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The politics of place naming reaches the Salween River

The debate about the power of naming is long-running and contentious, engaging citizens and colonizers, academics and activists.1 “South” of China, “East” of India, Southeast Asia were names that came primarily from people not native to these regions who imagined these areas as a region through acts of war and nation building.

By Vanessa Lamb

Kayin, Myanmar, July 26, 2015

Mekong Commons

What’s in a name?

The debate about the power of naming is long-running and contentious, engaging citizens and colonizers, academics and activists.1 “South” of China, “East” of India, Southeast Asia were names that came primarily from people not native to these regions who imagined these areas as a region through acts of war and nation building.

These names and acts of naming also influenced subsequent studies and invocations of the term. In this short piece, I consider what is at stake in naming and developing the “Salween” River. Seemingly left off the map for a long time,2 the name and term Salween is now being more visibly contested, mapped, and stabilized. I argue that it is important to pay attention to the names we use (and discard), and who or what those names privilege. In the context of increased development and international attention, there is both risk for homogenizing the multifaceted histories of the river basin, and an opportunity for multiple invocations of the river to be considered and circulated.

The Salween River, a transboundary river, emerges in the Tibetan uplands and flows through China, Thailand and Myanmar. As the longest free-flowing and as yet still un-dammed river in Southeast Asia, it is a significant source of food and livelihoods for millions of people across its basin. Presently, the Salween is being redefined in the context of large-scale infrastructure development. As the region’s countries pursue economic growth, the Salween is being invoked as a ‘natural resource’ and energy development planners are increasingly paying attention to the basin, with 20 large dams now proposed by investors from Thailand, China and Myanmar.

 

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