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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 1 (1994)


Ethnic Groups Across National Boundaries in Mainland Southeast Asia. Gehan Wijeyewardene, editor. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990. viii, 192 pp.


Reviewed by Brian L. Foster, Dean, School of Arts and Sciences, University of Nebraska.

As its title suggests, this book is about ethnic groups whose areas cross national boundaries. The editors introduction promises, in fact, an analytical, or even theoretical, examination of how ethnic relations are related to special features of nation states--especially features that produce states' boundedness. This is an important and difficult set of issues, and the mountains of Mainland Southeast Asia provide an ideal vehicle for studying them--a variety of nations (China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam) with varying degrees of political stability, boundary integrity, degrees and modes of sociopolitical integration of ethnic minorities, and a bewildering variety of ethnic groups with different histories and different forms and degrees of political integration (Lue, Karen, Hmong, Tai, Yao, and Mon). Unfortunately, the potential of neither the ethnological and historical nor the topical foci are realized. Although individual articles--especially Rajahs and Lilleys--are substantial contributions, and others provide useful if less penetrating material--especially Miles, Tapp, and Wijeyawardenes--the book as a whole is disappointing.

The book is one of a series of studies published by the Social Issues of Southeast Asia program of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Singapore. All of the articles except Miles and Tapps were written especially for this volume. The conceptualization of the project at the outset is not described. The variety of viewpoints the various authors bring to their articles could have been a strength for the book, collectively capturing the complexity of the broader topic. The relative weakness of several of the individual articles reduces this potential. Moreover, although the editors introduction provides insightful comments on the issues, in my view he fails to provide a coherent framework for the papers, leaving the reader without guidance in a set of unconnected articles of uneven quality, with little value added by their being brought together in a single volume. His main contribution to integration of the papers is a facile classification scheme that is neither original nor illuminating, and a peculiar insistence that ethnicity cannot be productively defined.

Lilleys concluding chapter, in contrast, is a provocative and penetrating review of the issues that the book might have been about, drawing on the other papers here and there to illustrate a point, or taking issue as the opportunity arises. I would strongly advise readers to begin--and possibly end--their reading of the book with a careful reading of Lilleys chapter. I found the Bauer and Cholthira articles least useful, since they do not squarely address the central theme of the book, either ethnographically or topically. Bauer clearly knows more about Mons--especially Mon language and linguistics--than anyone, and there is useful information in his paper, but he is clearly not at home in this social science genre, and the material is often of marginal relevance. Cholthiras article argues for a broad historical perspective; I find it difficult to grasp the main thrust of her substantive argument about ethnicity and national boundaries.

Wijeyewardene presents fascinating material on three Thai intellectual documents published in 1988--one an epic, one a political tract, and one a history--that create different Thai identities through constructions of political and historical materials of varying kinds. These very rich materials receive less analysis than warranted, but their potential for examining the active construction of identities is considerable and suggests a potentially valuable line of research. His rather extensive descriptive presentation is especially useful, since it is unlikely that any of these works will be translated from Thai.. Rajah addresses the Karen movement, focusing especially on differences between the participation of the Karen on the Burmese and Thai sides of the border. He sees the Karen political and military organizations as aspects of a kind of nation state; he shows how the Thai-Burmese boundary becomes a resource to the Karen, and how various state "imperatives" become aspects of ethnicity for the Thai. This is a thoughtful and complex piece that doesnt really present new ethnography, but which directly addresses the topic of this book, and is a good example of what the entire book could have been.

Miles discusses two Yao villages, one in Thailand and one in China. Although they are in very different political, economic, physical, and social environments, they are in non-trivial ways Yao. He focuses on the differentiation of inheritance systems, showing how bilaterality and patrilineality developed in response respectively to commerce and land scarcity in the one case and of labor needs in the other. It is an excellent ethnographic comparative analysis, but its relation to the books central topic is marginal. Nicholas Tapp, working from a dependency perspective, examines development projects among the Hmong in Thailand, showing how historical peripheralization of the Hmong was defined by many of the same external economic and political forces that gave rise to the national boundaries of the Thai state. The political and cultural status of the Hmong in Thailand, and the failure of various development projects, was determined by many of the same historical forces that produced the peripheralization that was in part being addressed by the development projects. In summary, although several of the contributions are valuable, they are somewhat uneven, and the book doesnt quite come together around the central theme indicated by the title and the editors introduction. It is an important and difficult topic, though, and the Southeast Asian mainland is an ideal laboratory for studying it.