Ethnic Tension in Southeast Asia

A Contemporary History of Ethnicity in Malaysia and Myanmar

N. Mozart Diaz
Jun 11, 2020 · 18 min read
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Photo taken from Free World Maps

The borders of modern Southeast Asia were arbitrarily drawn up by former colonial regimes without regard to different ethnicities or even wholly different ‘nations’ within the boundaries of the countries they created (Reid 2015, 240). Nationalism and the concept of nationhood itself were imported to the region by their respective colonial master (Reid 2015, 241). Nevertheless, Southeast Asia found itself in a period of nation-building in the aftermath of the Second World War (Stockwell 1992, 54). However, due to the arbitrary lines were drawn up by colonizers, the states of Southeast Asia had much difficulty in consolidating legitimacy over the territories they inherited (Brown 2000, 1). These states encountered dilemmas of identity, ethnic conflicts, and the restructuring of systems, institutions, and the nation in order to accommodate multicultural elements within the boundaries of the state (Brown 2000, 1).

In order to combat these problems, these brand new states consolidated their control over their territories through a number of different approaches. Sukarno’s Indonesia underwent a period of ‘Guided Democracy’ to ensure the polity known as Indonesia would survive (Smith 2001, 76). Along with Indonesia came the military takeover of Burmese troops over Myanmar in 1962 (Cockett 2015, 53) and Malaysia’s Emergency Period beginning in 1969 (Funston 2001, 161). These states followed the pattern set forth by Benedict Anderson (2003, 6–7; 44–47) in that these states attempted to consolidate their respective nations by giving them a sense of shared identity and experience. A process of remembering and forgetting in order to conjure up solidarity in order to create a strong nation-state (Rafael 2006, xvi).

Despite numerous attempts, states in the Southeast Asian region have never completely solidified their legitimacy over the numerous ethnicities present within their territories (Brown, 2001, 1). These contestations of the legitimacy of the state by ethnic minorities are due to an ethnic majority imposing rules, policies, and laws that prefer the majority over the minority as stated by Roszko and Sutherland (2015, 204). This phenomenon is further articulated by Anderson (2003, 141) in that official nationalism has a tendency to favor ethnicity or race which monopolizes power over that of a minority. It fosters the separation of the ‘us’ and the ‘other.’

Due to this, two kinds of nationalism have emerged as a consequence espoused by David Brown (2000, 34), that of civic nationalism and ethnocultural nationalism. The chief difference of the two is from where the individual draws a sense of identity from: civic nationalism draws identity from a created sense of identity in the space one occupies while ethnocultural nationalism draws from shared culture, traits, and ancestry (Brown 2000, 34). Dissonance within the nation-state happens when the two concepts become ambiguous and mixed in with official nationalism, thereby creating a crisis of legitimacy in the state (Brown 2000, 42). This is partly due to the fact that civic nationalism promises social justice and equality between races and ethnicities and when this fails, ethnocentrism becomes a clear alternative (Brown 2000, 44). This point is furthered by Muthiah Alagappa (1995, 56) in stating that the nations of Southeast Asia are relatively new as compared to the nations of Europe and that these nation-states have the tendency to ‘colonize’ the different ethnicities present in the territory.

However, the ‘colonizing’ of these minorities through the imaginings of the nation-state did not succeed and as a result, “ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious consciousness has been on the rise, contributing to the disenchantment with the new nation and the nation-state” (Alaggapa 1995, 56). These factors heavily contribute to the weakening of legitimacy in Southeast Asian states and create legitimacy crises in the countries where ethnic tensions are heavily influential in the political sphere (Alagappa 1995, 59). This problem of legitimacy is further complicated by the fact that civic nationalism has no clear cut solution to the problems of ethnocentrism, retaining ambiguous and hazy ideas as solutions (Brown 2000, 48). However, both faces of nationalism bind the individual to a set of duties and obligations one must do in order to remain in the community — the crucial difference is in that ethnocentric nationalism is less inclusive and is more rigid in terms of membership in the community (Brown 2000, 48).

