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Ethnic Conflict in the World Today

Author(s): Stanley J. Tambiah


Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 1989), pp. 335-349
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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ethnic conflict in the world today

STANLEY J. TAMBIAH-Harvard University

A somber reality and disillusionment of our epoch, which emerged from the ashes of the
Second World War, is that although there have been successes in the push toward development
and modernization, eradication of disease and the spread of literacy, economic and political
development programs have generated and stimulated, whether by collusion or in reaction, in
good faith and poor anticipation, massive civil war and gruesome interracial and inter-ethnic
bloodshed. The same epoch has witnessed the rise of repressive authoritarianismin both militaryand democratic guises, fortified by Western weaponry, and inflamed by populist slogans
and fundamentalist doctrines, and assisted by a flagrant manipulation of mass media which
have vastly expanded their reach.
The optimism of sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists who naively foretold the
impending onset of the "integrative revolution" and inevitable decline of "primordial loyalties" such as kinship, caste and ethnicity in third world countries, has by now waned and
dimmed with disenchantment. The introduction of constitutions and democratic institutions,
enshrining human rights, universal franchise, the partysystem, elected legislature, majorityrule
and so on, has often resulted in strange malformations that are far removed from the goals of
liberty,justice, tolerance, and freedom that were the ideological supports of Western European
and North American "liberal-democratic" syntheses. Something has gone gravely awry with
the center-periphery relations throughout the world, and a manifestation of this malaise is the
occurrence of widespread ethnic conflict accompanied in many instances by collective violence amongst people who are not aliens but enemies intimately known. My book, Sri Lanka:
Ethnic Fratricideand the Dismantling of Democracy (1986), attempted to grapple with this
problem in my own country. In this essay I hope to address some general issues.'

specification

of ethnicity and ethnic identity

Ethnic identity above all is a collective identity: we are self-proclaimed Sinhalese, Malays,
Ibos, Thais and so on. It is a self-conscious and vocalized identity that substantializes and naturalizes one or more attributes-the usual ones being skin color, language, religion, territorial
occupation-and attaches them to collectivities as their innate possession and their mythohistorical legacy. The central components in this description of identity are ideas of inheritance,
ancestry and descent, place or territoryof origin, and the sharing of kinship, any one or combination of which may be invoked as a claim according to context and calculation of advantages. These ethnic collectivities are believed to be bounded and to be self-producing and enduring through time.
Although the actors themselves, invoking these claims, speak as if ethnic boundaries are
clear-cut and defined for all time, and think of ethnic collectivities as self-reproducing bounded
groups, it is also clear that from a dynamic and processual perspective there are many precedents for "passing" and the change of identity, for incorporations and assimilations of new

1988 American Ethnological Society Distinguished Lecture

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members, and for changing the scale and criteria of collective identity. Ethnic labels are in
application porous. The phenomenon of ethnicity embodies two interwoven processes which
constitute its double helix. One is the substantialization and reification of qualities and attributes as enduring collective possessions, made realistic by mytho-historical charters and the
claims of blood, descent, and race. This results in what has been aptly called "pseudo-speciation," that is, the collectivities in a certain sociopolitical space think of themselves as separate
social kinds. The other contrapuntal and complementary process is that ethnic boundary-making has always been flexible and volatile, and ethnic groups have assimilated and expanded,
or, in the opposite direction, differentiated and segmented, according to historical circumstances and political-economic possibilities. Ethnic identity unites the semantics of primordial
and historical claims with the pragmatics of calculated choice and opportunism in dynamic
contexts of political and economic competition between interest groups.
Ethnic groups, especially in contemporary times of widespread ethnic conflict, seem to be
intermediatebetween local kinship groupings (such as lineages, class, kindreds, and so on) and
the nation as a maximal collectivity. Moreover, especially marked in the modern context, and
within that context conspicuous in many third world societies, is the mounting awareness that
ethnic affiliationand ethnic identity are overridingother social cleavages and superseding other
bases of differentiation to become the master principle and the major identity for purposes of
sociopolitical action. This state of affairstherefore raises the possibility that ethnicity (projected
upon the old bases of identity in terms of language, "race," religion, place of origin) as a basis
for mobilization for political action has challenged and is challenging the primacy for such
mobilization of social class on the one hand and nation-state on the other. Therefore, in a general analysis two relevant issues that need to be addressed are: to what extent and in what way
ethnicity modifies, incorporates, or even replaces class conflict as a major paradigm for interpretingsocial conflict and change; and also in what manner ethnicity has impacted on the aims
and activities of nation-making and national integration, which were taken to be the principal
tasks of the newly founded third world nation-states. I cannot in this essay take up the matter
of class, but will have something to say on the second issue.

the ubiquity of ethnic conflict


Historians of the social sciences are no doubt aware of the manner and circumstances in
which, at different times, certain ranges of phenomena grouped under embracing labels such
as "social class," "caste," "race," "gender inequality," "modernization," "the colonial encounter," and so on, have become foci of intensified scholarly interest. Then these inquiries
fade away not only because of diminishing marginal returnsbut also because the phenomena
themselves, as reflected on the screen of history, either lose their salience or are transformed
into other events, which are more revealingly grouped under new labels.
One such label subsuming a range of phenomena with a family resemblance is "ethnicity."
It is significant that the term "ethnicity" has come into vogue and found its way into standard
Englishdictionaries, especially since the 1960s. There is no denying of course that linguistic,
national, religious, tribal, racial (and other) divisions and identifications, and competitions and
conflicts based on them, are old phenomena, yet the recent salience of the term ethnicity "reflects a new reality and a new usage reflects a change in that reality" (Glazer and Moynihan
1975:5) on a global scale in the latter half of the 20th century, both in the industrialized first
world and the "developing" third world.
It seems that the sudden resurgence of the term ethnicity in the social science literature of
the 1960s and early 1970s took place not only to describe certain manifestations in the third
world, but also in reaction to the emergence of ethnic movements in the industrialized and
affluent world, especially in the United States, in Canada, and in Western Europe. (See for example, Connor 1972, 1973; Esman 1977).

