This past week I read a book that came out a few years ago, Jamie S. Davidson’s From Rebellion to Riots: Collective Violence on Indonesian Borneo (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). It is about instances of “ethnic” violence that have occurred in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo) over the past 50 years or so.


What Davidson argues is that the real cause of violence on Kalimantan is politics. This is how the book is summarized on the back cover:

From Rebellion to Riots is a critical analysis of the roots of contemporary violence in one of Indonesia’s most ethnically heterogeneous provinces, West Kalimantan. Since the late 1960s, this province has suffered periodic outbreaks of ethnic violence among its Dayak, Malay, Madurese, and ethnic Chinese populations. Citing evidence from his research, internal military documents, and ethnographic accounts, Jamie S. Davidson refutes popular explanations for these flare-ups. The recurrent violence has less to do with a clash of cultures, the ills of New Order—led development, or indigenous marginalization than with the ongoing politicization of ethnic and indigenous identity in the region.”


Reading this book, I immediately thought of Sayadaw U Virathu, the Burmese Buddhist monk who has been making the news recently for preaching hatred of Muslims.

In a recent article in The Guardian about Virathu, Kate Hodal wrote the following: “The increasing openness of Burma, which was once tightly controlled under a military junta, has seen a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment spread across the 60 million-strong Buddhist majority – and Virathu is behind much of it.”

This is precisely how Davidson says the ethnic violence in Kalimantan was described by reporters in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Reporters implied that with the end of several decades of Suharto’s restrictive rule, age-hold hatreds had re-emerged.

What Davidson convincingly argues, however, is that the hatreds were all relatively recent, and they were politically motivated. I’m sure that the same is true with Virathu in Burma. Indeed, I’ve already read some accounts that indicate that members of the military support what Virathu is saying, as increased instability will offer them a great excuse to roll back reforms and resume their autocratic rule.


And then there is the recent case of the soldiers from the Sulu Sultanate who occupied part of Malaysian Sabah claiming that it was their historical territory. When this story first came out, I kept wondering why this was happening now. I knew that there had to be a political reason for it.

Sure enough, before long reports started to emerge, like this one in CounterPunch, that clearly connected that event to upcoming elections in both Malaysia and the Philippines.

preah vihear

So as I was reading Davidson’s book and thinking about these recent events, I tried to picture what developments are taking place at the moment that have the potential to lead to future conflicts or problems of some sort.

The first thing that came into my mind was the spread of world heritage sites across Southeast Asia. In fact, this has already led to a conflict between Cambodia and Thailand over a temple on their border, Preah Vihear.

To be fair, the dispute over the “ownership” of this temple began in the twentieth century, but it definitely heated up when UNESCO declared Preah Vihear to be a world heritage site in 2008.

Having a site placed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites has the potential to bring in money in the form of tourist dollars, and money is something that people definitely fight over. Issues like this then become entangled in domestic and international politics, and that is exactly what has happened in the Preah Vihear case.

phu tho

In recent years the Vietnamese have been very active in attempting to get places in Vietnam categorized as world heritage sites or to have certain cultural practices placed on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The worship of the Hùng kings at Phú Thọ was recently placed on this latter list (and I wrote about that here).

I think that it is well known that the desire for money is one major factor behind the “world heritage site craze” in Vietnam. However, in reading Davidson’s book, I started to wonder about the long-term implications of filling the country with “world heritage sites.” Could that possibly affect the way that Vietnamese think about themselves in relation to others?


This morning I came across a discussion that has been going on for at least a few days now (or maybe longer?) about a “strange stone” (hòn đá lạ) that was placed in the temple dedicated to the Hùng kings in Phú Thọ in 2009.

I haven’t read enough to know what this is all about, but the fact that the stone has been there for years and is only now being debated is a sure sign to me that politics have gotten involved.

In any case, what really caught my attention was some of the language that was used to talk about this stone, because it pointed to exactly the idea that I had in my head yesterday – namely, that the “world heritage site craze” could lead to essentialized views of culture, and that such views in turn can be used for political purposes.


This passage in particular really caught my attention:

“The belief in the worship of the Hùng kings is a national belief, so any object that is offered into [the temple] must abide by pure Việt beliefs. This is a place for the worship of the national founders, so each object (of worship) that is offered must reveal the will of the Lạc and Hồng descendants and express the hopes of the ancestors. It is not a place to put objects of worship to seek good fortune for oneself, an organization, or a clan.”

[Tín ngưỡng thờ vua Hùng là tín ngưỡng quốc gia nên bất kể vật nào đó được cung tiến vào đó đều phải tuân thủ tín ngưỡng thuần Việt. Đây là nơi thờ quốc tổ nên từng tự khí (đồ thờ) dâng lên đều phải thể hiện ý chí của con Lạc cháu Hồng và bày tỏ ngưỡng vọng của tổ tiên, chứ không phải là nơi để bày đặt các đồ thờ chỉ đề cầu lợi ích phúc lộc cho cá nhân, tổ chức hoặc dòng họ.]

There are various points about this brief passage that one could discuss, but I’ll just mention one, the use of the term “pure Việt” (thuần Việt).


“Purity” is a concept that became important in the West starting in the late nineteenth century with the development of (the now discredited) ideas about race, and that was then adopted by some intellectuals in Asia in the twentieth century.

The recent post I wrote about “Blood Matters in Colonial Cambodia” reflects this Western interest in purity, as well as the fact that the concept is based on a myth. We can see that the French were interested in determining exactly how pure certain people were, but that their “findings” pointed to a different conclusion – that purity doesn’t exist.

The importance of purity in the West led to tragic consequences during World War II, but in Cambodia, certain French-educated intellectuals gave it a new life after the war when they made it an element in the ideology of their political organization, the Khmer Rouge.

The tragic irony of course was that many of the intellectuals who talked about purity were themselves not “pure,” but like several of the people in the pictures that I placed in that previous post, were Sino-Khmer.


In the end, all of these issues are related to politics. From the Khmer Rouge, to ethnic violence in Kalimantan, to Preah Vihear, to Sayadaw U Virathu, to the Sultante of Sulu, to a strange stone in Phú Thọ. . . people might talk in terms of “culture” and “ethnicity,” but behind it all is politics.