Rabu, 22 Oktober 2008

“Cultural Solidarity in Southeast Asia Might Be Realized by Presenting Various Similarities of Ideas or Behaviors”

On an occasion, I interviewed one of Southeast Asian analysts from University of Indonesia, Semiarto Aji Purwanto. Mas Aji (the nickname I usually call him) who has big attention on agricultural and forestry issues, believes there are many opportunities available for the Southeast Asian people to establish a strong integration at the grass-root level. However, the grass-root integration, according to him, would not be achieved by relying merely on traditional identity; it has to be done through a more dynamic process called ‘consciousness’ or cultural borrowing. Following are the dialogues. The complete version can be read on the Civic Southeast Asia Bulletin September 2008 published by Pacivis University of Indonesia.

What and how is the distribution of ethnicity in Southeast Asia?

Firstly, the concept of “ethnicity” should be defined clearly. In anthropology, ethnicity is a central concept that has been studied since long time ago and the definition is continuosly changing until now. That changing of definition includes scope, description, and the recruitment of certain ethnic groups. In the perspective of evolution, human groups distribution is indicated by the distribution of human races to all corners of the world. We should not mistakenly consider ethnicity as same with race. There are possibilities of confused definitions between ethnicity, nation or nationality, and origin. Take a look at this one example. All this time we have been presented with ancient stories that our ancestors were originated from Yunan, China. Are we putting those Yunan ancestors in the category of ethnicity? Nation? Race? Or origin? By asking this question, I want to bring us to see the importance of the definition of ethnicity before we go any further.

Besides the concept of ethnicity, I also want to narrowing the concept of “ethnic distribution”. There are two comparable concepts. First, migration, which is usually understood as movement. Next, massive migration in a long period of time known as diaspora.

Then, what are the ethnic groups that have spread widely in Southeast Asia? Who are they? I can classify them into two groups based on their original regions within the context of Southeast Asia. First, those who came from mainland Asia and, second, those from the Asian archipelagos. The Malays are obviously within the first group. However, we must be careful in categorizing them as a group that has spread into various regions. Many view them as the real indigenous of Southeast Asia, while other believe them originating in northern part of Southeast Asia. There is no agreement on where the Malays had originated from. This group dominates the Malay Straits: in southern edge of Thailand (Patani), down to all Malaysian peninsula, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java, Bali, West Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, parts of Maluku, up to South Philippines, Mindanao, Sulu, Palawan, the inslands in the middle, until Luzon Island in south.

If we consider the Malays in term of language, which is one indicator of an ethnic group, then the spread of the Malay people also includes islands in central and eastern Indonesia: East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and south Papua. If we connect the spread of the Malay ethnicity with Islam then the scope should be reduced by excluding the central and east Indonesia and the central and north Philippines.

The second in the group is the Chinese. This term—the Chinese—refers to the ancient monarchy system that has been known in China and being preserved until near the Western colonialism between 14th and 15th century. The Chinese spread into Thailand, Myanmar, Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In the last four countries, the Chinese are not the majority. They came of course not at once, but in several phases and certain directions.

The third is the Arabs, particularly those who came from Yaman (Hadramaut). It could be classified as an ethnic group. Historically, they were known as great and adventurous merchants. Therefore, besides trading, they also stayed in one place for quite a long time, resided and bred their children to become the inhabitants of that new place. They applied this pattern in the Malay Strait, Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and North Maluku. They usually lived in small-solid communities and were able to trace their ancestors up to four or five generations above, even more. Besides trading, their migration motive was also to spread their religion.

The fourth is the Indians, who originated in areas stretching from the Muslim dominated area of Gujarat, to Punjab and down to southern India. Similar with the people of Hadramaut, the Indians migration to Southeast Asia was also motivated by trading interest and religion dissemination. The first Indians migration to Southeast Asia can be traced to the beginning of the historic era in the region. The Indians were the first who introduced writing tradition through the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that they brought. Several centuries later they came again bringing another religion, Islam. Their descendants also lived in small-solid communities in Indonesia, even though in some cities in northern Sumatra they were quite dominant, as well as in some cities in Malaysia and Singapore.

The second category is ethnic groups that originated in archipelagos. Two ethnic groups that possess a strong adventuring nature are the Minangese and the Bugis people. The people of Minang have traveled out into the territories of Negeri Sembilan and Johor. They had even been able to be on the top stratum of the society there, became kings in many old Malayan monarchs. The Bugis people also traveled as far as the Malaka Strait areas: Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. Similar with the Minangese voyagers, some Bugis descendants became parts of the elite society overseas.

A theory in migration studies usually associates population density as one of the causes of migration. In the colonial era, many Javanese people—whose amount were very huge while at the same time inhabiting a relatively small island—were relocated outside the island by the colonial government. Some of them went voluntarily or worked in plantations. In Malaysia and Singapore, several Javanese communities can still be identified. Javanese sub-ethnics or varians like Madura and Bawean can also be found in those countries.

In Kalimantan, the Iban ethnic group has been categorized as the Indonesia-Malaysia border-crosser. Therefore, theoritically they can be considered as have already spread into another country’s region. Most of the Ibanese in Malaysia admit that their ancestors are from West Kalimantan.