In the context of Southeast Asia, the idea of a plural society was first conceptualized by John Furnivall to describe Indonesia and Burma when they were still under the colonial control of the Dutch and the British, respectively (Peacock 1972, 1). In comparison to the nation-states of Europe where societies were essentially homogenous throughout their territory, the notion of plural societies was best exemplified by the emerging nation-states in Southeast Asia. The polities in the region, as seen by Furnivall, were mostly fragmented, segregated, and existed ‘side by side, yet without mingling’ (Peacock 1972, 1). Due to this, the societies in the region felt no linkages to each other, no obligation, and cultural affinities (Peacock 1972, 1).

Following the removal of the colonial powers in the aftermath of the Second World War, with Indonesia as a case study, Peacock (1972, 7) displayed the difficulty of nation-building in plural society due to the presence of differing religions, alienated merchant classes, and lack of representation for ethnic minorities. This problem of ethnic tensions is seen throughout the Southeast Asian region and supports the theory that of Brown (2000, 44) that when civic and official nationalism espoused by the state fails to deliver on its promises of social justice and equality, ethnic nationalism becomes the easy alternative.

The problem of ethnocentrism differs with the principal authors stated above (Anderson and Brown). Anderson (2003) along with Vicente Rafael (2006) espouses the idea that the nation’s existence depends entirely on the forgetting and remembering of identity, memory, and history in order to formulate the nation in terms of civic nationalism — that ethnicities are to be superseded by the priorities of the nation-state and national will — while Brown (2000) and Alagappa (1995) contends that both civic nationalism and ethnocultural nationalism may coexist and result in a crisis of legitimacy due to conflicting interests and faltering confidence in the state. However, the two theories may not completely explain the presence of ethnic tensions and conflict in the country, as such, this paper will look into the histories of Myanmar and Malaysia in order to explain the origins, continuity, and government responses to ethnic tension — using the two theories as a supplement to narratives present in the two countries.

The dissonance between civic or official nationalism and ethnocentric nationalism is heavily pronounced in the different countries present in Southeast Asia. This paper will look into the countries of Myanmar and Malaysia in order to display how ethnic conflicts and tension jeopardize the political systems of the two states. Further, the paper will discuss the state policies and government responses enacted to prevent, regulate, and attempts to solve the problems of ethnic tensions. This paper aims to show that ethnic tensions jeopardize the consolidation of the nation and the legitimacy of the state in such a way that the very existence of both the nation and the state is endangered. Further, the paper will display that despite the presence of ethnic tensions, the government response is what causes the nation-state to develop its political institutions and itself as a nation.

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Some Orang Asli today live in the Cameron Highlands © Wei Ming / Shutterstock


The problem of ethnic tension and conflict in Southeast Asia is not as defined or as clear cut as it is in Malaysia. The divide between the Malays and non-Malays, namely the Indians, Chinese, and other indigenous ethnic minorities, have always been one of the central issues that plagued Malaysia’s development in all of its sectors (Teik 2005, 2). This divide is caused by both the geography of the nation-state (Teik, 2005, 2) and its colonial history (Means 1986, 97).

Geographically speaking, Malaysia itself is divided into two major regions namely that of Peninsular Malaysia and the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak (sometimes spelled as Serawak by some sources) (Teik 2005, 2). The location of the polity itself encouraged the influx of differing ethnicities. While a typical portrayal of the Malaysian plural society would depict a categorization between the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, and the indigenous Orang Asli, this portrayal does not take into consideration the extremely diverse communities found in Sabah and Sarawak (Teik 2005, 3).

And colonially since the British implemented a system which heavily favored that of the Malays since colonial control rested completely on Malay Sultan’s allowing them to indirectly control their territories (Means 1986, 98). Malays were given western education, special conditions for land tenure, and giving the Malays complete control over the processes of Independence in 1946 (Means 1986, 97–99). In this regard, the Chinese and Indians, which were the workforce of the British coming from their colonies in India and China, were seen as mere tenants and aliens (Means 1986, 98).

These two factors created the clear cut distinctions between ethnicities as well as gave them designated sectors in both the economic and political sectors of the country (Funston 2001, 161). Aside from the distinctions of the various ethnic communities, there is also a distinction between what ethnicities are classified as the bumiputeras (sons of the earth) in Peninsular Malaysia and the bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak (Teik 2005, 3). Along with the distinctions based on ethnicities, there have also been inclinations towards a division among the population based on religion, particularly between the Muslims non-Muslims (Teik 2005, 5). As such, life in Malaysia, including its politics and economy, is grounded on these ethnic divisions (Funston 2001, 161). Political parties are aggressively ethnic in nature especially in its membership, its goals and interests, and its mode of mobilization.

