Integration or disintegration

The European Union plumbs the social realities of Southest Asia

One of the lesser-known activities of the European Union in this region is the funding of academic research designed to "help the EU and its member states make coherent and culturally relevant foreign policies" towards the region.

Ethnic And Religious Identities And Integration In Southeast Asia

Edited by Ooi Keat Gin and Volker Grabowsky European Union, EFEO and Silkworm Books 950 baht

In 2013, the EU funded a project titled "Integration In Southeast Asia: Trajectories Of Inclusion, Dynamics Of Exclusion". The rationale of this choice is not explained, but perhaps the Rohingya crisis of 2012 was a factor. Usually the results of such politically-funded research remain hidden, but in this case the output is a fat book with 11 essays of generally high quality. Seven are about Thailand in some way.

Integration and its opposite of disintegration is perhaps the key to the EU's concern. The Rohingya crisis is only the latest in a string stretching from the past to the future: Aceh, Timor, Mindanao, the hill people's involvement with communist insurgencies, the ongoing conflict in Thailand's far South, and the "Panglong" problem of ending the conflict between the state and ethnic groups in Myanmar. Militant Islam is not mentioned in the book but has a ghostly presence just offstage.

The fact that this concern exists in Southeast Asia is not a surprise. The framework of nation-states and national boundaries was slammed down in the colonial era over a looser pattern of city states and dominant centres that better suited the cosmopolitan social reality. For centuries, the sea has transported new communities into the cities, and the hills have hidden migration from the eyes of political authorities. Not only has every major world religion ferried into the region, but there is an extraordinary ability to invent new cults and practices, often as expressions of resistance to authority. Every country in the region has a "dominant ethnicity" and an official or semi-official religion, but the reality is a lot messier.

The variety in these essays showcases this variety and complexity. Vatthana Polsena shows how Bru and other highland people flow back and forth across the Laos-Vietnam border, defying expectations that they would succumb to the advantages of more permanent settlement and nationhood. Mukdawan Sakboon's team explains why 100,000 people in Thailand are stateless because the state has constructed systems so complicated that its own officials won't enforce the rules for fear of making mistakes. Amalia Rossi traces the many different ways the Lua of Nan have dealt with the state since their involvement in the communist insurgency. Shakila Abdul Manan argues that the fourth generation of Pakistanis in Penang are trying to create a new border-crossing identity as "Malaysian Pakistanis".

Jacques Leider lucidly explains the origins of the term "Rohingya" and the "Rohingya problem". Arabs and Persians had settled in Rakhine State over centuries. Many more Bengalis came as forced or free labour in the later colonial period. In the 1950s, some leaders invented the term "Rohingya", based on an old Bengali pronunciation of Rakhine, in order to have a label for participating in the ethnic politics of military-ruled Burma. After a severe Buddhist-Muslim conflict in 1962, the army imposed a rough peace for 50 years, but this came unstuck as military rule decayed in 2012. Since then, the Rohingyas have used a discourse of victimhood to appeal for international support. Leider suggests this strategy reinforces polarisation.

Kwanchewan Buadaeng traces how the aspirations of the Karen along the Thailand-Myanmar border have repeatedly been channelled into religious movements, most recently into a version of Buddhist millennialism found repeatedly in the region over centuries. Rémy Madinier wonders why support for Islamic political parties in Indonesia has declined at the same time that espousal of more orthodox Islamic religious practice has increased. He suggests that the middle class finds it more "efficient" to separate the religious and political spheres. Christopher Joll surveys the little known distribution of Sufi movements in Thailand, and suggests that the division between "Malay Muslims" in the far South and "Thai-Muslims" elsewhere is over-rigid.

Ooi Keat Gin argues that the successful multiracialism of colonial Penang was a result of policies that kept the major communities largely separate (in settlement, occupations, schools, etc) thus enabling the "complementary coexistence of disparate peoples sharing a common marketplace". Volker Grabowsky reviews the roots of the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple, and the different solutions proposed in the wake of the clashes in 2008. Pantipa Chuenchat examines the growth of fortune-seeking cults around three historical monuments constructed in Lanna since the 1980s.

This is quite a mix of subjects, and the editors struggle to find the threads that bind them together. Andrew Hardy, a historian of Vietnam who co-ordinated the product, finds two themes: "One is a strong sense of history." The past, especially the past before the coming of the nation-state, keeps disrupting the present. The other is "a tendency to fragment", as every attempt to construct a movement, community or identity around a leader or an idea soon faces a challenge from a rival leader or idea.

For me, Leider's clear-headed explanation of the Rohingya issue and the Mukdawan team on the pitiful story of statelessness are the high points of the collection, but every piece has its value. We must thank the EU for the publication of this sponsored work.


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