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Union of Zomia

ပြည်ထောင်စု သျှမ်
Pyidaunzu Hsan
Flag of Zomia
Coat of arms of Zomia
Coat of arms
Location of Zomia
Largest cityKyagaw
Recognised regional languages
Ethnic groups
  • 19.2% Oegun
  • 15.5% Chanwan
  • 13.3% Hsan-Lue
  • 9.1% Ukilen
  • 8.9% Kiau
  • 8.3% Ðàkan
  • 7.7% Ryo
  • 6.4% Chauchua
  • 4.5% Nainese
  • 2.8% Kin
  • 4.3% Other (112 recognised tribes)
GovernmentFederal Elective Absolute Monarchy
Hpkeng III Sah Ngwegu
• Prime Minister
Badithirat II Sah Israt
LegislatureUnion Assembly
30th May 1883
• Establishment of the Zomi Confederal State
14th October 1952
• Secession of the United Zomi Councils
11th June 1958
• Unionist Victory in the Trucial Wars
17th March 1970
• Total
694,772 km2 (268,253 sq mi)
• June 2021 estimate
• Density
32.3/km2 (83.7/sq mi)
GDP (PPP)2020 estimate
• Total
$85.824 billion
• Per capita
GDP (nominal)2020 estimate
• Total
$29.830 billion
• Per capita
HDI (2020)0.531
CurrencyKyat (ƙ)
Driving sideleft
Internet TLD.hs

Zomia, officially the Union of Zomia (Lue: ပြည်ထောင်စု သျှမ်, Pyidaunzu Hsan) is a landlocked state in Southeast Coius, bordered by Lavana in the Northeast, Shangea in the Northwest, Kuthina in the Southwest and Nainan in the South. It is mainly situated in the Shahlehgo Mountains, and though arid highlands predominate, Zomia has a highly diverse geography, including seasonal tropical forest, subalpine forest, fertile intermontane valleys and open steppe along its Northern borders. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural state, with no official language or religion and over a hundred recognised tribal minorities.

The Union is an elective monarchy formed from a federation of nine princely states, each governed by a hereditary Sah. Together they constitute the Executive Council, the highest constitutional authority in Zomia. A special session of the Council convenes every five years to appoint the Prince President, the head of state, and the Prime Minister, the head of government. The Union Assembly, officially the unicameral legislature of Zomia, is a quasi-parliamentary consultative body with no constitutional powers. It consists of twenty hereditary chieftains representing the autonomous tribal regions, and ninety directly elected members. Ten councillors represent each princely state, though all candidates are nominated by state election committees, controlled in practice by their ruling Sah. The Hsan-Lue minority hold the great majority of royal, civil and military offices, and Zomia is annually ranked 'unfree' by the International Council for Democracy.

Zomia is a member of both the International Forum for Developing States and the Council for Mutual Development. An isolated, stateless region until the mid-20th century, Zomia entered the modern era in 1952 without schools, hospitals, roads, telecommunications, or electricity. Shangean-funded infrastructure projects are a major stimulus for the Zomi economy, which remains one of the least developed or diversified in Southeast Coius; based primarily on agriculture, forestry, remittances, and the sale of hydroelectric power to Shangea and Kuthina.

Since the collapse of the United Zomi Councils at the end of the Trucial Wars (1958-1970), the Union has been engulfed in ethnic strife, characterised by widespread human rights abuses. Various participating anti-government paramilitary groups as well as the Union Defence Force have been implicated in arbitrary imprisonment, torture, mass sexual assault and human trafficking. The Ryo and Chauchua Autonomous Territories in the Central Zomi Highlands are de facto independent, and a Community of Nations subcommittee monitors the ongoing peace process in Zomia. Endemic corruption and illegal debt bondage are also pervasive social problems, with an estimated 1.3% of the population (247,000 people) enslaved according to the CN Commission for Labor Standards in 2020.


Zomi is a word for 'highlander' common to many Chanwan and Kasine dialects in bordering regions of Kuthina, Shangea and Phet. When Weranian colonial agents reached the highland interior of Southeast Coius in the late 19th century, this exonym was the name under which they grouped its diverse peoples.

