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Planetary urbanization’s multiple frontiers : Viewed through security infrastructures of Yangon, Myanmar

Sidaway, James D. GND

This paper draws on Myanmar's largest city and commercial capital of Yangon, studying security infrastructures as a window on wider political and socio-economic dynamics. Narratives of Myanmar as an investment frontier have ushered in a host of private surveillance and security actors; in an atmosphere of business opportunity, urban surveillance and intricate relations between investors, public service providers and military procurement. Configuring this shifting landscape are Tatmadaw (Burmese military) generals, surveillance equipment manufacturers, security firms and state security agencies. In 2015, Singaporean funders organized the first ever international Security Expo in Yangon that attracted dozens of foreign security firms. Drawing on interviews with key investors and buyers in the security industry including at the Expo (which we also visited when it was restaged in 2018), and street-level observations in Yangon conducted over three years, we traverse structures of power, urban transformation and government-military-capital relations in a transitional Myanmar. The paper contextualizes these structures drawing on literatures on colonial cities and frontiers and reading these with developing debates about planetary urbanization. Yangon thereby becomes a site for critical reflections about complex and multiple imbrications of security, frontiers and urbanization with implications for how these may be conceptualized elsewhere.

James D. Sidaway has served as a Professor of Political Geography at NUS since January 2012. Previously he was Professor of Political and Cultural Geography at the University of Amsterdam and prior to that a Professor of Human Geography at Plymouth University, UK. Sidaway studies the interactions of cities, development, geopolitics and states, influenced by a wide range of postcolonial writing and theory. His other main research interest is the history and philosophy of geography. Bringing all these together is an enduring fascination with the relationship between geography and a range of area studies traditions. Recently this has led him (with NUS colleague Chih Yuan Woon) to study the reception of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative. Since June 2017, Sidaway has been involved in a new Research Group on Borders, Mobility and New Infrastructures, supported by the Max Weber Foundation.

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