News You Really Need To See: “Race and Religion in South-East Asia: The Plural Society and Its Enemies”

“Race and Religion in South-East Asia: The Plural Society and Its Enemies”

The Economist, August 2-8, 2014, p.29

“In Mandalay in central Myanmar, another bout of bloody sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims recently left two dead and many injured. … Myanmar is just one of several South-East Asian countries recently forced to confront old questions of race and religion.  In Malaysia, a prominent Malay Muslim leader, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, has been charged with sedition for accusing ethnic Chinese, a minority in Malaysia, of being ‘trespassers’.  And in Indonesia the winner of the presidential election, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, squeaked home after a huge early lead over his rival evaporated, in part because of unfounded rumours that he was a Christian Chinese rather than in fact a good Javanese Muslim.  These events may appear disparate, but they reflect a common thread running through the history of race and religion in South-East Asia.  Specifically, they reflect the legacy of those colonial territories which one British academic and colonial administrator, John Furnivall, first characterised as ‘plural societies’.  The British and Dutch Asian empires that gave rise to such societies have long gone, but the consequences of their creation remain.  Indeed, the concept of the plural society is more relevant than ever for understanding and even predicting the course of events in the region, and especially in Myanmar. … For the most part, the immigrants, often destitute, who poured into these territories under European rule were Chinese.  But millions of South Asians, many of them Muslims, migrated as well, especially to Burma [Myanmar], then administered by Britain as part of its Indian empire.  Indians migrated in large numbers throughout the Malay world.  The immigrants often provided manual labour, in Malaya’s copper mines and rubber plantations, for instance.  But they also contributed to the entrepreneurial zest and trading connections that helped to create the wealth and vitality of imperial entrepots such as Rangoon and Singapore. … Colonial protection was the chief impediment to immigrants being attacked by resentful indigenous peoples, or even clashing among themselves.  Post-colonial societies have been dealing with this worry ever since.  Race riots in Malaysia and Singapore in 1969 pitted Malay against Chinese.  They seemed to confirm Furnivall’s worst fears about ‘the whole society relapsing into anarchy’ once the colonial power had gone.”

Quickie Analysis:  A fascinating look at the dynamics of immigration, ethnicity, religion, and colonial legacy in Southeast Asia.

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