Protest Movements

Indigenous Protests in Panama

Large protests by indigenous people, occasionally accompanied by violence, have been occurring in Panama since late January. On March 1, leaders of Ngöbe-Buglé people walked out on talks with the Panamanian government after several of their young supporters were shot with rubber bullets. Ngöbe-Buglé  protestors subsequently reestablished roadblocks on the Pan American Highway that they had dismantled in early February when the talks began.

As if often the case in regard to indigenous right issues, the conflict centers on dam building and mining. A new Panamanian law recently pushed through the National Assembly allows the construction of dams in Ngöbe-Buglé territory, infuriating tribal leaders. In negotiations, the Panamanian government agreed to suspend mining in the area, but remained unwilling to cancel the hydroelectric projects.

At first glance, Panama seems like an unusual place for such indigenous-rights protests. The country not only has a thriving economy, but it has also allowed an unusual degree of territorial autonomy for its larger American Indian groups, including the Ngöbe-Buglé. In Panama’s comarcas indígena, indigenous peoples have been granted a relatively large degree of power. This policy has been widely viewed as relatively successful in eastern Panama, where the Guna (Kuna) people have been able to develop their own resources and their own eco-tourism-based economic sector.

Conditions among the Ngöbe-Buglé, who number more than 100,000, are much less favorable. Arable land has grown scarce, forcing many men to work as migrant laborers. With low level of competence in the Spanish language, many have difficulties adapting to life outside of the comarca indígena. According to the Wikipedia, “malnutrition is prevalent, especially in children and expectant mothers.”

As the Ngöbe-Buglé territory contains vast copper deposits, it seems likely that struggles with the Panamanian state will continue for some time.

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The Circassian Mystique and Its Historical Roots

Although little known today, the Circassians were once a famous people, celebrated for their military élan, physical mien, and resistance to Russian expansion. In the nineteenth century, “Circassophilia” spread from Europe to North America, where numerous writers expressed deep admiration for the mountaineers of the eastern Black Sea. Prominent physical anthropologists deemed Circassian bodies the apogee of the human form. Promoters and hucksters capitalized on the craze, marketing a number of Circassian beauty aids and even creating fake “Circassian Beauties” to exhibit in circus sideshows.

Map of Mamluk Empire Circa 1400Although their mountainous homeland is noted for its rugged, isolating topography, the Circassians have long been well integrated into the wider world. Circassia fronts a large stretch of the Black Sea, an area that has attracted merchants and settlers from the Greek world and beyond since antiquity. In the later Middle Ages and into early modern times, Genoese traders frequented the Circassian coast. Politically, the region is usually depicted as backwater, as the Circassians never created a powerful state of their own. Yet they were no strangers to statecraft at the highest levels, having largely run the Mamluk Empire of Egypt from 1382-1517. Even after their defeat by the Ottomans, Circassians continued to form much of Egypt’s political elite. Ostensibly their power came to an end in 1811 when Mohammad Ali massacred most of the Mamluks. Still, as Kadir Natho argues in Circassian History, Circassians later reclaimed important Egyptian military and administrative positions. Vestiges of their clout in North Africa linger to this day. As Qaddafi’s power was tottering in 2011, his agents reached out to the remnants of the Circassian community of Misrata, hoping to rally its members to the Libyan regime.

Admiration for Circassian beauty and bravery in the West was widespread during the Enlightenment. Voltaire took it for granted that Circassians were a comely people, a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus. In the nineteenth century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the founder of physical anthropology, invented the concept of the “Caucasian race” partly in reference to the Circassians. He reckoned that the peoples of the Caucasus, particularly the Circassians and Georgians, represented something close to the ideal human form, having “degenerated” less than others since the creation. Early anthropologists thus sought to elevate Europeans by linking them to the Circassians in a common racial category.

Circassophilia” in the English-speaking world is often said to date to the Crimean War (1853-1856), when the British were allied with the Circassians against the Russian Empire. But travel accounts show that the attitude has deeper roots. Admiration for the Adyghe people stemmed in part from the general respect accorded to independent mountain peoples who resisted eastern empires, which in turn was linked to the disdain that most Westerners felt for Asian—and Russian—civilization. Still, the esteem granted to the Circassians in many of these works went well beyond the norm. Consider, for example, Edmund Spencer in Travels in Circassia, Krim Tatary, Etc., (1836):

It was also the first time that I had seen the Circassians mingling on friendly terms with the Russian soldiers; and assuredly a more striking contrast than the two people presented, both in physical appearance and moral expression, it is impossible to conceive. The one, with symmetrical forms and classic features, seemed breathing statues of immortal Greece; the other, coarse-looking, short, and thick-limbed, appeared like an inferior race of beings. But if the physical line of demarcation was broad, the moral was still broader. The mountaineer, free as the eagle on the wing, stepped and moved, as if proudly conscious of his independence, with a dauntless self-confidence not unmixed with scorn, that none but a child of liberty could exhibit in his bearing…  (p. 291).