Hsan, the endonym used by the Union government, is believed to be Chanwan in origin, a corruption of the Kasine Isan, meaning 'Northeast'. This etymology is lent credence by the current understanding that the ancestors of the Hsan-Lue minority were originally displaced into the Zomi highlands by tribal warfare in the Lue State region of modern-day Kuthina, directly Southwest of Zomia.


Man-made caves in the North Zomi mountains, dated to the ninth century BCE


Stone tools, weapons, elephants, man-made caves and remnants of stone structures evidence that the Zomi highlands were inhabited as early as 4000 BC, although there are no existing records from this time, and the origins of these settlers is unclear. Historians theorise Zomia was first reached by predecessors of the Duh-Hoc civilisation that would arise in modern-day Lavana in the 9th century BCE, believed to have spread rice agriculture across Southeast Coius from its place of origin in Dezevau. Other scholars have postulated an earlier settlement from the Southwest by peoples of proto-Antipodean origin, based on the survival of numerous language isolates among tribal minorities in the Central Zomi interior.

The recorded history of Zomia begins with the introduction of Badi to the highlands by tribute expeditions from the Lavanan Nukhao Empire in the early 3rd century CE, at the zenith of its period of expansionism and proselytisation. Sao Kale III ordered the construction of a Badi temple at the Three Spires Pass, on the modern border between Zomia and Lavana, where enslaved Zomi were taught to write the Old Ziba script of Nukhao, and trained as interpreters and emissaries to their tribes. The arrival of literacy and organised religion are believed to have precipitated the emergence of the first highland city-states over the following centuries.

Intermontane Kingdoms (800-1300)

Coinciding roughly with the Medieval Warm Period, during which the coasts of Southeast Coius were dominated by malarial wetlands and jungle - while the intermontane valleys of the interior became temperate - this period saw a series of Zomi city-states extend their hegemony far south and east into modern day Phet and Lavana. Though the narrow valleys of the highland region could not sustain large populations, complex irrigation and terracing techniques mitigated this disadvantage, and they did not suffer from the erratic seasonal flooding that increasingly left lowland polities weakened and vulnerable to incursions from highland peoples. Failing irrigation systems and waterborne epidemics spread by these floods led to the collapse of the Alvari Empire of Southwestern Lavana into warring states in the late 8th century, just as Ðàku, first of the major intermontane valley-states, arose in the upper Teyvada Basin. During the Classical Kungian Period of Lavanan history many Alvari successor states along the Teyvada paid tribute to Ðàkan warlords.

The Zomi Hegemonies were not empires in the same sense as the lowland polities of the Alvari or the Mignan Kachai. Rather they were loose tributary networks sustained only by the personal clout and military success of the Zomi princes. Inter-valley warfare, highland slave raiding and seasonal incursions into the lowland states were continuous throughout the Intermontane Period, and the obeisance of resentful Alvari tributaries, whose cultures conceived of the highlanders as barbarians, always hung in the balance when their overlords suffered humiliations or defeats. The consolidation of the Lavanan Mignan Empire at the turn of the 10th century led to the establishment of fortifications and military colonies along the Three Spires Pass, and the decline of Zomia's first city-state. Hemmed in by an advancing Mignan frontier, weakened from invasion by the Oegun steppe tribes, and eclipsed by the younger Southwestern valley-states of Cireram and Hànua, Ðàkan tributaries along the Teyvada broke away or become Mignan vassals, and Zomi hegemony would henceforth be confined to Phet and the uppermost valleys of modern-day northwest Kuthina.

Zomi Collapse (1300-1500)

The Zomi Collapse was attributed by early Euclean historians of Southeast Coius to the dramatic migrations of displaced steppe peoples, which substantially altered the ethnic makeup of Northern Zomia. Indeed the impact of this period is highly visible: Oegun and Ulkilen descended peoples today constitute the majority. However the most significant Zomi civilisations developed in the valleys of the Southwest, sheltered from steppe incursion by impenetrable highlands. A reversal of climatological factors which had previously favoured the interior and disadvantaged Southern and coastal peoples is now considered the principle factor in the decline of Cireram and Hànua.