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The late 20th-century reality is evidenced by the fact that ethnic groups, rather than being
mostly minorityor marginal subgroups at the edges of society, expected in due course to assimilate or weaken, have figured as major "political" elements and major political collective actors
in several societies. Moreover, if in the past we typically viewed an ethnic group as a subgroup
of a larger society, today we are also faced with instances of majority ethnic groups within a
polity or nation exercising preferential or "affirmative" policies on the basis of that majority
status.
The firstconsideration that confirms ethnic conflict as a major realityof our time is not simply
its ubiquity alone, but also its cumulative increase in frequency and intensity of occurrence.
Consider these conflicts, by no means an exhaustive listing, that have occurred since the sixties
(some of them have a longer history, of course):2 conflicts between anglophone and francophone in Canada; Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland; Walloon and Fleming in Belgium; Chinese and Malay in Malaysia; Greek and Turk in Cyprus; Jews and other minorities
on the one hand and Great Russians on the other in the Soviet Union; and Ibo and Hausa and
Yoruba in Nigeria; the East Indians and Creoles in Guyana. Add to these instances, upheavals
that became climactic in recent years: the Sinhala-Tamilwar in Sri Lanka,the Sikh-Hindu, and
Muslim-Hindu confrontations in India, the Chackma-Muslim turmoil in Bangladesh, the actions of the Fijians against Indians in Fiji, the Pathan-Bihariclashes in Pakistan, and last, but
not least, the inferno in Lebanon, and the serious erosion of human rightscurrently manifest in
Israeliactions in Gaza and the West Bank. That there is possibly no end to these eruptions, and
that they are worldwide has been forcibly brought to our attention by a century-old difference
that exploded in March 1988 between ChristianArmenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis in southern USSR.3
Most of these conflicts have involved force and violence, homicide, arson and destruction
of property. Civilian riots have evoked action by security forces: sometimes as counteraction
to quell them, sometimes in collusion with the civilian aggressors, sometimes both kinds of
action in sequence. Events of this nature have happened in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, Zaire,
Guyana and Nigeria. Mass killings of civilians by armed forces have occurred in Uganda and
in Guatemala, and large losses of civilian lives have been recorded in Indonesia, Pakistan, India
and Sri Lanka.
Some dissident ethnic groups have declared secessionist aims that threaten to break up extant
polities, and these aims in turn have invited invasion of one country by another (for example,
the Somali invasion of Ethiopia),or armed intervention, as evidenced by India's recent march
into Sri Lanka(1987). Moreover, ethnic conflict has also caused massive displacements of people, many of them being deposited in refugee camps in neighboring countries, as in Africa, the
Middle East, India, Sri Lankaand elsewhere. Nor, finally, should we forget large-scale expulsions of people, as happened to Asians in Uganda.4
The escalation of ethnic conflicts has been considerably aided by the amoral business of gunrunning and free trade in the technology of violence, which enable not only dissident groups
to successfully resist the armed forces of the state, but also civilians to battle with each other
with lethal weapons. An account of the KarachiRiots of December 1986 begins thus:
Whatwe saw were bandsof men armedwith kalashnikoveschargingintothe homes of communities
they have livedwith for a generation-killingmen, women and childrenwithoutmercy,burningand
lootinguntilentirehousinglocalities[sic]were leftin charredruins[Hussain1987:1].
The classical definition of the state as the authority invested with the monopoly of force has
become a sick joke.5 After so many successful liberations and resistance movements in many
partsof the globe, the techniques of guerilla resistance now constitute a systematized and exportable knowledge. Furthermore,the easy access to the technology of warfare by groups in
countries that are otherwise deemed low in literacy and in economic development-we have
seen what Afghan resistance can do with American guns-is paralleled by another kind of international fraternizationamong resistance groups-who have little in common save their re-

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sistance to the status quo in their own countries, and who exchange knowledge of guerilla
tactics and the art of resistance. Militant groups in Japan, Germany, Lebanon, Libya, Sri Lanka,
and India have international networks of collaboration, not unlike-perhaps more solidary
than-the diplomatic channels that exist between mutually wary sovereign countries and the
great powers.
Another development, not unknown in the past in the form of mercenaries for hire, but today
reaching a sinister significance, is the "privatization of war," that is, the capability of governments with extra-territorialgeopolitical aims to fight their foreign wars not by committing their
own professional armies, but by farming out contracts for subversive military and political actions to private professional groups willing to be hired, or capable of being mobilized. The
employment of ex-SAS (Special Air Service) veterans by the Sri Lankangovernment to help the
war against the Tamil militants is one of many such examples. Another form of the phenomenon
can be stated thus: the lesson that the United States learned in Vietnam is now deployed with
zest in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, where local dissidents are trained and armed in the use of
weaponry and the arts of destabilization. The end result is that professionalized killing is no
longer the monopoly of state armies and police forces. The internationalization of the technology of destruction, evidenced in the form of terrorismand counter-terrorism,has shown a face
of free-marketcapitalism in action unsuspected by Adam Smith and by Emmanuel Wallerstein.
It is thus no exaggeration to say that the ubiquity, the increased frequency and intensity, of
ethnic conflict, serviced by modern technology of destruction and communication, and publicized by the mass media makes such conflict a special reality of the late 20th century. Faced
with recent disturbances in South Russia, Gorbachev was moved to say that [ethnic] nationalism was the "most fundamental vital issue of our society" (Time 1988). And on a recent visit
to Yugoslavia, a country that has a long history of tensions between "nationalities," he is reported to have said "Show me a country without nationalist problems, and I will move there
rightaway" (The New YorkTimes 1988). What a shift there has been in historical consciousness
from Victorian times to the computer age of instant information! The Victorian perception of
the people of the world was, as we well know, that they could be placed on a ladder of evolution and progress, with the Europeansat the summit. Other peoples were not really contemporaneous with the West, and archaeological metaphors such as "survivals," the "contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous" (a phrase coined by KarlMannheim) were used to describe a globe assumed to be both uneven and discontinuous. Edward Tylor gave a vintage
expression to this consciousness when he wrote:
Theeducatedworldof EuropeandAmericapracticallysettlesa standardby simplyplacingitsown nationsat one end of the social series.Theprincipalcriteriaof classificationarethe absenceor presence,
architecture,
etc., the extentof scientific
highor low development,of the industrialarts. . . agricultural,
knowledge,the definitenessof moralprinciples,the conditionsof religiousbelief and ceremony,the
degreeof social and politicalorganizationand so forth[Tylor1873, vol. 1:26].
This Victorian perspective in the main persisted perhaps until the Second World War, and
aside from a recent change in paradigms, positing common world historical processes which
hold centers and peripheries in one dialectical and interlocked field, there are other specific
developments that have contributed to a shift in historical consciousness that makes our present
world a global village. The revolution in the media, their instant transmission of visual images
and auditory messages, linking metropolitan centers and distant places, and their wide coverage of events, such that news broadcasts (whether by NBC, CBSor ABC)present diverse events
occurring at diverse places as a single synchronic and simultaneously occurring reality. These
communication processes bind us in a synchronicity of fellow witnesses of world events. We
come to feel that the worldwide incidents of ethnic conflict are of the same order and are mutually implicated: the strife in Northern Ireland; the kidnappings in Lebanon; the beatings on
the West Bankof Israel;the bombings in Germany; the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka;the riots
against the Sikhs in Delhi; the massing of Korean youth against a rightistgovernment; the at-

