This book seeks to describe some aspects of ethnic politics in Southeast Asia. More importantly, however, it seeks to organize this material so as both to explain the events and to develop a distinctive explanation as to the general nature of ethnicity and the causes of ethnic politics.
The very proliferation of ethnic tensions in the contemporary world militates against systematic examination as to the causes. It sometimes seems as if ethnic loyalties and rivalries are universal and fundamentally unexplainable expressions of human nature. On the other hand, it also seems as if each ethnic conflict arises out of a unique interplay of specific historical, cultural, socio-economic and political circumstances, so that the best we can hope for by way of explanation is the careful documentation of the chain of events and the listing of all contributory factors.
The purpose here is to reject claims as to both the universality and the uniqueness of ethnic tensions, and to offer an explanation of the uniformities and the variations in ethnic politics in one region. Ethnic tensions are common to all the countries of Southeast Asia, but they take diverse forms, ranging from the sustained violence of Burma’s ethnic rebellions to the polite expressions of ethnic concern in Singapore’s press. Instead of trying to explain such variations in terms of differences in the cultural composition of each country, the focus will be on examining how the development and political manifestations of ethnic consciousness are related to differences in the character of each of these states. Such a focus on the character of the state offers a basis for exploring the underlying nature of ethnic consciousness in relation to the power structure in society, and also a focal point through which to explain