The onset of the Little Ice Age drastically altered annual monsoon patterns, causing rapid aridification across the Zomi highlands. Whereas the monsoons of the Medieval Warm Period had been gentle and distributed across much of the year, the Zomi Collapse was characterised by long periods of drought interspersed with sudden deluges. The erratic flooding that had been the bane of polities in Kuthina, Phet and Lavana abated, concurrently with the increased climatological instability in Zomia. These changing climate patterns were perceived as cosmic judgement on unworthy rulers, causing the fragile tributary networks of the intermontane states to disappear almost entirely within a century. The archaeological record demonstrates a massive drop-off in temple and stele building at the turn of the 14th century, and the depopulation and abandonment of Cireram by the early 15th - formerly the pre-eminent Zomi city-state.

Shangean records describe with contempt the desultory tribute sent by the petty Zomi princes of this era. Whereas previously the jade, sapphires, rubies, aromatic wood and resins of the region had been praised, Collapse era tribute missions were scorned for the paucity of their offerings: mostly eunuchs and other slaves, plentiful during the endemic inter-tribal warfare of this period.

Tributary Period (1500-1883)

The shift in power set in motion by climatological changes was cemented by the emergence of global trade and gunpowder. Though new Zomi civilisations arose out of the tumultuous invasions of Oegun steppe tribes and hill peoples such as the Lue, they could never regain the intermontane states' pre-eminence over the lowlands. Contact with Euclean merchant companies may have prefigured colonialism, but for a time it brought unprecedented wealth, prestige and military power to the kingdoms of the coasts. Booming maritime trade divested the ancient overland routes through the mountains of their importance, and Zomi peoples that had served as caravaneers and mercenaries for generations were reduced to banditry and primitive swiddening. The fractious, impoverished tribal confederations of this period were militarily weak and became tributaries of the Aguda and later the Khaunban Empire of Intharatcha the Great with little resistance.

The ancient ruins of Cireram were resettled and refounded as a regional capital by the Aguda Empire in the the late 16th century, their monumental architecture unlike anything built in Zomia for almost four hundred years. The Throne of Ages, a vast Badi temple to Time where Lue Princes were coronated, would stand for another four hundred until its destruction by the People's Republican Army in 1960.

Trucial Territory (1883-1952)

Painting of Southern Zomia, 1877

As Aguda lands were partitioned between the Euclean powers, Weranian and Estmerish colonial agents came into contact with the Zomi tribes. Yet Zomia was too far inland, too mountainous and too diverse to ever be directly administered by colonial governments, particularly in the war-torn aftermath of the Aguda Empire's fall. Seasonal raiding constantly shifted borders and alignments, and amorphous tribal units were constantly dividing and reconfederating, making even a system of native proxy rule impossible. Semi-migratory tribes practicing slash-and-burn agriculture were particularly troublesome for would-be Euclean administrators, as they could melt into the forests at the slightest provocation

However it was still necessary to establish control over the highland trade in exotic goods, which had been revived under Agudan stewardship, and so Werania and Estmere jointly mediated a series of treaties between Southerly Hsan-Lue tribal leaders, securing peace throughout the major intermontane trade routes. The Trucial Territory of the Northern Chieftaincies was declared in 1883. Gradually, those tribes that did not co-operate, or fled at Trucial encroachment, became increasingly marginalised, those tribes that served colonial interests more settled and stable, propped up by Euclean arms and gunpowder, even symbolic tokens of legitimacy such as charters, seals and grandiose titles. The regional Aguda governorship in Cireram was co-opted and retitled the Paramountcy, the local Prince given nominal overlordship over a largely imaginary territory known increasingly by its geographical exonym 'Zomia'.