For instance, policies regarding the national economy, the citizens’ education, public services, and even cultural matters, much like the political parties, show ethnic as well as religious preferences (Case 1995, 70–78). Educational preference is exemplified in that numerous universities were established on the assumption that it would be attended solely by Malays, excluding other ethnicities entirely (Means 1986, 106). Further, exams are standardized to that of the Malay, meaning that test questions, grading systems, and teaching styles use Malay as the medium of instruction — without consideration to non-Malay students (Means 1986, 106). Public services also show preference to Malays in that there is a 4:1 ratio in hiring in favor of Malays (Means 1986, 104).

Economic and labor divisions are also drawn up along ethnic divisions both in the colonial period and post-independence of Malaysia. According to Teik (2005, 20):

“The four major races in Malaya correspond approximately to four economic castes. The British, the political rulers, control big businesses. The Chinese are essentially middle-class businessmen engaging in small trades. The Indians form the bulk of the labor population… engaging in plantation operations and commercial enterprises. …the Malays have always been rice cultivation, fishing, and hunting”

These divisions of labor among ethnic lines caused much tension which manifested itself in the political sphere of the country (Teik, 2005, 20). These tensions eventually erupted in the riots of 1969, where ethnic tension reached its climax in the country (Means 1986, 102). As a response to this, the state amended its constitution which included the New Economic Policy for development. The two-pronged approach of the New Economic Policy hoped to increase income and job opportunities for its citizens and to correct the economic imbalance by restructuring Malaysian society. These two approaches both held the ideal of reducing the discrimination and division among ethnic groups, at least in the economic sector (Means 1986, 103–104). Further, the government created the concept of Rukunegara as a means to solve the political crisis brought about by the riots. This was meant to create a sense of civic nationalism, to help rid the country of ethnocentrism in that the state created an ideology meant to cater to all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity (Means 1986, 102).

However, the issues of ethnocentrism in Malaysia had become so deeply entrenched in society that despite attempts by the governing body in the country, the issue persisted in society until the contemporary period (Wah 2010, 16).

As a response to multi-ethnic conflicts in Malaysia, the government has instigated programs in order to build a civic society and in turn civic nationalism — fragmenting the ethnic nationalism so deeply entrenched in Malaysian society (Ooi 2010, 273). This is being done through the process set forth by Anderson (2003, 6–7) in that newspapers and other media outlets are fostering commonalities between ethnic groups and thereby destroying old ethnic lines. (Ooi 2010, 274–275).

Ethnic tension in Malaysia has been prevalent in the country even before its inception, ethnic lines were rigidly drawn up as well as political and economic roles designated to various ethnicities. The nation-state, however, has shown progress in its legitimacy and has shown no extreme signs of political fragmentation and decay (Case 1995, 107). This is partly due to the efforts of the government in the New Economic Plan, the Rukunegara, and other government-sponsored programs that are meant to nurture a sense of civic-nationalism in the country.

Referring back to the theoretical framework, the theory of Brown only applied to the earlier history of Malaysia as a colonial state and as an independent nation. The concepts of civic and ethnic nationalism did butt heads during the first decades, but policies and coexistence helped foster a sense of civic nationalism which Anderson espoused.

In total, Malaysian society has begun to move past old ethnic lines and begun to consolidate the nation and in a way, ethnic tensions in the country have served to improve the unity of the nation in that these tensions caused the government to act upon such conflicts.

However, the case of Myanmar displays that rampant ethnic tension causes a state to destabilize and move dangerously towards political decay and fragmentation. The more militant response of the governing body towards the different ethnic states in Myanmar brought the country to where it is today.