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tacks on the "bush negroes" by the townsmen of Suriname, the sniping by the Contras in Nicaragua, the explosive tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis-all belong to a contemporaryworld suffused by violence. The internationalization of violence and the simultaneity of
its occurrences viewed on our TV screens make us all vicarious spectators and participants
responding with our sympathies and our prejudices.
I began this section by reminding the reader that the label "ethnicity" has become salient in
our discourse only since the 1960s. Letme conclude it by saying that a landmarkbook, Frederik
Barth'sedited volume Ethnic Groups and Boundaries published in 1969, which seemed to set
a relevant framework for the study of ethnicity, seems now, scarcely two decades later, too
benign and tranquil for the study of the ethnic conflicts accompanied by collective violence
that rage today.
The ethnographic essays in that book-dealing with the Furand the Baggar of Western Sudan, the Pathans of West Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the mountain tribes of Laos and their relations with the dominant Thai, the Ladinos and Indians in Southern Mexico, and the Lapps
and Norwegians in northern Norway-as well as Barth'sintroductoryessay, pose the issues of
an earlier era when ethnic relations did not manifest as they do today in the eighties, in riots,
terrorism and civil war. The preoccupations of Barth's volume were the manner in which
boundaries were maintained between ethnic groups, whose occupation of niches, and whose
maintenance and persistence over time, were dynamically related to structured and stable interactions between them guided by "a systematic set of rules governing inter-ethnic social encounters" (Barth1969:16). The central problems posed by our present phase of ethnic conflicts
are startinglydifferent, arising out of an intensified "politicization of ethnicity" and issuing in
conflicts between member groups of a state and polity, which itself is thought to be in crisis
("the crisis of the state").

ethnic distributions in contemporary plural societies


A distributional chart indicating the number of ethnic groups and their demographic proportions in various contemporary countries will be useful for appreciating the ubiquity of ethnic
conflicts. Among other things, these distributions crucially affect not only the processes that
produce conflict but also the strategies and efficacy of coalitions that are made in plural societies, coalitions ranging from constructive and relatively long-lasting alliances and bargains to
temporaryand fragile pacts of convenience and opportunism.
The following list constitutes a crude chart that indicates some of the demographic combinations that affect the course of ethnic politics.
1. Countries that are virtually homogeneous in ethnic composition (with 90-100 percent
being ethnically the same): Japan, Korea, Bangladesh.
2. Countriesthat have a single overwhelmingly dominant ethnic majoritythat constitutes 7589 percent of the population: Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Turkey.
3. Countries where the largest ethnic group makes up 50-75 percent of the population and
where there are several "minority" groups: Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Iran,Afghanistan, Pakistan, Singapore, and (probably) Nepal.
4. Countries where there are two large dominant groups of roughly the same size (with or
without small minority enclaves in their midst): Malaysia (where the Malays make up about 44
percent and the Chinese about 36 percent); Guyana (EastIndians, the larger group making up
50 percent) and the Creoles; Fiji (Fijians and Indians are nearly of the same size); Guatemala
(where the Ladinos and Indians are about equal size).
5. Our last category consists of the truly pluralistic countries composed of many ethnic
groups where no one or two of them are dominant, and where not all groups may be actively
implicated in ethnic politics. Examples here are Nigeria (with Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani

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being the major entities) and countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and India, whose
populations are more varied. However, within these complex societies, internalethnic politics
may take dualistic form within regions, as in the case of Sikhs versus Hindus in Punjab, and
indigenous "hill tribes" versus Bengalis in Mizoram (India),and Christiansversus Moros in the
Philippines.
We may include the USSR in this category. The USSR is said to have more than 100 distinct
nationalities and ethnic groups living in 15 republics, and ethnic tensions there are best viewed
in regional terms.
Horowitz (1985:30-35) has underscored an importantdistinction that affects the nature and
dynamics of ethnic conflict, namely whether the groups in question are ranked (in some sort of
hierarchy or stratified scheme informed by asymmetrical valuations) or unranked or parallel
groups divided by vertical cleavages.
Some examples of ranked ethnic groups within societies are Rwanda (especially in 1959),
Zanzibar(in 1966), and more debatably, Ethiopiaand Liberia.However, by farthe most salient
category for a comparative study is the countries containing by and large unranked ethnic
groups, such as Malays and Chinese in Malaysia; Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka; East Indians and Creoles in Guyana; Ibo, Hausa, Fulani and Yoruba in Nigeria; Christian Filipino and
Moro in the Philippines; and the Thais and Muslims in Thailand.6
While these contending ethnic groups may find themselves unequal in demographic numbers, they nevertheless do not concede inequality in social, cultural and ethnic terms. Political
ethnic conflict in these societies shows certain commonalities.

