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Identity Politics in Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines

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Identity Politics in Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines

For a multi-ethnic society such as Southeast Asia, ethnic conflicts and political instability are inevitable. In the course of nation building when homogeneity is aimed out of heterogeneity, each ethnic group struggles to assert not only their rights to equality and autonomy, but also their sense of uniqueness and identity. This provokes many of them to be in the position of constant conflict with other groups, as they quest for self-preservation and autonomy.

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This scenario is particularly true for Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines, where cultural diversity prevails. The Christians and Muslims of Indonesia, the Karens of Burma (Myanmar), and the Moros (Muslims of Southern Philippines) all view their culture as distinct, autonomous, and irreconcilable with other groups. While the state has played a crucial role in defining territories and creating a sense of shared national culture, these groups continue to define themselves apart from others, arguing that their uniqueness and individuality make it impossible for them to assimilate to other cultures and evolve as a single, unified community.

            The Christian Karens of Burma, widely represented by the Karen National Union (KNU) adhere to this kind of principle known as cultural particularism. They always argue that Karens and Burmans have differing race, civilization and society; and to integrate them into one common nationality would only prove futile (Mikael Gravers 245). According to KNU, the different and sometimes contradicting characteristics of ethnic groups impede the creation of a true nation (Gravers 256).

Thus, they proposed to become a separate administrative entity, for fear of eventual Burmese domination and assimilation into an independent Burmese state (Gravers 245). Because of their longstanding loyalty to the British colony, they expected that their clamor for autonomy would be rewarded (Gravers 243-244). When this did not materialize, anger built up and eventually triggered the Karen revolution, which lasted for long fifty years (Gravers 263).

Similarly, the Muslims of Southern Philippines were in constant struggle for autonomy and independence from the predominant Christian culture. Patricia Horvatich details how the task of assimilating the Muslims into the mainstream society through mass education and modern politics during the American occupation was achieved with limited success (17-18). Even the Filipinization of the government during the time of Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon, when Muslims were mandated to adhere to national laws, was only met with strong resistance from the Moros (Horvatich 20).

            All these point to the fact that most Muslims did not see themselves as Filipinos (Horvatich 23). According to Ralph Thomas, Muslims treat the Christian Filipino rule as a “government by a different people” (qtd. in Horvatich 20).

            By creating a Bangsa Moro identity, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a faction of Muslim extremists, successfully attempted to construct a distinct Muslim nationalism. They based it on the premise that Moros constitute a distinct bangsa (nation), with unique culture and history. Their homeland is consisting of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, where they are a majority. Most notably, they assume that the Philippine government threatens Muslim lives and seeks to erode their culture and religion (Horvatich 26-27).

            Polarization of religious identities provides a fertile ground for conflict among various ethnic groups in Southeast Asia. For Moros of Southern Philippines, Karens of Burma, and Ambonese Christians and Muslims of Maluku, Indonesia, religion is at the core of their struggle. This is reflected in Gravers’ study as he describes the crucial role of religion in the Karen self-presentation (249). Religion, according to him, serves as their cornerstone of cultural and national identity. Meanwhile, the devastating inter-religious strife between Christians and Muslims in Southern Philippines, and Indonesian province of Maluku only goes to show that particularly for Muslims, Islam binds them together as one; and they will defend and die for it if necessary. A poignant statement of “Once our religion is no more, our lives are no more” (Horvatich 24) makes an explicit pronouncement of this Muslim sentiment.

            Historical factors are salient in the outbreak of ethnic conflicts in three countries under consideration. Ethnicism in a former colonized society such as Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines provides an even more complicated picture, as it introduces and combines so many social and cultural contradictions that would lead to inevitable violent conflicts. Such was the case with Ambonese Christians in Maluku, Indonesia, where they enjoyed favor from the Dutch regime, by filling innumerable positions in Dutch administrative center of Ambon, and Dutch colonial army. The Muslims, on the other hand, were marginalized and isolated. Clearly, the Dutch had created a division between Christians and Muslims, and this split remained significant even in the eventual independent Republic. The integration of Maluku into a state with a very large majority of Muslims after independence suddenly disrupted the fragile balance in Maluku, making the cultural and political identity of Ambonese Christians uncertain. Christians despised the Muslims for occupying the areas they previously controlled, while Muslims saw their advancement as a way for the Republic to rectify the imbalance that had once favored the Christians (Jacques Bertrand 116-117). The government’s efforts however, changed the whole context as it effectuated the displacement of Christians on a national basis (Bertrand 119).

