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The Divisions Within

By Bertil Lintner

Ethnic divides continue to cause friction in Southeast Asian countries.

Ethnic Conflicts in Southeast Asia, edited by Kusuma Snitwongse and W Scott Thomson. The Institute of Security and International Studies, Bangkok, and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore; 2006. 173 pages.

This must be the first book about ethnic conflicts in Asia in which all the contributors come from the countries they write about. Rizal Sukma, of Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies, analyzes the causes behind ethnic conflicts in Indonesia. Miriam Coronel Ferrer, a professor at the University of the Philippines, examines the Muslim issue in the south of the Philippines, as well as insurgencies and movements among the Cordillera peoples on the northern island of Luzon. Chiang Mai University's Chayan Vaddhanaphutti describes the multi-ethnic nature of Thai society, and how the various groups have been assimilated into what resembles a nation state--with the main exception of the hilltribes in the northern mountains. Zakaria Haji Ahmad, of HELP University College in Kuala Lumpur, and Suzaina Kadir, a professor at the National University of Singapore, deal with the very sensitive issue of ethnic and national identities in Malaysia. Tin Maung Maung Than, a Burmese senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, looks into state building and ethnic conflict in Burma.

Sukma's contribution stands out as an excellent overview of "horizontal conflicts" within Indonesian society, as well as "vertical conflicts" between the state and local ethnic groups. The first type of conflict is caused by the old, controversial government policy of "transmigration" (i.e. when the state encouraged people to move from the crowded islands of Java and Madura to lesser populated areas such as Kalimantan and West Papua) which led to the marginalization of indigenous peoples in those parts of the country, and communal clashes between them and the newcomers. "Vertical conflicts," by contrast, exist in Aceh and West Papua, where local independence movements want to break away from the Indonesian state. Given the inability of Indonesia's new democratic leaders to address satisfactorily the issues at stake, he fears that the situation in Indonesia "will once again provide another opportunity and .conducive climate' for authoritarianism to re-emerge."

The chapters on the Philippines and Malaysia are equally lucid. In Malaysia, Islam, the majority Malays' religion, is increasingly becoming a political factor to be reckoned with, and Ferrer suggests that the solution to the never-ending ethnic tension along Christian-Muslim lines in the Philippines may be to adopt a "one-country-two systems-model" similar to the status that the former British colony Hong Kong has under Chinese sovereignty.

Chayan's analysis of the emergence of a Thai nation state from a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual past is excellent, but it has to be said that the northern hilltribes are not the only "aliens in the Thai nation-state." Many Malay Muslims in the south feel the same, although they, unlike most of the hilltribes, are Thai citizens. Their distinct language, culture and religion put them beside the mainstream, and many may not even be interested in assimilating with the rest of Thai society, as the ongoing violence in the South clearly shows.

Tin Maung Maung Than's contribution reflects a much more sensitive approach to his country's substantial ethnic conflicts than is usually shown by a majority-Burman academic. Unlike Burma's official historians, he does not simply blame the British for having created the problems by conducting a policy of divide and rule. He admits that ancient antagonism exists between the minorities and the Burmans because of the latter's perceived hegemony. He also states the impossibility of the present regime's quest to bring about the integration of the ethnic groups in the frontier areas by allowing some of them virtual autonomy, while insisting on retaining a unitary state with all real power kept to themselves.

His conclusion, though, is somewhat questionable: "After all, the problem of ethnic relations confronting the ruling elite, the democratic opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic groups [ceasefire groups, rebels, and expatriates] must be resolved before meaningful and lasting democracy can be installed in Myanmar [Burma]." Other analysts would argue that it is the other way round. That no meaningful national and ethnic reconciliation is possible without a democratic process; and that democracy is not a goal but a method of addressing problems and finding solutions within a country.

As this book clearly shows, the "New World Order," which Ronald Reagan predicted would follow as the Cold War ended in the late 1980s--an international community at peace and with social and political stability being the norm.-has failed to materialize. Instead, ethnic conflicts, which remained dormant for decades, re-surfaced in countries such as Yugoslavia.-and Southeast Asia has become one of the most ethnically volatile parts of the world. But it is an encouraging sign that scholars in the region are beginning to analyze more closely the problems confronting their own countries.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, April 2006

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