Both the Circassian reputation for beauty and their heritage of holding political power outside of their homeland stemmed in part from their curious niche in the political economy of the Middle East. The Circassians, to put it bluntly, specialized in providing elite slaves for the powerful states of the eastern Mediterranean world. Mamluks, literally meaning “slaves,” were men recruited in bondage to serve as elite fighters but who later turned the tables and took over the state itself, after which they continued to replenish their own ranks by importing slaves from the homeland. Circassians were by no means the only Mamluk soldiers of the Muslim world, but they were the dominant group in Egypt over an extended period of time.

Circassian women were equally renowned as high-status slaves, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Many, of course, did not reach elevated standing, and the oppression that they could experience was likely extreme, but many Circassian women ended up in the imperial harem, a center of real political clout. Those whose sons went on become sultans could exercise substantial power in their own rights. Elite Circassian wives, moreover, were not limited to the imperial family. As Reina Lewis writes, “In 1870, Sir Henry Elliot, the British ambassador to Istanbul, realized how indelicate it might be to raise the subject of Circassian slavery since the grand vizier’s Circassian wife had been a slave and so had been or were the wives of many other important officials”  (p. 132).

The reasons for Circassia’s intensive participation in the slave trade are debated. Some writers stress the poverty, crowding, and deep class divisions of the region, which compelled the poor to sell their children. Others counter that the trade was largely voluntary: “it would seem that maids were seldom forced into bondage, instead they themselves opted to enter into this state out of goodwill. They were lured by tales of opulence and luxury in the harems, in which their legendary beauty was at a premium.” Historian Charles King, in his engaging history of the Black Sea, recounts an episode in which six female slaves on a transport vessel intercepted by a Russian warship refused liberation, preferring to take their chances in the slave markets of Istanbul (p. 118).

Whatever its propelling factors, the slave trade deeply influenced social relations in Circassia. According to the British writer John Longwort (in A Year Among the Circassians [1840]), commoners were often unabashedly assessed in terms of market valuation:

 When you hear of their being so many hands high, or worth so many purses, you naturally conclude that they are cattle being spoken of. A Circassian has original notions on the subject: both men and women have their value as property … and it may be some consolation to the latter to know, that with any pretension to beauty, they have ten times the value of the former (p. 57).

         The stereotypical beautiful Circassian woman had dark luxuriant hair juxtaposed against smooth, pale skin. As a result, Circassian-branded hair and skin products came to be widely marked in Europe and the United States. Such connotations even made their way to gastronomy; the dish called “Circassian Chicken” is named not for its place of origin, but rather for its smooth texture and light color. By the late 1800s, “Circassian Beauties” had become circus attractions in the United States; such “performers” were not from the Caucasus, but were rather local woman of light complexion who dyed their hair and then teased and coiffed it into elaborate halos. Charles King again provides insight (in The Ghosts of Freedom, pp. 138-140), noting that Phineas T. Barnum himself took credit for “introducing the Circassians into American popular culture.” The appeal, King shows, was primarily erotic, as the so-called Circassian Beauties would recount to the crowds the “the prods and examinations” that they had experienced “in the slave bazaar.” The origin of their hairstyle is less clear; King suggests that it might have been derived either from the “tall, fuzzy hats” worn by the men of the Caucasus, or from an attempt to “Africanize”—and thus further sexualize—this quintessential Caucasian people. What is clear is that Western marketers of Circassian themes often had no idea what they were selling, as is evident in the French “Koringa” poster reproduced here.

Besides their innate physical traits, posture and bearing also played a role in the Circassians’ reputation for beauty. As numerous videos on the internet confirm, Circassian dancers typically hold their bodies in a strikingly upright manner. John Longwort noted the same characteristic in everyday life while sojourning in the region in the early 1800s. As he wrote of one local woman, “She was tall and well, though slightly, shaped, and held herself, like all Circassians, men or women, very erect” (p. 59).

As the Circassians seek to maintain their identity and bring their situation to global notice, the traditional Circassian modes of dance and dress are increasingly cultivated and disseminated on the internet. Graphic artists are also developing visually arresting Circassian themes and motifs. It will be interesting to see whether the Circassian cause and style re-enter the Western consciousness as the Sochi Olympics approach.