the politicization of ethnicity


The main issue that I discuss in the rest of this essay is the transition from the politics of the
nation-stateto the politics of ethnic pluralism. It is useful at this juncture to take as our point of
reference Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, in order to salute its important contribution and also to go beyond it to take account of newer developments.
We are all familiar with the Wallerstein thesis that world capitalism since its inception in
Europein the 16th century, has spread like a tidal wave released from the metropolitan capitals
and gradually innundated the peripheries. The "dependency" theory of world capitalism in all
its variations (Gunder Frank,Paul Baran, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Claude Meillassoux) posits eventually a monolithic historical process in global terms. However, it leaves out
of account another parallel process that consisted of the differentiating, carving out and fragmentation of the same world in terms of "nation-states." The highlighting of this process is
Anderson's achievement: how the "nation-state" and "nationalism" as modular ideas could
and would be easily pirated by the third world colonial and postcolonial elites. Under colonial
experience, the "historical consciousness" of 19th-century Europewas transmittedto and imbibed by local elites subject to the textbook learning propagated by colonial schools.
Anderson's plotting of the rise in Europeof national consciousness in the late 18th and early
19th centuries, inspired by linguistic and vernacularizing revolutions, followed from the mid19th century onwards by the promotion and manipulation of "official nationalism" by the European monarchies based on a national identification projected onto vernacular languages,
leads him quite correctly to perceive that the nation-building policies of the new states of the
thirdworld consist of
botha genuine,popularnationalistenthusiasmand a systematic,even Machiavellian,instillingof naregulationsand so
tionalistideologythroughthe mass media,the educationalsystem,administrative
forth.Inturn,this blendof popularand officialnationalismhas been the productof anomaliescreated
of frontiers,and bilingualintelligentsiaspoised
the well-knownarbitrariness
by Europeanimperialism:
overdiversepopulations[1985:104-105]
precariously

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Anderson's sequence (1985:104-105) could now be taken a stage further:the politics of the
newly independent states, framed initially in terms of "nation-state" ideologies and policies,
have by virtue of various internal dialectics and differences led to a new phase of politics dominatedby the competitions and conflicts of "ethnic collectivities," who question nationalism and
"nation-state" dogmas. The politics of ethnicity is indeed a product of the interweaving and
collision of the two global processes we mentioned earlier: world capitalism and its operation
through multinational corporations, and widespread nation building by liberated colonies now
ruled by elite intelligentsias who, however, have to react to their divided civilian constituencies. These interacting global processes, while having certain homogenizing effects, have simultaneously spawned differentiation and opposition within the new polities, manifested as
ethnic conflict.
I have adopted the phrases "politicization of ethnicity" and "ethnicity of politics" as shorthand expressions to characterize and signal some of the primaryissues and processes that propel the current wave of ethnic conflicts. As Tagil has put it, the main problem to be explained
is "why ethnicity becomes more easily politicizable in modern society and in those societies
on the threshold of modernization, as compared with earlier phases of history" (Tagil 1984:36).
The present context of politicized ethnicity is distinctly a marked phase in the political and
economic history of newly independent countries. If we take the colonial legacy as our point
of departure it is possible to identify roughly three sequential and overlapping phases.

the colonial legacy


Let us begin with the colonial experience itself, the British raj in India, Sri Lanka, Burma,
Malaya, the Dutch rule in the Dutch East Indies, the French in Algeria, Indochina, and so on.
The colonial experience was of course many-faceted and complex, but for our theme of ethnic
conflict the following features of the colonial legacy are relevant.
The colonial powers more often than not aggregated people and territoryinto larger polities
than existed before, sometimes arbitrarilyso, at other times by attempting to follow social and
demographic constellations on the ground. The whole process was further compounded by
geopolitical competition between imperial powers in laying claim to their own territories. India, despite EmperorAsoka and the Mughal Empire, reached its maximal aggregation under
Britishrule; so did Sri Lanka,Malaya, Burma, Nigeria, Kenya, and so on. The Dutch control of
Java and Sumatraand the other islands was likewise a unification never known before.
The internal policies of the colonial powers in complex ways both consolidated existing differences and stimulated bodies of people, primarilysocially separated, to interact in common
areas. While colonial powers, like the British,codified "regional," "tribal," "caste" or "communal" bodies of customs relating to marriage, inheritance, religious practices and so on, for
the most part not interfering with these sociocultural differences, they also introduced and
standardized colonywide commercial and criminal law codes and regulations. This standardizing and homogenizing process went hand in hand with imperial economic policies and ventures, which brought the colonies in their own dependent manner into the orbit of world capitalism. The policies related to taxation and preferential trade, and the ventures took the form
of plantations, or business firms (agency houses), which in turn stimulated occupations such as
those practiced by lawyers, engineers, doctors (in Western medicine), accountants, and so on.
These particularizing and standardizing policies were a double-edged sword, used in the
interest both of development and progress and of divide and rule. They produced in diverse
tropical colonial contexts from the Netherland Indies to Jamaica varieties of "plural societies"
that became the subject of analysis from J. S. Furnivallto M. G. Smith.7Of the process of the
enlargement of territorialhorizons and subgroup amalgamations that took place in Asia and
Africa in the colonial period, Donald Horowitz has remarked in his recent comprehensive and
impressive work, Ethnic Groups in Conflict:

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Thecolonistsoftencreatedterritoriesout of clustersof loosely linkedvillagesand regions.... Out of


theweldingtogetherof localenvironmentsa greatmanynew groupsappeared,amongthemthe Malays
in Malaysia,the Ibo in Nigeria,the Kikuyuin Kenya,the Bangalain Zaire,and the Moroin the Philipcreationsof colonialauthoritiesand missionaries,who catapines.Somesuch groupswere "artificial"
lyzedthe slow mergerof relatedpeoplesintocoherententities[1985:66-67].
It is interestingthat the Malays for example, who vociferously claim to be bhumiputra, the sons
of the soil, are the outcome of a coalescence not only of a major component from Malaya but
also of various groups from as far afield as Sumatra, the Celebes, Borneo and Java. The claim
itself is a highly emotive and embracing identity developed vis-a-vis the large numbers of
Chinese immigrantswho found their way into their midst (see also Nagata 1979).

