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Ethnic futures : the state and identity politics in Asia

by Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka;

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Asian Ethnicity and the State   (2009-02-13)

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by hdevers

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This volume is dedicated to Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, who was assassinated in 1999. It contains five chapters. In a lengthy introduction Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and Darini Rajasingham-Senanayaku put forward their thesis that ethnicity can no longer be analyzed in national contexts, nor are ethnic identities self-evident categories. Ethnicity is (mostly) invented. In India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the four countries in this volume, the "ethnicization" of the state occured at different periods of the colonial and post-colonial history. Minorities and majorities were thus created by government policies and their differences cemented by redistributive practices. The anthropological construction of caste, globalization, and lately the Asian values debate, rather helped to mask South and Southeast Asia's history of cultural co-existence and hybridity. This general thesis is substantiated by Pfaff-Czarnecka's chapter on the ethnicization of politics in Nepal. Competition for resources enforced ethnicity which has become a worldwide organizational principle of legitimate political struggle. The example is, indeed, of special interest, as ethnic tensions are rising but still low in comparison to other Asian countries. This is true in comparison with Sri Lanka in particular, a case discussed in the third chapter by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayaku, who calls this unfortunate country "South Asia's most dramatic failure at modern nation-building". The author goes to great length to show the growing construction of ethnicity during the colonial period which eventually climaxed in the bi-polar ethnic identity politics of current Sri Lanka. Though the basic facts and academic debates on ethnicity referred to in this chapter are reasonably well known to the South Asian specialists, the author manages to deconstruct an image which has captered the mind of politicians and political commentators on both sides of the Sinhala-Tamil device. In his  chapter on "India between Secular State and Ecumenical Fractions" Nandy starts off with statistics on ethnic violence which show both the increase of victims as well as the unequal geographical distributions of acts of violence. As such he deviates from the main thrust of the previous chapters as the use of communal labels in statistics help to re-ify communal groups as separate and closed entities.


The last chapter by Terence Gomez which deals with ethnicity in Malaysia is somewhat disappointing. He provides a rather general overview of ethnic politics in Malaysia with a certain emphasis on economic issues, without really taking either a political or theoretical stand. This becomes blatantly apparent in his summary in which he asserts that economic progress would not have been possible without Chinese and Indian immigrants, but that also Malay history should not be negated nor over-emphasized. Recent political tensions and events have, indeed, shown that other forces are at work, cutting across ethnic boundaries or creating new ones beyond the previous ethnic Malay/Chinese/Indian pattern.


Overall this book is a well-worth addition to the literature of ethnicity in Asia.

 Hans-Dieter Evers

Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn

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