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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Government Policies and Ethnic Relations in Asia and the Pacific
Michael E Brown & Sumit Ganguly eds

(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997)
607pp. Index. bibl. Pb.: 21.50. ISBN 0-262-52245-4.



Much has been written on matters of ethnicity, culture and nationalism. By now there exists a huge corpus of texts and statements on these contentious but crucial matters, covering a wide range of academic subjects ranging from social anthropology, sociology, politics, and, invariably last to any intellectual feast, international relations. Despite these broad ranging inter-disciplinary perspectives, there is a remarkable consensus on what constitutes the great works, from Gellner through to Benedict Anderson, to Kedourie and Antony Smith, as well as the need to understand and comprehend the dynamics of ethnic identities. Surprisingly however, and seized upon by Brown and Ganguly in the introduction to this impressive collection of essays, few if any writers have seen the importance of government policy per se to the dynamics of ethnicity and the nature and scope of ethnic demands. Fewer writers still have examined government policies in a comparative perspective, and especially within the context of regional and international pressures.

In this regard, Brown and Ganguly's work is impressive and timely. The introduction and the conclusion (by Ganguly and Brown respectively) round off the individual contributions on countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China (to name but a few) with a clear and thoughtful summary of the current intellectual takes on ethnicity, culture and nationalism, and suggest clear policy formulations for states to manage ethnic tensions. It is here, however, that the volume as a whole (as opposed to the individual contributions themselves) encounter some difficulties.

Both editors acknowledge the subjectivity of ethnic identities and the profoundly political context in which ethnic identities can emerge from an otherwise innocuous multi-cultural background. Both also recognise the ways in which ethnicity is a composite of "group" identities which may involve various signifiers such as language, religion, custom, etc., although they do this less eloquently than Charles Keye's excellent essay on Thailand. Yet at critical moments both Ganguly and Brown slip into an irritable positivist social science mode which jars with the insights and subtleties provided by their contributors. In the introduction, Ganguly clearly believes that the case studies in this book can contribute to some "general universal theory" of ethnic formation (with policy formulations tagged on for state leaders). Few if any of his contributors would touch this idea with a barge pole. At the end, Brown notes that successful ethnic policies by the state requires a comprehensive understanding of how many ethnic groups exist within the state to start with, a curious faux paus which appears to ignore the subject under investigation. One might suspect (unfairly, I am sure) that both editors had failed to read their own manuscript. For what comes over time and time again is that ethnic formation is often caused by government policies, not just influenced by it, and ethnic formation is often a consequence of forced modernisation by an elite, a key emblem of which is an attempt to construct the all inclusive "nation" in an international system of nation-states. Once formed, the dynamics of ethnic demands are structured by the national project and what the state seeks to legitimate as the acceptable national identity. In turn this identity is shaped by what "cultural" material is to hand, and some material (language, culture,) are better than others (religion, for example).

As Ayesha Jalal pointed out sometime ago in the context of South Asia (a work picked up in both Kanti Bajpai's and Samina Ahmed's chapters) the state is all: and while some generalities can be made about appropriate state action with regard to creating and managing ethnic identities, the historical specificity of state-society relations makes generalised policies almost impossible. Brown's call for a switch from exclusive to inclusive policy - tolerance as opposed to assimilation, civic as opposed to religious - is simply beyond the capacity of the Pakistani state, for example, because of the colonial context, and because of the problematic links between Islam and Pakistan national identity. In Thailand, given the centrality of language and custom, the state has been able to move towards an open-ended, catch-all Thai-ness, even though there have been some difficulties with Islamic defined Thai-Malays. In India, China and Malaysia, such a switch to a de-centralised "inclusive" would be difficult to execute, even in the case of India, which has an established history of federalism and pluralism with regard to language and culture. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India raises the same awkward links between religion and nation that dog Malaysia and Pakistan, despite the fact that the elite attempt to stress its cultural basis. Some general observations are, of course, possible; (such as the difficulties of managing religious as opposed to cultural signifiers of ethnicity) but policy formulation has to be more nuanced: what works in one case will not work in another, and finding why is often extremely difficult.

These weaknesses do not, however, detract from the usefulness or clarity of the book as a whole. There are some excellent scholars here, whose work pays careful consideration. Rich in detail and historical observation, I do not hesitate in recommending this s essential reading. It will greatly assist in the study and comprehension of ethnicity by a whole range of students.


Vernon Hewitt, University of Bristol



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