the three phases of the era of independence


Iwould like to delineate three phases in the political historyof a number of third world countries like India, Sri Lanka,Malaysia, Guyana and Nigeria, which received their independence
soon after the end of the Second World War. The characteristic issues of each phase are stated
in terms of the ideological rhetoric and distinctive labels used by politicians and academic
commentators alike. (Ido not intend these phases to be taken as discontinuous shifts but merely
as showing different emphases.)
1. The firststage is the actual "decolonization" process itself, when Western imperial powers, following the Second World War, "transferredpower" to local elite groups. While the
whole colonial period created certain dislocations, decolonization itself was preceded and accompanied by violence when, as was the case with Algeria, the colony fought a "war of liberation." In other colonies such as Sri Lankaand Burmathe transferof power was more peaceful though not entirely without the staging of civil disobedience movements and other forms of
resistance, as, for example, those mounted in India by the Indian National Congress or in Malaya by the Chinese communist guerillas.
2. The second phase, spanning the late 1950s and gathering momentum in the 1960s, was
characterized by optimistic and even strident claims made in these newly independent countries concerning their objectives of "nation making," strengthening "national sovereignty,"
creating "national culture" and "national identity," and achieving "national integration." The
slogans of the time accented "national" dimensions, and in doing so played down and wished
away internal diversity and social cleavages in favor of the primacy of nation-states as the accredited units of the United Nations and the modern world system. Interestingly,FranzFanon's
The Wretched of the Earth(1968) belongs to this phase with its programmatic celebration of
"national consciousness," "national culture" and "national literature" in the African States,
newly delivered from the chains of colonialism. Fanon proclaimed that "to fight for national
culture means in the first place the fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone
which makes the building of a culture possible" (1968:233).
This phase of optimistic nation building was enacted as the work of "national coalition governments," examples of which were Nehru presiding over a monolithic Congress Party;Cheddi
Jagan, an EastAsian, and L. F. S. Burnham, a Creole, in the early 1950s heading the People's
Progressive party in Guyana; Tengku Abdul Rahman presiding over the Malaysian Alliance,
again in the 1950s, and D. S. Senanayake at the same time over the United National Party in
Ceylon. Political parties seemed willing to collaborate rather than emphasize their separate
interestsand their special constituencies.
This phase was also marked by confident expectations of expanding economic horizons,
instanced by faith in economic planning and growth, and the spawning of "five-year plans"
funded by foreign aid, whose smooth flow it was hoped would make the world safe for capitalism and democracy.
3. In a dislocating, and sometimes disconcerting manner this hopeful expansive phase of
nation building has been put to the test, seriously questioned, imperiled and even reversed in

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the third phase, from the 1960s onward, by the eruption of ethnic conflicts. The divisiveness
has revolved around issues of language, race, religion and territory. Accordingly, there has
been a shift again in slogans and concepts. "Ethnicgroups" and "ethnic conflict" are the salient
labels for talking about these events. The terms "plural society," "devolution of powers," "traditional homelands," "self-determination"-old words given new force and urgency-have
begun to frame the political debate and academic analyses. The central political authority, the
state, which in the previous phase of nation building and economic growth was designated as
the prime actor and central intelligence in initiating, directing and controlling the country's
future and historical trajectory, is now, after years of escalating ethnic divisiveness and pluralistic awareness, counseled to be a "referee" adjudicating differences and enabling regional
cultures and societies to attain their "authentic" identities and interests.

the politics of ethnicity


A part of the answer to the story of the politicization of ethnicity lies in our tracking of the
manner in which large numbers of people in the new polities have become, or been made to
become, conscious of ethnic identity, and how in turn they have been energized as collectivities to engage in political action. The awareness that collective ethnic identity can be used and
manipulated in political action is of course related to the increasing possibilities of contact
throughthe improvement of transport,of the quick adoption and deployment of modern media,
and of the raised levels of education and literacy and the spread of what Benedict Anderson
has called "printcapitalism." Another explanation lies in the proliferation and popularization
of street theaters and public arenas, occasions for collective massing of people, ranging from
political rallies and elections and referendums to strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and mass protests. All these capabilities for large-scale political action have occurred in tandem with population explosions in third world countries, the migration of vast numbers of rural peoples to
cities and metropolitan centers, and to locations where industries or where peasant resettlement schemes have been established. Another significant factor is the proliferationof schools,
colleges and universities, which have provided sites, just as factories had done in the history of
industrialdevelopment, for the mobilization and massing of activists for engaging in political
action.
One of the settings for the politicization of ethnicity is the evolution of the welfare state in
the more advanced industrialeconomies of the world, and the advent of the socialist state, or
states committed to welfare policies, in the "developing" thirdworld. In both contexts the state
has become "a crucial and direct arbiterof economic well being, as well as of political status
and whatever flows from that" (Glazer and Moynihan 1975:8).
The welfare and socialist states appear to be especially responsive to ethnic claims. Within
democratic governmental systems there are many occasions at municipal, regional and central
levels for like-minded ethnic members to mobilize and make claims on behalf of groups, both
small enough and conspicuous enough to experience real gain from concessions made.
This "strategic efficacy" (as Glazer and Moynihan put it [1975:101) of ethnicity in making
claims on the resources of the modern state inevitably in turn reinforces and maintains ethnic
political machinery-patron/client networks, bossism and patronage structures-through
which affirmativeactions or pork-barreldistributions are dispensed. As much or more of the
monies earmarked for social services and welfare may end up in the hands of those who dispense them as those who receive them.
While these considerations apply generally, there is a special chain of circumstances that has
led third world democracies in particularto enact their politics on the basis of ethnicity. At the
time of decolonization in the Caribbean, in many parts of Africa, and in South and Southeast
Asia, the grant of independence and the transfer of power were packaged with constitutions