            Like in the case of Ambonese Christians and Muslims, historical events factored greatly in the outbreak of conflict between the Christian Karens and the Burmese majority. The Karens too, were greatly favored by the British colonizers over Burmans (Gravers 243). These colonizers were a great influence in the formation of their identity; and after independence from the British, the position of Christian Karens was also challenged by the Burmese. Their identity in relation to other ethnic groups was suddenly shattered, and to reassert their individuality required them to constantly struggle against the dominant group (Gravers 263).

In contrast, the Muslims of the Philippines were influenced by Western colonizers only up to some extent. They only took advantage of education and electoral politics to challenge other ethnic groups, preserve their communities, and secure their interests (Horvatich 29). Yet the very fabric that defines their identity was deeply rooted in their religion. Particularly for Sinama speakers, the fourth largest Muslim ethnic group of Southern Philippines, Western education became a tool by which they amplified their interest in their religion and reinforced their adherence to Islam. It was also used to create a solid identity for their people; defend themselves against the constant threats of other groups, particularly the Tausug; and preserve their distinct cultural heritage (Horvatich 35).

National context also impacts the upsurge of ethnic conflict in Southeast Asia. Particularly for Ambonese Christians of Indonesia, the allocation of government positions and resources was perceived as a move towards the Islamization of Indonesia. Realizing this magnified their fears of being displaced by the Muslim majority (Bertrand 116). Institutional changes undertaken by the Republic; attempts to redress past injustices toward the Muslims; the influx of migrant Muslims in areas previously controlled by Christians; the growing local competition for resources and government offices; involvement of security forces; as well as rapid democratization of the country escalated these already-brewing tensions into full-blown conflict (Bertrand 123-124).

            A unique case of how one ethnic group constructed their ethnic and political identity is that of the Sinama speakers of Southern Philippines. A closer look reveals that they have multiple, contradictory identities. The identity of Sinama speakers as Filipinos started to take shape with mandatory education and restructuring of political systems during the American occupation (Horvatich 17-18). It took a more definite form when they sought refuge from the Philippine Coast Guard and Marines to defend themselves against the constant harassment of Tausug, another Muslim tribe. In the process, they took advantage of the social and political mobility provided by the state (Horvatich 30).

Sinama speakers are indeed Muslims. Their identity as Moros contradicted their identity as Filipinos, basically because many of them had to be part of the Tausug-dominated MNLF. Together with this group, the Sinama speakers rose against the government who they assumed were threatening their very existence by the various military attacks on Muslim communities. Consequently, they had to give up their government jobs and social mobility. To assert their individuality as Muslims therefore meant restoring their traditional relations with the Tausug (Horvatich 30).

The College-educated Sinama speakers, who took advantage of Western education provided by the state, became the forerunners in constructing a Pan-Sama identity. They exploited education to improve their Islamic wisdom, which they later on shared with their communities as religious leaders and teachers. These intellectuals became elemental in creating a solid identity for Sinama speakers and preserving their unique culture and heritage (Horvatich 35).

Indeed, they provided the most successful model in defining their complex identities and reconciling their conflicting identities. Though they exist in complex and contradictory fields as Filipinos, Moros, and Pan-Sama, they were able to take on some or all of these identities without experiencing conflict by assuming distinct and separate frameworks of participation. They can thus be Filipinos in College, Moros in their struggle and Sama at home (Horvatich 34). Unlike the Muslims and Christians of Indonesia, Karens of Burma and other ethnic groups of Southeast Asian countries who were confrontational in their struggle for cultural and political identities, the Sinama speakers made full use of the opportunities and privileges specially provided by the state, to improve their well-being and uphold their distinct cultural heritage. Thus, they were able to negotiate their multiple identities, and ensure the survival of their unique culture.

            In conclusion, the various socio-political factors like mass education, modern political structures, migration, and colonial imperialism among other things demand that the ethnic groups of Southeast Asia subject themselves and their communities to constant renegotiation and restructuring of their relations with each other, other ethnic groups, and the nation-state to where they belong.

Works Cited

Bertrand, Jacques. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Gravers, Mikael. Asian Forms of the Nation. Ed. Stein Tөnnesson and Hans Antlöv. Curzon, 1996.

Horvatich, Patricia. Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia: Nation and Belonging in the Hinterlands. Ed. Renato Rosaldo. California: University of California Press, 2003

 

Cite this Identity Politics in Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines

Identity Politics in Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines. (2016, Oct 15). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/identity-politics-in-indonesia-burma-and-the-philippines/

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