How could they become so spread out? For what reason? Besides due to high population density, migration also relates with economic interests: looking for employment and trading. Moreover, regarding the ethnic groups from mainland Asia, their motivation also included religious proselytizing.

Are the Southeast Asian ethnic groups have one similar/identical character/identity?

In culture theory, anthropologists believe that all culture are naturally dynamic: always developing and changing. The development is often through imitation or cultural borrowing. Therefore, in the culture of the Southeast Asian ethnic groups, the influence from various ethnic groups in other countries has been very often occurred. The Malay culture for example, generally disseminated the keris weapon, the silat martial art, the sepak takraw sport, cockfighting, spin top games, sarong clothes, and, of course, language. Language is currently one of the strongest indicators of the Malay culture, although politically the Malay identity is often being connected with Islam.

For migrants originated in mainland Asia, the spirit of entrepreneurship had been their main character. The Indian and Arab communnities barely had other expertise besides trading. It has only been since this modern time the Indians have entered the intellectual sector at campuses in Singapore and Malaysia. The Ramayana and Mahabarata epics were two cultural existences in Southeast Asia that had initially been strongly influenced by the Indians. The spread are equal across the Indochina, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. At the same time with the dissemination of those epics, the gamelan instrument and the wayang puppet theater were also spread out. The Indian influence are no longer dominant in Brunei and the Philippines.

The Chinese group in the archipelagos were usually also involved in commerce, even though in the mainland Asia like Indochina, Myanmar, and Thailand most of them were farmers. Rich culinaries were the Chinese’s biggest contribution to the Southeast Asian region. Various kinds of their culinary have mixed with local flavors, but still maintain their original Chinese character. The Chinese culinary art have spread equally across the Southeast Asian mainland and archipelagos.

Historically, is there any solidarity among Southeast Asian ethnic groups?

Solidarity among different ethnic groups in Southeast Asia? It is quite difficult to explain. If the solidarity is among the members of certain ethnic groups that subsequently spread into other regions/countries, then it is present. We can see it, even until now, within the Indian, Chinese, and Arab communities, also within the Javanese communities in Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore, or even in a small group of the Bawean people in Singapore. The same thing also occurs among the Bugis-Makassar and Minangese voyagers in Malaysia and Singapore. We see the Malay villages, the Bugis villages, the Arab villages,

the China towns, etc. as the manifestations of solidarity among members of particular ethnic groups that taking place in form of regional unity.

Solidarity between different ethnic groups seems to occur in form of specific alliances. Economy and politics often became the reasons, although sometimes the motivation was religion. Solidarity among the Malays in South Philippines, for example, is very related to politics as well as religion. In Singapore, the Malay minority—whether from Brunei, Malaysia, or Indonesia—are congregated in the Singaporean Ulema Council, which operates in religious sector but actually aims to strengthening their economic positions in the society.

In political history, the alliances of ethnic groups have often counterproductive and presented racial discriminations. The history of the establishment of Malaysia and Singapore, has shown such a very strong segregation between the Malay and Chinese ethnics. As the result, we can see now that there is a time bomb in the relations of those ethnics in the two countries. Even the last case has shown that the integration of Malaysia has been shocked by the strengthening solidarity among the Indian descendants who urge for a more equal social-political rights.

Do you see any possibility to develop regional solidarity among Southeast Asian people in the future?

Absolutely. However, the two main questions are what are the foundations for developing such solidarity and what are the goals? If the solidarity is going to be based on ethnic groups, then, I suppose, we should just forget about it. Ethnic group solidarity, in its most solid form, will be as dangerous as racialism. Ethnicity and racialism share one basic similarity in form of exclusivity, which is then extended into discrimination toward other groups on the basis of certain stereotypes. Therefore, this kind of solidarity should not be encouraged. In many cases, the colonialist power often treated solidarities within ethnic groups as their political commodities, just like in Malaysia and Singapore, and it is to some extent happening now in South Philippines.

Nevertheless, it is probably necessary to encourage the emergence of a cultural solidarity that recognizes various similarities of ideas or behaviors among the Southeast Asian people. This cultural solidarity can be used to promote social identity in search of nationality, nationalism, and nationhood. This kind of idea has been extensively recognized in the Philippines, which is culturally westernized, and in Singapore, which is Chinese-western dominated. This phenomenon is of course only being felt by some groups which socio-cultural identities are presently undergoing a struggle phase. The almost same things happen in South Thailand in form of religious domination and in Myanmar in form of authoritarian-socialist political system domination. These are common among the Indochina countries. Hypothetically, who knows that someday Malaysia and Indonesia, which have been undergoing massive Islamization during the last 20 years, will experience a return to their roots of ethnic or cultural identities.

What is the goal of establishing a regional solidarity? What is going to be achieved or opposed? Is it a political system? We have already agreed about democracy; in ASEAN, only Myanmar that the democracy has yet to be recognized by the other countries. Or is it an economic-political system? While in fact, capitalism along with its industrialization has become the main goal of all countries now... Or is it a penetration of certain ideologies? Religious radicalism? Terrorism? It can also be related there...and probably we should revitalize ASEAN. [J]

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