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that were framed in terms of Western principles of "naturalrights,"and civil liberties and Western procedures and institutionsof "representativegovernment." These chartersfrom the Western point of view, framed in the secular political language of universal rights and government
by representation, conferred on the ruralmasses and the migrants to fast-formingcities a massive dose of rights, and the opportunity for involvement in the political process (to a degree not
previously experienced). Quickly transformedfrom a "passive" existence into political actors
and voting banks, with the power to elect politicians and vote partiesto power, they discovered
thatthey could even demand or extort rewards, reformsand privileges from their elected parties
who constituted for a while the "central" political authority.
But increasingly it became clear that the alleged secular constitution and institutions of representative government predicated on the individual rights of citizens, and the willingness of
"one-man-one-vote" citizens to form parties on the basis of competitive interests, did not generate the expected outcomes. Instead, collectivities, which we may call ethnic groups, have
become the political actors, seeking affirmative action for the achievement or restoration of
privileges and life chances in the name of ethnic (or racial) equalization. Ethnic equalization
ratherthan freedom and equality of the individual is the principal charter of participatorydemocracy in many of the plural and multiethnic societies of our time. Ithas been the experience
in India, Sri Lanka,and Malaysia, that once political demands are made on the basis of ethnic
affiliation for the distribution of economic rewards, occupational positions, and educational
privileges, the norm of "equality of opportunity" is progressively and irreversiblydisplaced by
the norm of "equality of result."8 It is commonly the case that affirmative action and quota
allocations on the basis of depressed or backward status do not speedily produce results
through the ladder of equality of opportunity and increased access to schools and educational
institutions.Thus, in time disadvantaged groups push toward equality of results, by fiat if necessary, and for direct redistributivepolicies in order to equalize income, living conditions and
such on a group basis. But equality of result, or redistributivepolitics, are essentially zero-sum
games, in which there are distinct losers and winners. And inevitably these invidious outcomes
lead to more open political competition and conflict. Finally, as a result of the revolution in
risingexpectations, the more successful constituencies are in achieving their political rightsto
vote, to elect parliaments, to wield the stick of accountability, the more assiduously will they
advocate the enjoyment of social rights-such as the right to a job, adequate health care, unemployment insurance, and so on as entitlements from the state.
The equalization on a group basis of opportunities and rewards in the expanding universe of
redistributivepolitics may equally be the slogans of majorities or minorities in a plural society.
The language of claims is best described as that of ethnic group entitlements on the basis of
relative comparison and relative deprivation. The entitlement claims of rewards equalization
are contentiously sought through a privileged use of one language, or the additional use of a
language so far excluded, or the imposition of special quotas providing privileged access to
higher education, job opportunities, and business entrepreneurship. The "zero-sum" atmosphere of these quintessential entitlement claims reflects a restrictive worldview that has surfaced with a vehemence precisely at a time when certain expansionary and massive movements of people to urbanplaces and to peasant resettlement schemes have and are taking place,
and when mass educational and literacy programs are being implemented. The futuristic exhortationthat a national effort of productive expansion, which increases the opportunities and
rewards for all, will obviate or mitigate the need for ethnic quotas falls on deaf ears, partly
because employment and income levels rise only slowly, and income distribution disparities
continue to persist, and because distributive equality on ethnic lines is a politically rousing
demand that promises rapid material results. A Weberian might be tempted to say that the postponement of present gratificationfor the sake of future profit,the sterling ethic of capitalism, is
less effective than immediate ethnic aggrandizement as the stimulant of the masses.

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In countries engaged in postindependence participatorydemocracy, and in which the electoral process acts as a political marketplace, different scenarios can be sketched regarding the
cleavages and trajectories of ethnic conflict, depending on the ethnic distributions and their
relative standing. The relevant factors are how many groups are involved, their demographic
proportions, their residential locations, their cultural, legal and institutional distinctiveness,
their levels of economic and educational achievements, the degree of their participation in
common institutional systems and of their common membership in corporate organizations.
For purposes of systematic discussion the different scenarios and trajectories pertaining to
ethnic conflict should be brought within the ambit of an interpretiveframework9that addresses
questions of how ethnic groups in an arena see themselves as acquiring, maintaining, and protecting their claimed-to-be-legitimate group entitlements (1) to capacities and "symbolic capital" such as education and occupation, (2) to material rewards such as incomes and commodities, and sumptuary privileges that enable distinct styles of life, and (3) to "honors" such as
titles and offices, markersof ethnic or national pride, and religious and linguistic precedence
and esteem. These honors are accorded by the state and/or other authorities who are the principal arbitersof rank. Inthis version of invidious and comparative "group entitlements," power,
prestige, occupations, material goods, aesthetic judgments, manners and morals, and religious
convictions come together and naturally implicate one another.
"Religion" is not purely a matter of belief and worship but also has social and political resonances; "language" is not a mere communicative device but has implications for educational
advantage, occupation and historical legitimation of social precedence. We have to comprehend an arena of politics where, as Horowitz puts it: "Fundamental issues, such as citizenship,
electoral systems, designation of official languages and religions, the rightsof groups to 'special
position' in the polity, ratherthan merely setting the framework for politics, become the recurrentsubjects of politics" (Horowitz 1985:187). The quests for group worth, group honor, group
equivalization, and so on are central foci in the politics of ethnicity, and are a critical ingredient
in the spirals of intense sentiments and explosive violence that ensue.
I can envisage three overlapping scenarios which, although they are parts of a larger mural,
can be presented as posing different issues and different outcomes. They cover a fair range of
major ethnic conflicts occuring in recent times:
1. Especially applicable to the political economies of colonial countries under British or
Dutch rule in West Africa, EastAfrica, the Caribbean, Indonesia and so on is the picture of a
plural society that Furnivalland Boeke among others sought to characterize. In these societies
certain ethnic groups may occupy special economic and social niches as merchants and traders
(Lebanese and Syrians in West Africa, Indians in Uganda, Chinese in Malaya and Indonesia,
Indians in Fiji), as plantation labor (indentured Indian labor in Guyana or Sri Lanka), or as
"bankers"and financiers (NattukottaiChettiars in Burmaand Ceylon). Again, especially in colonial capitals, there could be more complex mosaics: certain trades, certain crafts, certain
local "banking" and credit activities being the monopoly of both indigenous and foreign communities. The occupation of niches and specialization in certain activities tend to create a segmented labor market, and militate against social class solidarities that cut across ethnic lines.
Ethnicdivision of labor stunts working-class action and middle-class associational links.
Such a colonial heritage tends to crystallize expectations of "entitlements" as collective ethnic privileges. The colonial rulers helped to create these political maps when they distributed
status honors, according to their calculations of which groups should be rewarded, protected
or encouraged. But these ethnic specializations and expectations, having persisted into the era
of independence, have tended to generate ethnic conflicts when certain strains develop to imperil the maintenance of boundaries. One such strain occurs when the importation of a category of manufactured goods from the industrial West threatens a local craft or makes a local
service group redundant and dispensable. A fall in fortunes may threaten the group's ability to
have access to the basic consumption goods of everyday life, and it may therefore face famine

