in Armed Conflict, at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University (2020)

Research

In his current research, Tomas is working to turn his doctoral research into a series of articles and a monograph, as well as embarking on a new international postdoc project, funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR). This new project, 'Making Peace with Pests: From Conflict to Conviviality with Mosquitos Across Southeast Asia', comparatively explores the differing ways in which humans are learning to negotiate with, make room for, and indeed to make peace with mosquitos across Southeast Asia – from the war-torn highlands of Myanmar to hyper-modern Singapore.

Research projects

Publications

2021 “A View on the Coup from the Unruly Edges of Myanmar”, in Sensing Myanmar – Researcher reflections on the coup.   https://essays.legacies-of-detention.org/a-view-on-the-coup-from-the-unruly-edges-of-myanmar/

A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • 'Power-Hurt'

    2020. Tomas Cole. Ethnos 85 (2), 224-240

    Article

    In this paper I show how, for many Karen living as refugees in 'temporary-shelter-areas' in Thailand, acts of care and kindness often slipped into something painful and controlling. Drawing on fieldwork among Karen refugees disabled by landmines I show how asking for and receiving help was almost always accompanied by the visceral sensation of ana, literally, 'power hurt'. On the one hand, ana was the force driving the circulation of care and kindness, provoking people to help others. On the other hand this circulation also carried with it the constant potential to compromise not only the recipient's but also the donor's 'power', which was understood as their capacity to have an effect on the world. In this manner ana may offer us with a way to grasp the ethical-affective basis of a social arrangement that slips smoothly between lateral solidarities and vertical hierarchical relations allowing egalitarianism and hierarchy to co-exist.

    Read more about 'Power-Hurt'
  • Possessed Earth

    2020. Tomas Cole.

    Thesis (Doc)

    In the wake of seven decades of protracted revolution and armed conflict in Southeast Myanmar, an ensemble of indigenous peoples and transnational activists have begun formulating a radical alternative vision of how peace and conservation might be achieved in practice. Through translating and rescaling indigenous modes of possessing the earth, this ensemble is working to transform 5,000 km2 of highly contested terrain in the highlands along the Salween River into a conservation zone they call the Salween Peace Park.

    In this study I explore what indigenous practices and cosmologies, and the ways they are being translated and rescaled into the Salween Peace Park, might teach us about ownership, sovereignty, and politics at large.

    The first half of this study focuses on the highlands along the Salween River, to explore how people residing here commonly treat their landscapes as already possessed, in the dual and entangled senses of being both occupied or haunted by spectral more-than-human presences, and controlled and owned by them. In these Possessed Landscapes human ownership of land is always ephemeral, ultimately nesting in the encompassing ownership of spectral presences (who I describe as persons). Humans can only borrow land by constantly negotiating with and propitiating its spectral owners. A corollary of these indigenous modes of possessing the earth is that these highlands were not so much anarchic as in sense of “no ruler”, but rather, power and sovereignty is nesting in the hands of the spectral owners of the earth. I describe this as an alternative mode of politics that I name Spectral Sovereignty.  In the second half I take a small step back to shuttle between the residents of these highlands and networks of activists based in Chiang Mai in Thailand. Here I focus on both growing new forms of dispossession and counterinsurgency that have accompanied the cooling of armed conflict, and efforts by ensembles of indigenous peoples, activists, armed groups, and conservationists to attempt to push back and re-territorialise and re-possess the earth. I go on to explore how this ensemble is subtly translating and rescaling possessed landscapes and spectral sovereignty into land laws and conservation policy as a way to transform these former war zones into a protected area, the Salween Peace Park. I then show how, in the process of establishing this protected area, these activists are continuing the revolutionary movements to attain greater autonomy for the indigenous people residing here. I then close this thesis by exploring what is happening as the Salween Peace Park is coming into contact and being negotiated on the ground in these highlands.  Here we find revolutionary politics and spectral sovereignty are becoming entwined into a form of Alter-Politics that is unsettling established notions of sovereignty and politics. However, beyond unsettling, it also gestures towards alternative ways of understanding the shifting entanglements between people, politics, spectres, and other unseen more-than-humans, and radical alternatives to conservation and armed conflict in Myanmar, and beyond.

    Read more about Possessed Earth

Show all publications by Tomas Cole at Stockholm University