On resistance and the ‘margins’ of Southeast Asia

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Civilizing the MarginsCivilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities
by Christopher R. Duncan
Published by Cornell University Press, 2004

Southeast Asian nations have devised a range of development programs that strive to incorporate minority ethnic groups into the nation-state. The authors of Civilizing the Margins discuss the programs, policies, and laws that affect ethnic minorities in eight countries: Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Once targeted for intervention, people such as the Orang Asli of Malaysia and the “hill tribes” of Thailand often become the subject of programs aimed at radically changing their lifestyles, which the government views as backward or primitive. Several chapters highlight the tragic consequences of forced resettlement, a common result of these programs. Others question the motives behind pushing minorities into “development” schemes. Rather than simply describing the effects of the programs and the experiences of participants, the contributors to this book attempt to understand the ideologies and strategies that led to the implementation of these programs.

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Friction

Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Published by Princeton University Press, 2004

Challenging the widespread view that globalization invariably signifies a “clash” of cultures, anthropologist Anna Tsing here develops friction in its place as a metaphor for the diverse and conflicting social interactions that make up our contemporary world. She focuses on one particular “zone of awkward engagement”–the rainforests of Indonesia–where in the 1980s and the 1990s capitalist interests increasingly reshaped the landscape not so much through corporate design as through awkward chains of legal and illegal entrepreneurs that wrested the land from previous claimants, creating resources for distant markets. In response, environmental movements arose to defend the rainforests and the communities of people who live in them. Not confined to a village, a province, or a nation, the social drama of the Indonesian rainforest includes local and national environmentalists, international science, North American investors, advocates for Brazilian rubber tappers, UN funding agencies, mountaineers, village elders, and urban students, among others–all combining in unpredictable, messy misunderstandings, but misunderstandings that sometimes work out. Providing a portfolio of methods to study global interconnections, Tsing shows how curious and creative cultural differences are in the grip of worldly encounter, and how much is overlooked in contemporary theories of the global.

“Friction is not only an engrossing display of ethnographic reports on the destruction of Kalimantan forests and local attempts to resist it. The book also proposes a highly original perspective of the global thrust of capital. Anna Tsing is at best when she describes the way capital produces an expanding ‘frontier culture': a dense and murky story of fragments and fluidity, of hurdles and clashes that disrupt the neo-liberal theater of clarity. For an Indonesian reader, her work is a gift; it hints at the feasibility of hope–or at least the mingling of despair and hope. For a thinking activist, it suggests a fresh theory of action. Introducing the notion of ‘engaged universals,’ it brings home the role of ‘utopian critiques.'”

–Goenawan Mohamad, author of Conversations with Difference

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Colonialism, Violence and MuslimsColonialism, Violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia: The Maria Hertogh Controversy and its Aftermath
by Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied
Published by Routledge, 2009

This book deals with the genesis, outbreak and far-reaching effects of a legal controversy and the resulting outbreak of mass violence, which determined the course of British colonial rule after post World War Two in Singapore and Malaya. Based on extensive archival sources, it examines the custody hearing of Maria Hertogh, a case which exposed tensions between Malay and Singaporean Muslims and British colonial society. Investigating the wide-ranging effects and crises faced in the aftermath of the riots, the analysis focuses in particular on the restoration of peace and rebuilding of society.

The author provides a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of British management of riots and mass violence in Southeast Asia. By exploring the responses by non-British communities in Singapore, Malaya and the wider Muslim world to the Maria Hertogh controversy, he shows that British strategies and policies can be better understood through the themes of resistance and collaboration. Furthermore, the book argues that British enactment of laws pertaining to the management of religions in the post-war period had dispossessed religious minorities of their perceived religious rights. As a result, outbreaks of mass violence and continual grievances ensued in the final years of British colonial rule in Southeast Asia – and these tensions still pertain in the present.

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MienRelationsMien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand
by Hjorleifur Jonsson
Published by Cornell University Press, 2005

Thailand’s hill tribes have been the object of anthropological research, cultural tourism, and government intervention for a century, in large part because these groups are held to have preserved distinctive ethnic traditions despite their contacts with “modern” culture. Hjorleifur Jonsson rejects the conventional notion that the worlds of traditional peoples are being transformed or undone by the forces of modernity. Among the Mien people of northern Thailand he finds a complex highlander identity that has been shaped by a thousand years of interaction in a multiethnic contact zone. In Mien Relations, Jonsson suggests that as early as the thirteenth century, the growing influence of Chinese and Thai state authority had led to a peculiarly urban understanding of the hinterlands-the forests and the mountains-as an area beyond state control and the rhetoric of civilization. Mountain peoples became understood as a distinct social type, an idea elaborated by government classification systems in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their “discovery” by Western anthropologists is, he suggests, merely one more episode influencing Mien identity. Jonsson questions traditional ethnography’s focus on fieldwork and personal observation-and its concomitant blindness to political manipulation and to historical formation. Throughout Mien Relations, he revisits long-neglected connections between China and Southeast Asia, combines ancient history and contemporary ethnography, engages with the serious politics of representation without abandoning the quest to write ethnographically about particular communities, and keeps state control in view without assuming its success or coherence.

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Under Three FlagsUnder Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination
by Benedict Anderson
Published by Verso, 2006

In this sparkling new work, Benedict Anderson provides a radical recasting of themes from Imagined Communities, his classic book on nationalism, through an exploration of fin-de-siecle politics and culture that spans the Caribbean, Imperial Europe and the South China Sea.  Anderson considers the complex intellectual interactions of these young Filipinos with the new “science” of anthropology in Germany and Austro-Hungary, and with post-Communard experimentalists in Paris, against a background of militant anarchism in Spain, France, Italy and the Americas, Jose Marti’s armed uprising in Cuba and anti-imperialist protests in China and Japan. In doing so, he depicts the dense intertwining of anarchist internationalism and radical anti-colonialism.

A jewelled pomegranate packed with nitroglycerine is primed to blow away Manila’s 19th-century colonial elite at the climax of El Filibusterismo, whose author, the great political novelist Jose Rizal, was executed in 1896 by the Spanish authorities in the Philippines at the age of 35. Anderson explores the impact of avant-garde European literature and politics on Rizal and his contemporary, the pioneering folklorist Isabelo de los Reyes, who was imprisoned in Manila after the violent uprisings of 1896 and later incarcerated, together with Catalan anarchists, in the prison fortress of Montjuich in Barcelona. On his return to the Philippines, by now under American occupation, Isabelo formed the first militant trade unions under the influence of Malatesta and Bakunin. Under Three Flags is a brilliantly original work on the explosive history of national independence and global politics.

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