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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnicity in Asia
  • Hazel J. Lang (bio)
Colin Mackerras , editor. Ethnicity in Asia. London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003. xvi, 232 pp. Paperback $17.99, ISBN 0-4.5-25817-0.

In a single volume Ethnicity in Asia gives the reader an authoritative and comprehensive overview of ethnicity in the modern states of East and Southeast Asia. The book is particularly concerned with the development of ethnicity in each of these countries, the evolution and impact of state policies toward ethnic minorities, some detailed discussion of the realities of the lives of various ethnic minorities (stronger in some chapters than others), and the sources of ethnic conflict within particular states.

The Preface states that Ethnicity in Asia has modest ambitions, aiming "to impart general information and insights into issues relating to ethnicity in East and Southeast Asia." It notes that the book "is not designed as a path-breaking study" but rather to attempts to "provide a scholarly coverage that takes account of the main new ideas," as well as to present some new material, on the topic. Yet the task of bringing together a comprehensive and coherent study of ethnicity in the East and Southeast Asian region is significant, and overall the book fulfills its purpose comprehensively and informatively. Ethnic diversity—whether it is peacefully accommodated or fiercely contested—is indeed one of the defining dilemmas of the modern state, and this book provides a lucid introduction to the various historical, political, cultural, and economic dimensions in each of the country studies.

The contributors assembled in this volume are established leading scholars and commentators in their areas of country specialization and on the issue of ethnicity. The diversity of academic disciplines from which they are writing (including political science, anthropology, sociology, and economics) gives the book a sense of breadth that works well with the careful editorial attention given to coherence and coverage of key unifying themes in most of the chapters. Also, each of the chapters follows its own unique format concomitant with the major issues and problems of each country.

The Introduction highlights the significance of ethnicity and ethnic conflict in contemporary society and points out the gap in the literature addressing ethnicity as a lens in the study of East and Southeast Asia as a region. It briefly canvasses the implications of majority nationalism and ethnonationalism, outlines the discourse of rights and culture, and examines the meaning of key terms such as "ethnicity," "minority," and "multiculturalism." This general overview of the key concepts informing the subsequent country chapters, and relevant for understanding the region in comparative perspective, could also have included a useful annotated [End Page 78] bibliography at the end—otherwise provided with each of the country chapters—for readers relatively new to recent developments in the theoretical debates.

An important theme addressed throughout the book concerns the "invention" of ethnic identities in the context of the modern state and the dynamic formation of majority-minority relations in the different countries studied. Some of the chapters reflect more explicitly upon questions of ethnic discourse and how conflicting aspects of ethnic relations have been managed, contained, or in some cases fought out by military means. Gerry van Klinken, for instance, notes in his excellent chapter that "Ethnicity is nowhere but everywhere in Indonesia." Indeed, Suharto's New Order government avoided mentioning anything "ethnic"; from 130 to 2000 there was no census asking people their ethnic identification, and until recently Indonesia was not among the countries that sprang to mind in studies of ethnic conflict. Yet in Singapore and Malaysia ethnic categories (or "race") have been mobilized very visibly as fundamental components in the state's ideological and economic apparatus. In the case of Thailand, ethnic heterogeneity has been downplayed within the process of nation building, with a collective identity of "Thai-ness" "constituted by shared commonality of language, religion and monarchy."

Ovesan and Trankell, in their chapter on Cambodia, highlight the urban-rural dichotomy as a significant dimension of ethnic relations. In discussing the unitary state in China's "goal of national unity and integration," Mackerras points out that "ethnic consciousness can be in tension, even conflict, with national integration, but it does...


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