King, Charles. The Ghosts of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2008. Pp. 138-140.

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2004

Lewis, Reina. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem. I. B, Taurus, 2004

Natho,  Kadir. Circassian History. Xlibris,  2010

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Mayotte: The EU’s—and France’s—Troubled New Exclave

Modified Wikipedia map of France with its Overseas DepartmentsOn March 31, 2011, the European Union expanded, adding 144 square miles (374 km2) and almost 200,000 persons. The population of this new UE territory is almost entirely Muslim (97 per cent). It is also, by European standards, quite poor, with a nominal per capita GDP of only US $6,500. Oddly, the land in question is not even physically located in Europe, situated instead thousands of miles to the south. But despite these unusual features, the European Union’s most recent addition received little mention in the international media. Most outlets ignored it altogether.

Modified Wikipedia World Map of France The land in question is Mayotte, an island group in the Comoros Archipelago, located off the East African coast northwest of Madagascar. Mayotte joined the EU as a matter of course when it became an overseas department (département d’outre-mer, or DOM) of France, joining the roster with French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion. Mayotte had previously been under the sovereignty of France, but as a quasi-colonial dependency rather than an integral portion of the country. Today it is as much part of France as Hawaii is part of the US.

Map of the Comoros and MayotteUntil 1975, France controlled the entire Comoros Archipelago as a colonial dependency. In a 1974 referendum, the inhabitants of the other islands voted for independence, but those of Mayotte elected to stay under French rule. The newly independent State of Comoros (as it was then officially called) contested the maneuver, arguing its case in the United Nations. In 1976 the UN Security Council voted in favor of the Comorian claim, but France vetoed the motion. For the next two decades, the UN continued to apply pressure for decolonization. The people of Mayotte resisted such demands, their identification with France only increasing as economic and political conditions deteriorated in independent Comoros (as will be discussed in the next GeoCurrents post). Eventually, they sought full union with the metropolitan state. In a 2009 referendum, “95.5 per cent voted in favour of changing the island’s status from a French ‘overseas community’ to become France’s 101st département.” Neighboring states were not pleased.  The African Union opposed the change, while the vice president of the Comoros said that the vote was tantamount to “a declaration of war.”

In voting to join France, the people of Mayotte expected to reap economic benefits while acknowledging that they would have to reform their own legal and social frameworks. Whereas Islamic law had previously been informally used for family matters, French law will now have to be instituted; polygamy will no longer be allowed, and girls will no longer be allowed to marry at age fifteen, having to wait until they reach eighteen years of age. Language is another issue: according to the BBC, only about half of the island’s residents can read or write French. Demographic issues present yet another challenge for integration into the French Republic. According to a March, 2011 Deutsche Welle article:

Every third inhabitant of Mayotte is either a foreigner or a refugee, and new immigrants arrive every day. Every year, the island expels some 24,000 illegal immigrants, one reason why France has sent hundreds of extra police to Mayotte.

 Mayotte attracts numerous immigrants and refugees due to the profound economic advantage that it enjoys over the Comoros proper and other near-by countries. Many Mahorans (as residents of Mayotte are called) expected that such disparities would expand significantly and immediately with ascension to France. Thus far, their expectations for an economic boost have not been met, generating mounting frustration. In late September 2011, protests and rioting broke on Mayotte, focused on the rising cost of living and more specifically on the large profit margins enjoyed by big French retail chains. Police responded by using tear gas grenades and “flash-balls,” which likely contributed to the death of one demonstrator. In mid-October, French Secretary of State for Overseas Territories Marie-Luce Penchard visited the island, hoping to quell tensions. Her arrival coincided with an intensification of the disturbance, with looters ransacking a major supermarket. Penchard subsequently “promised to probe profit margins enjoyed by large retailers” and to “make sure that measures are taken and, if necessary, sanctions handed down.” Due to the unrest, France’s recent Socialist Party primary election could not be held on Mayotte.

In explaining the situation in Mayotte to my students, I noticed more than a few dumbfounded expressions. Why, I was asked, would France want to take on such a burden? Pour la gloire!” I was tempted to respond, but I could not come up with a satisfying answer. Evidently, some people in France are asking the same question, if the comment thread in a recent Rue 89 article is any indication. As one commentator asked:

A question all the same: what interests has our government encouraged to integrate this island? Nothing in their history, Muslim and clannish morals, or local political or economic context moves them closer to us except to ostracize the foreigner who robs them. This department will remain a weight on our country. So who will respond to this question: why was this loaded referendum proposed?*

 Several Rue 89 responders cited “geostrategic advantage,” the only answer that made much sense.