For many decades thereafter the Trucial Territory remained little more than a peripheral Euclean commercial presence. But the long term effects of this policy were profound. It ultimately entrenched a privileged Hsan-Lue minority as a dominant ethnic clique throughout Zomia, creating an autocratic regime which would eventually rule over seventeen million non-Lue subjects.

Zomi Unification (1952-1970)

As part of its programme of rapid decolonisation, the Weranian Tripartite Government announced the dissolution of its treaties with all Zomi rulers on the 1st October 1951. To prevent upheaval, Trucial Protection Status would expire in a year. The rulers of the nine major Princely States that had emerged from the consolidation of the Trucial Period entered negotiations to form a pan-Zomi political union. They were wary of Lavanan nationalism, their northern neighbour independent as of 1951, and of Shangean territorial ambitions in the Chanwan-speaking regions of the Western highlands. Foreign agitation of ethnic separatism also posed a great threat to continued Princely rule.

By October 1952, however, the states remained unable to agree on terms of union, until their hand was forced by the Shangean annexation of the northwestern Hkakari Chieftaincy on October 2nd. The Trucial Assembly hurriedly agreed to the establishment of a provisional Pan-Zomi government with broad emergency powers. The resultant Zomi Confederal State was thus a fragile and insubstantial arrangement that left the finer points of political unification undetermined. Unresolved tensions within the Provisional Unification Committee led to the collapse of the Confederation in 1958, swiftly taken advantage of by socialist militias armed and backed by the People's Republics of Lavana and Dezevau, and separatist movements in Chanwan, Oegun and Kiau areas of Zomia. Even the fighting against the United Zomi Councils took on an ethnic dimension, the main demographic base of the People's Republican Army being the Ryo minority of the Eastern central highlands. Long persecuted and oppressed by Hsan-Lue chieftains favoured by colonial treaties, the Ryo leadership of the PRA were responsible for the deaths of over a million Lue in agricultural communes and labour battalions. Hsan-Lue militias, most notably the Hsan Salvation Front, also committed atrocities against the Ryo.

Interspersed by numerous ceasefires and realignments, the Trucial Wars lasted eleven years, and resulted in almost 3 million deaths. On the 17th March the victorious Conferal-aligned Princes declared the modern Union of Zomia, with a codified constitution that had been rigorously negotiated over the past decade. It established the present elective and absolute monarchy, mandated democratic elections to a consultative body, and demarcated almost a hundred autonomous tribal territories and Federal Chieftaincies. The Kasine-speaking Kiau State was granted a unique status as a semi-autonomous constitutional monarchy within the Union, in line with concessions made to the All-Kiau Free Army to secure a wartime alliance with the formerly separatist group.

Unionist Zomia (1970-present)


Cireram State, in Southwestern Zomia
Autonomous Tribal Territory, in the mountains of Central Zomia,
Oegun Territory, in Northern Zomia

78% of Zomia's geographic area is made up of mountain ranges, highlands and plateaus, but these regions are far from homogenous. Dramatic differences in elevation result in a great variety of biomes and geographical features. The landscapes of Southwestern Zomia consist of rugged foothills, intermontane basins and alluvial gorges, densely forested with seasonal tropical vegetation; these ranges form part of the greater Southeast Coian Massif that extends throughout the uplands of Kuthina, Siamat and Shangean Chanwa, and links to the Shahlehgo Mountains. Elevations are mild in this region, the highest summits little above 2000 metres, and there is a clearly delineated rainy season from May to October, conducive to wet-rice agriculture in the basins, followed by a dry season from November to April, with no snow on even on the highest peaks. There is a wide range of elevations at the valley floors, ranging between 200 and 500 metres above sea level; some of the Southwestern river systems are navigable far south into neighbouring Phet, whereas others are streams flowing in narrow, steep valleys. These drier valleys constitute some of the world's most significant opium growing regions, however, and drug trafficking is a major source of income for the ethnic militias that have traditionally dominated the region's politics. Due to its relative agricultural and economic productivity, the Southwest is the most densely populated region of Zomia, where the politically and culturally dominant Hsan-Lue and Isan-Kiau minorities are concentrated.