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Image from Aljazeera


No other country in Southeast Asia best exemplifies the troubles of ethnic tensions in the nation-state than Myanmar. Owing to its existence to the colonization of Britain, the nation of Myanmar is comprised of numerous ethnic states all once bound together by the colonial invention of ‘Burma’ (Cockett 2015, 6). The British, having seized the territory at around the mid-19th century, drew up borders in relation to its Siamese and French Indochinese neighbors to the east without regard to ethnic groups divided by these boundaries (Cockett 2015, 6). Seen as a kind of imperial backwater, the colony was barely developed in the early years of British colonialism — causing economic strife in the country as the British continued to exploit its natural resources and the destruction of old, traditional systems of interactions between ethnic states (Sardesai 1989, 166). Nevertheless, nationalist movements began in the territory at the turn of the century through the use of Buddhism as a unifying feature (Sardesai 1989, 167). The movement, however, was heavily Burmese and did not account for the other ethnic groups in the country (Sardesai 1989, 168). With a brief Japanese Interregnum, the Burmese saw independence in 1948.

The consequence of the way the territory was carved up by the British is found in the presence of a ‘plural society’ in Myanmar. As stated above, the notion of a ‘plural society’ does not equate to an intermingling of cultures, creating a unique culture altogether but rather the separation of one culture to another — especially along ethnic lines (Peacock 1972, 1). Such was the case in Myanmar, the presence of a plural society had existed well before the independence of the country as best exemplified in the colonial capital: Rangoon (Cockett 2015, 24). The city was the crux of cultures and migrations, yet each ethnic group retained its own cultures, religions, and languages without mixing with another (Cockney 2015, 25). Work, labor, and economic roles were also drawn up — much like Malaysia — along ethnic lines. Mass migrations by the Chinese and Indians, however, caused the native Burmese to become minorities in their own lands, causing much bitterness and resentment which would manifest itself later on (Cockett 2015, 25).

In the years after independence, however, the Burmese found themselves in ascendancy over the rest of the territory then known as Burma (Sardesai 1989, 213). Though experimenting with democracy for a short while, it was clear that the country would not continue to exist under democratic institutions due to Communist insurgencies but most especially that of ethnic states pushing forth their own nationalism at odds with that of the governing body (Sardesai 1989, 214). The biggest challenge of the Burmese state then was the forging and consolidation of Burma as a single nation under one state (Sardesai 1989, 214). Again, a state trying to create the imagining of a nation and create a sense of civic nationalism.

However, due to the civilian government’s inability to stop ethnic states vying for autonomy or independence and its failure to combat communist insurgencies caused the civilian army to request the help of the military under the emergency clauses of the constitution. Under this period, the military was able to ensure security in Burma by keeping ethnic hostilities at bay (Sardesai 1989, 216). Meanwhile, the governing body continued to endeavor for a stronger, more consolidated nation-state with talks with ethnic elites on the creation of autonomous states within Burmese territory. This move, however, was seen by the military as endangering the very existence of Burma and staged a coup to seize control of the state (Sardesai 1989, 216; Cockett 2015, 53) declaring that parliamentary democracy was not suitable for the country and that authoritarian rule was required for the country to exist.

Military rule in Burma, in regards to ethnicities, was marked by forced homogenization in the country (Cockett 2015, 54). The country went through a process called ‘Burmanisation’, a program enacted by the military in which ethnic states would be educated — essentially brainwashed — into thinking, acting, and talking like a Burman (Cockett 2015, 79). To accomplish this, about 400,000 Indians and 100,000 Chinese were forced to leave the country in order to ‘nationalize’ industries and commerce (Cockett 2015, 56). This process of Burmanisation caused most — if not all — of the ethnic minorities in Burma to feel disenfranchised. They were no longer allowed to use their own language, to carry on old traditions, even English was outlawed by the military regime (Cockett 2015, 80).

However, the process of Burmanization only resulted in much ethnic strife and outright rebellions against the ruling Burmese, forcing the government to make concessions in the form of the granting of autonomy for these ethnic states (Sardesai 1989, 220). However, the ethnic states of the Karens and the Shans refused autonomy and continue to exist in open rebellion against the government (Sardesai 1989, 220). The presence of such rebellions, as well as the continued unrest has caused academics to call the military junta as illegitimate (Yawnghwe 1995, 192) and the continued existence of Myanmar may be at stake.

The country of Myanmar is usually seen as a collection of nations under one state due to the presence of numerous ethnic states and the domineering attitude of the central state run by the Burmans. The response, as compared to Malaysia, has not been one of accommodation or bridging of gaps between ethnicities but rather that of enforced homogenization. The presence of a plural society in the country, which the military junta has worked to eliminate, persists albeit in a much duller variable as compared to what it was before the military junta.