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in a market of plenty and a depression in status in a political climate of expanding "development." But the most severe erosion of niche-equilibrium has come from those governments of
the new states that have tried to open up what they consider to be the privileged monopolies
of ethnic enclaves, which are accused of restrictive practices as regards recruitment and provision of services. The dispossession of NatukkottaiChettiars in Rangoon, and the expulsions
of Indian merchants from Uganda are examples of the new civilian authorities invading what
they consider to be rich preserves to enrich themselves and their civilian supporters. Foreign
specialized minorities are thus vulnerable to the policies of forcible ejection and/or dispossession by governments promoting the interests of "indigenous" minorities.
2. The second scenario relates not so much to the declining fortunes of well-placed communities, but to the rising expectations and capacities of satellite minorities on the periphery
who find themselves under the domination of majorities entrenched at the center, and sometimes are in addition faced with the majority advancing into their frontier "homelands." In
Burma, Thailand, Laos and in northeast India, a shorthand phrasing of this collision is "hills
people" or "hill tribes" versus the "valley people." This bifurcation carries other contrasts in
agriculturalstyles (sedentary versus slash and burn), in written versus oral languages, espousal
of Hinduism or Buddhism versus the religion of spirit cults. Sometimes these satellite communities have sought advance through the ministrationsof Christianmissionaries, and in any case,
in the new postindependence polities, they have requested "affirmativeaction," proportionate
to their demographic numbers, with regardto their participation in the task of nation-state making and in the education programsof the dominant centers. These satellite ethnic/tribal minorities tend to be potential secessionists, and as Horowitz puts it "the largest number of secessionists can be characterized as backward groups in backward regions" (Horowitz 1985:36).
Examples are Karens and Shans in Northern Burma, Muslims (Moros) in the Philippines, the
Nagas and Mizos in India and the Kurdsin Iraq.
3. The third scenario represents the kind of ethnic conflict and tensions with which I am
especially concerned in this essay. I have adapted some concepts coined by M. G. Smith (1969)
in order to characterize them.
In a situation in which there exists a fair amount of "cultural pluralism" (the diverse populations have distinctive markers of dress, marriage customs and so on), and a fair amount of
"social pluralism" (the ethnic populations have roughly equivalent standings in the polity as a
whole, and for some purposes aggregate as corporations and collectivities such as political
parties or religious congregations), political moves may be made by a demographically dominant ethnic population to gain advantages over minority groups, and to introduce elements of
sociopolitical and even religious discrimination and asymmetry, and thereby incorporatingthe
groups into the polity on unequal terms. Smith has discussed how processes of "differential
incorporation" lead to the outcome of "structuralpluralism." Plural societies manifest differential incorporation within the larger polity when certain collectivities within it are subject to
sectionally unequal distributions of legal, political, educational and occupational rights and
are thus reduced to a subordinate status.
The"second-classcitizenship"of a social categoryidentifiedby commondisabilitiesanddisqualifications,whetherracial,religious,economic,or othergroundsis merelyone commonmodeof differential
Communalrolls,restrictivepropertyfranchises,and similararrangements
also express
incorporation.
andmaintainthe differentialincorporation
of specificcollectivitieswithina widersociety.Suchmechanismsaregenerallydevelopedto enhancethe powerof the rulingsection [Smith1969:430].
South Africaand Guatemala are extreme and notorious cases of asymmetrical incorporation,
but there are more benign forms; the Malays, the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka,are current examples
of the majoritarianclaims to "affirmativeaction" defended on demographic strength and legitimated by mytho-historical sons-of-the-soil claims. These claims lead inevitably to structural
asymmetrical pluralism and are inevitably resisted by the minorities. An instructiveexample of

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this special pleading on behalf of a majority in place is Prime MinisterMahathirbin Mohamad's


political tract, The Malay Dilemma (1970).
Such attemptsto subordinate previously unranked and equal groups who wield considerable
capacities and skills, and to incorporate them unequally in the polity as inferiorcitizens, invite
retaliationsand counteractions. Alert to the threats of discrimination and subordination, and in
the first instance fighting for inclusion within the polity on equal terms, they may gradually as
their situation worsens, as has happened in Sri Lanka-gravitate toward the politics of devolution, and even secession. Horowitz aptly phrases the options thus: "Unlike ranked groups,
which form part of a single society, unranked groups constitute incipient whole societies"
(1985:31).
Letme conclude this essay by returningto a general theme that applies to all three scenarios
I have outlined. The present plethora of ethnic conflicts, whether viewed negatively as divisive
and destructive of the state, or positively as a drive toward realistic devolutionary politics, coincides with an increasing sense of shrinkingeconomic horizons and of political embattlement.
Many things have gone awry with economic development: the declining terms of trade dictated
by the industrialized West; internal bottlenecks; agriculturalunderemployment and migration
to cities; increasing disparities of income distribution; rising unemployment among the expectant participantsin the literacy explosion; the visible pauperization of the urban underclass;
the feminization of poverty; the entrenchment of bureaucratic interests; the pork barrelsof aggrandizing politicians. Thus the plausibility of "dependency theory" pertaining to the impingement of world-capitalist economic relations coincides with the disenchantment with the "nation-state" and "bourgeois democracy" in internal politics, and with charges of "internal colonialism" exercised by dominant majoritiesover minorities. Such resentments in turn motivate
politics that are compounded of new and powerful mixes, some of them seemingly contradictory and inconsistent. An example is that brand of politics that packages in one parcel left radicalism or socialist goals, rightist majoritarian racism and religious fundamentalism. The resultant political activism-instanced by strikes, protests, and election rallies-and collective
violence-instanced by riots, state terrorismand guerilla counteractions, undermine "parliamentarydemocracy," and the institutionsof "law and order" on which rests the "civil society"
of liberal thought.
It is obvious that, with regard to the ethnic conflicts under discussion, stark exclusionary
dualities-such as stability and continuity versus change and revolution; tradition and its death
versus modernity and its birth; primordial sacred realities versus secular modern associational
interests-radiate little illumination. Between these options lie the contested middle ground
and volatile copresence of both modalities.
Ethnicconflicts manifest and constitute a dialectic. On the one hand there is a universalizing
and homogenizing trend that is making people in contemporary societies and countries more
and more alike (whatever the actual fact of differential access to capacities, commodities, and
honors) in wanting the same material and social benefits of modernization, whether they be
income, material goods, housing, literacy and schooling, jobs, recreation, and social prestige.
On the other hand these same people also claim to be different, and not necessarily equal, on
the basis of their ascriptive identity, linguistic difference, ethnic membership, and rights to the
soil. In this latterincarnation, they claim that these differences, and not those of technical competence or achievement, should be the basis for the distribution of modern benefits and rewards. These compose the particularizing and separating trend among the populations of modern polities.
Moreover, in modern political arenas the appeal to old affiliations and distinctions enables
a mobilization of people on a scale never known or possible before, partlyby the use of modern
media of communication and propaganda, by the transmission through printed textbooks of
tendentious ideas in proliferating schools, and by the release of energies, both creative and
destructive, at levels never before achieved, for deployment in elections and in mass activities.