Central Zomia constitutes a distinct physiographic belt from the Southwestern hills; elevations are typically above 600 metres, with narrow river valleys and poor agricultural potential, the climate characterised by erratic monsoon rainfall that generally occurs in periodic deluges between June and August. These highlands are one of the last regions in the world where shifting slash-and-burn swidden agriculture still predominates, primarily focused on maize, yams and other hardy tubers. Much of this region is sparsely populated due to the efforts of the United Zomi Councils regime to eliminate traditional agricultural practices in the 1960s: many tribal groups were forced into conventional settled paddy farming beyond the area's natural capacity to support. The present government is pursuing a more gradual programme of anti-swidden and anti-nomadism policies, backed by Shangean and Kuthinan funded irrigation projects, though there has been resistance from the autonomous tribal communities that predominate in the central highlands. As of 2020, only 28% of arable land is irrigated. Several international groups have accused the Union's irrigation programme, which has suffered from numerous setbacks, of being a political fig leaf to conceal the state's main interest in the region's hydroelectric dams, which have arguably caused far more ecological damage than their anti-swidden policies have prevented. The sale of hydropower to Kuthina and Shangea is the backbone of the Zomi economy, and dams are garrisoned by the Union Defence Force. Due to the looseness of state control, many insurgent groups are based in this region, most notably the splinter factions of the People's Republican Army. Tribal Protection Units, raised and armed by the former Zomi Confederal State during the Trucial Wars, remain a significant force, having long refused calls to turn in their weapons to the central government.

The biogeographic region of Northern Zomia is the country's highest, least forested and most sparsely populated area, though it is deceptively the most geographically and ecologically diverse - ranging from arctic desert and snowbound mountains in the West, to arid plateaus and open steppe in the East, with a vast span of elevations from 800 to 4,000 metres above sea level. Traditionally this region was inhabited by semi-nomadic pastoralists, that ranged between higher altitudes in the West during the summer months, and returned East during the winter where homesteads and arable land were located. Since the conclusion of the Trucial Wars, however, these practices have been on the decline, and the region suffers from high levels of unemployment, poverty and child malnutrition. Some observers have blamed a changing socio-economic environment, with Shangean mining companies using foreign workers and debt-slaves from the Zomi highlands to construct railways, dams and export iron, copper, cobalt and coal from the region. Human rights groups point to the ethnic persecution of the Oegun population, who due to the territorial extent of the North constitute a narrow majority, despite its low population density.


Zomia contains a disproportionately large diversity of plants and animals relative to its size, on account of the extreme variability in elevation throughout the region. Zomia is a habitat for 4.0% of all mammal species, 8.9% of bird species, 1.0% of reptile species, 2.5% of amphibian species, 1.9% of fish species, 3.7% of butterfly species, 0.5% of moth species and 0.6% of spider species. Forest covers 39.36% of the country's total land area, and its 34 forest-types and 119 ecosystems contain 1.9% of the flowering plant species, 3% of pteridophytes and 7% of bryophytes in the world. The Union Defence Force conducts anti-poaching patrols throughout the country's conversation areas, which occupy 18.67% of its land area, though human rights organisations accuse the Union government of designating restricted areas along discriminatory lines, in order to suppress the activities of certain ethnic and tribal groups, rather than according to international scientific and ecological criteria.

Environmental Crisis

Deforestation in the central highlands

An increase in settled paddy agriculture, plans for massive expansion of state hydroelectric facilities, and increased foreign demand for wild animals, exotic foodstuffs and traditional medicines is driving deforestation in the central highlands. Despite the Union Defence Force's nominal anti-poaching activities, they also provide armed escorts for military-owned front companies that have been responsible for a massive drop in Zomi forest coverage from over 50% percent in the 1950s to roughly 40% as of 2020. In addition to the destruction of Zomia's biodiversity, the tribal minorities of the central highlands depend on nonwood commodities from the forest for food security, and international human rights groups have claimed the Union government is pursuing a deliberate policy of ethnic displacement.