The problems encountered by the government of Myanmar in regards to ethnicity was that of secessionist movements, calls for autonomy, and outright rejections of state-sponsored programs — namely that of Burmanization. The government response, however, has always been militaristic and oppressive in nature as compared to that of Malaysia.

At present, the country of Myanmar continues to grapple with ethnic tensions in the form of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State (Cockett 2015, 252). Despite granting autonomy to numerous ethnic states in the country, the Rohingya Muslims are continuously denied of citizenship and even inclusion in the nations-state of Myanmar. As a result, the Rohingyas are either forced to flee or gunned down by military forces loosely controlled by the incumbent democratic regime (Cockett 2015, 253). The experience of the Rohingya is exemplary of the struggles and discrimination that other ethnic states have faced and is telling that the old problems of Myanmar are still prevalent despite the fall of the military junta in 2010.

The case of Myanmar is an instance where the state had failed entirely to foster a sense of civic nationalism among its populace. The state did not attempt to forge a national identity from commonalities between ethnic states but rather the state used its power to enforce one ethnicity’s sense of identity over a plural society extending over an entire country. In turn, the various ethnic states present in the country became dependent on ethnic nationalism to define their identity. As a result of this, the country was wracked with ethnic violence and civil wars — some of which still persist to the present day.


The countries of Myanmar and Malaysia both have a strong presence of ethnic minorities and both have gone through a history of government attempts to address the problems caused by friction among the different ethnic groups present in the country. The two countries, or nations-states, are exemplary of the plural societies present in every Southeast Asian country. Malaysia and Myanmar were both a product of colonial imaginings, yet, despite being on the brink of political fragmentation early in their independence, have managed to survive.

Comparatively, the governments of the two countries have had wildly different responses to such problems. The Malaysian government, despite having clear cut ethnic and racial divides extending and permeating past the political to that of work, labor, and family, was able to address such conflicts through constitutional amendments and state policies and programs created to reduce friction between ethnicities. The country has now been showing signs of the creation and consolidation of a civic society where all ethnicities are represented — not merely the Malays. The efforts of the government has strengthened Malaysia in terms of its legitimacy and is now one of the most stable nation-states in Southeast Asia.

In Myanmar, however, the response of the government is much more harsh than that of Malaysia. The military junta which governed Myanmar for the better part of the past fifty years was not tolerant of other ethnic states and nations existing within the territory they ruled, forcing a policy of forced homogenization. However, despite extensive attempts by the government, homogenization did not prevail and the government was forced to recognize the different ethnic states in the region. This period of forced homogenization is one of the catalysts as to why Myanmar is almost continuously at the brink of fragmentation and political decay as the legitimacy of the state is still in question and the new democratic regime is still widely contested in the nation.

In total, the theories of Brown and Anderson do not encompass the entirety of the experiences of the two nations. The case of Malaysia may be cited as an example of ethnic nationalism turning into civic nationalism, thereby confirming Anderson’s theory of nationalism. However, the theory does not account for the persistence of ethnic lines in the nation. Nor did the Malaysian experience lead to a crisis of legitimacy as Brown predicted. Instead, government response created the conditions needed for the consolidation of the country. In Myanmar, ethnic nationalism did not lead to civic nationalism but rather, ethnic nationalism persisted and refused to become civic. This persistence, however, did lead to a crisis of legitimacy and government response was not able to keep the tensions and crisis at bay. Brown’s theory, when applied to Myanmar, failed to predict the persistence of Myanmar as a nation-state by recognizing the ethnic states and allowing their existence within the boundaries of the country.


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Brown, David. 2000. Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, ethnocultural and multicultural politics. London, England: Routledge

Case, William. 1995. Malaysia: Aspects and Audiences of Legitimacy in Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia: The Quest for Moral Authority. Alagappa, M. ed. Stanford, California, U.S.A.: Stanford University Press. 69–108

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N. Mozart Diaz

Written by

Filipino. Oscillating between navigating and wandering;

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

N. Mozart Diaz

Written by

Filipino. Oscillating between navigating and wandering;

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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