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These developments are not merely old wine in new bottles, or new wine in old bottles, for
there are more potent transformativeprocesses at work by which old categories and definitions
of ethnic identity and interests are revalued and given new dimensions and contours. For example, for all their appeal to old labels and historical claims, the Sinhalese, the Malays, the
Fijians in their present manifestations, are collectivities formed in the late colonial and postcolonial epochs. Theirethnic labels and boundaries are porous and flexible indeed. At the same
time we witness the new values of modernization and progress-industrial employment,
professional skills, or the practice of Western medicine-being recategorized as entitlements
and sumptuary privileges indexed as quotas assignable to preexisting ethnic or racial or indigenous groupings. The time of becoming the same is also the time of claiming to be different.
The time of modernizing is also the time of inventing tradition as well as traditionalizing innovations; of revaluing old categories and recategorizing new values; of bureaucratic benevolence and bureaucratic resortto force; of participatorydemocracy and dissident civil war. The
time is not simply one of order, or disorder, or antiorder: it is compounded of all three. Ubiquitous and violent ethnic conflict is one of the marks of these intense times through which we
are living and which we can see only darkly through the looking glass.
Inthe late 20th century a surprisingnumber of militant and seemingly "irrational"eruptions
have occurred. They challenge the confident post-Enlightenment prophecies that the decline
of religion was inevitable, or that at best it could only survive in a demythologized form; that
primordialloyalties and sentiments would fade into oblivion as national integrationtook effect,
or be carried away as flotsam by the currents of world historical process. These violent and
ubiquitous explosions also challenge and strain our conventional social science explanations
of order, disorder, and conflict. However inadequately, we must cope with the phenomenon
of destructive violence that accompanies ethnic conflict today.

notes
'Thetitleof the lectureI actuallygave at the AnnualMeetingsof the AmericanEthnologicalSocietyin
March1988 was "EthnicConflictand CollectiveViolence."The firstpartof the lecturetouchedon the
widespreaddistributionof ethnicconflictin the worldtodayand on the "politicizationof ethnicity"that
lies behindmanyof these conflicts.The second partdealt with the phenomenonof collective violence
frequentlyengenderedby ethnicconflict,and Itouchedon the behaviorof ethniccrowdsas collectivities,
of riotsandtheir"ritualized"
andon thetrajectory
features,as discernedfromsomeSouthAsianinstances.
The lecturethuscoveredmuchground,but what was achievedin an oral presentationin a limitedtime
cannotbe done convincinglyin a writtenformin the space allowed in a journalarticle.I have therefore
limitedmyselfin thisessayto the substanceaddressedin the firstpartof my lecture,thoughI realizethat
the second partwas theoreticallymorechallengingbecause it deals with a terrainaboutwhich we need
to knowmuchmorethanwe do now.
2Theseinstancesoccurringin Europehave a longerhistory,and they continuetoday;the protestsof
Basquesin Spain,the Croatsin Yugoslavia;otherethnicminoritystrugglesin EasternEurope;the rivalries
betweenFlemingsandWaloonsin Belgium;andthe increasinglybitterconflictin NorthernIreland.Some
in the UnitedStatesand
scholarswouldincludethe strugglesof the blacksagainstthe whitediscrimination
in SouthAfricaas fallingwithinthe ambitof ethnicconflict.
3TheUSSRis saidto havemorethan100 distinctnationalitiesandethnicgroupslivingin 15 Republics.
to relatesto the mountainousNagorno-Karabakh
TheethnicconflictI am referring
Region,75 percentof
whose populationis ethnicArmenian.However,it was includedin 1923 in the SovietRepublicof Azerbaijan.

4Thereare manylistingsof ethnicconflictas a worldwidephenomenon.Forexample,see Tagil1984;


and Horowitz1985.
5Underthe caption"PakistanArms-dealersHailGod and the AK-47,"TheNew YorkTimes,8 March
1988, reportedthatthefollowingwareswereon show in an armsstorein DarraAdamKhel,an hour'sdrive
southof Peshawar;"Inadditionto variousversionsof SovietAK-47rifle,the armsdealersaid he supplies
the [Afghan]guerillaswith ammunition,at nine cents a round,and such weaponsas Chineseand Soviet
rocketlaunchers,pistolsfromvariouscountries,Soviet,Chineseand Americanlandmines,and machine
The smugglingrouteis a saga in itself:goods are sent by ship from
guns,largelyof Sovietmanufacture."
Europeto Singapore,andfromthereto the SovietUnion,fromwhence they aresent by truckto Kabul!

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6Thereare in some of these countries, hill tribe or "aboriginal" minorities-in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines-which are considered "inferior" in status to the dominant communities that try to inflict on them
certain policies detrimental to their survival.
71n his Colonial Policy and Practice (1948:304-305), Furnivall defined plural society as consisting of
"differentsections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit....
Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals
they meet, but only in the marketplace, in buying and selling. Even in the economic sphere there is division
of labour along racial lines. Natives, Chinese, Indians and Europeans have all different functions, and
within each group, subsections have particularoccupations." For a sample of Furnivalland Smith's views
see Furnivall1939, 1948; Smith 1969a,b.
81 have taken these expressions from Bell 1975:146-147.
9Thisproposal combines concepts taken from the writings of AmartyaSen, Pierre Bourdieu and Donald
L. Horowitz.

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