*”Une question tout de même : quels intérêts notre gouvernement a-t-il favorisés pour intéger cette île . Rien dans leur histoire , moeurs musulmanes et claniques , contexte politique et économique voisin… , ne les rapproche de nous sauf pour ostraciser l’étranger qui les vole . Ce département restera un poids pour notre pays. Donc qui répondra à cette question : pourquoi avoir proposé ce référendum pipé ?”

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for help with this post.)

 

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Oil and Arabic-Speakers in Iran’s Troubled Southwest

Map of Iran's Major Oil Fields and Its Arabic-speaking populationIf Saudi Arabia faces a restive Shia minority in its main oil-producing area (see GeoCurrents Oct. 14, 2011), Iran has a similar challenge. Its foremost oil-producing zone—the southwestern province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz in Arabic)—is the heart of Iran’s dissatisfied Arabic-speaking minority. Fear of unrest in Khuzestan looms large in Iranian security deliberations. Not only does the region suffer pervasive ethnic tension, but its physical geography makes it vulnerable to invasion. As the maps indicate, most of Khuzestan lies in the flat plains of the greater Tigris-Euphrates Valley, cut off from the Iranian heartland by the rugged Zagros Mountains.

The vulnerability of Khuzestan, along with its ample oil and disgruntled populace, enticed Saddam Hussein to invade the region in 1980, initiating the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Hussein proclaimed himself the liberator of the Iranian Arabs, hoping they would rally to his cause. The invasion backfired. Not only did Khuzestan’s Persian population remain loyal to Iran, but so did most of its Arabs. As Shiites, most of Iran’s Arabic-speakers saw little to be gained from Saddam Hussein’s anti-Shia regime. The resulting war devastated the province, where many of its most ferocious battles were fought. As summarized by Wikipedia, “many of [Khuzestan’s] famous nakhlestans (palm groves) were annihilated, cities were destroyed, historical sites were demolished, and nearly half the province went under the boots of Saddam’s invading army. This created a mass exodus into other provinces …”

Iran Physical Geography and Khuzestan MapAlthough Khuzestan’s Arabs remained loyal to Iran in the 1980s, evidence indicates that few are currently pleased with Iranian rule. Major demonstrations and rioting broke out in 2005; all were firmly suppressed. Iranian Arabs complain of discrimination and lack of linguistic and cultural rights. The community is relatively poor overall, despite inhabiting the most economically productive part of the country. Drug addiction is widespread and Khuzestan is reputed to be one of the main gateways for the importation of heroin and other narcotics into Iran. A recent report claims the city of Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, is the most polluted urban area in the world. Iran has responded by investing in the province, inaugurating “a number of giant petrochemical projects in Khuzestan” in early 2011. Official Iranian news outlets, however, continue to caution the country about the potential dangers of Arab separatism. On October 7, 2011, PressTV warned its viewers that “The Khalgh-e Arab group, who want Khuzestan province separated from Iran, [get their] doctrine from Iraq’s Baath Party. These groups have blown up several public places in Iran’s southern region, killing scores of people.”

Arab-Iranian activists, for their part, deny that Khalq-e Arab even exists, claiming that the Iranian state uses the phantom organization as an excuse to crush dissent. According to the Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network, the Iranian government has been busy “concocting conspiracy theories” linking unrest in the region with US and British effort to destabilize the country. The same source further claims that Iranian news agencies have also been pushing the line that “militant Wahhabi (Sunni fundamentalist) groups were being supported by Gulf states to foment separatist sentiment in the oil-rich region that forms the Ahwazi Arab homeland.” The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network itself maintains that the oppositional movement of Iranian Arabs is peaceful and above-board:

  Ethnic Ahwazi Arabs are demanding collective rights, including the redistribution of oil revenues, an end to forced displacement, equal labour  rights, environmental protection and cultural freedom. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network supports non-violent direct action as well as the use of   international lobbying and awareness-raising to assert the collective rights of  this persecuted ethnic group.

            Other Arab-Iranian websites strike a less accommodating tone. The National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, for example, supports the full independence of the province, and seems to advocate revolutionary practices. It is difficult for someone who does not read Arabic, however, to determine the group’s actual agenda, as the prose on its English-language website is delightfully mangled:

  However, in the name of Islam apparently, Islamic republic and its interior,  truthfully, and the way in practice on the ground will translate legacy Persian Khosrawi authoritarian racially hateful everything is not set in all walks of  life, starting of human rights through the rights of peoples bonded who under  the yoke occupation and colonialism Persian racial and ending the  destruction of those nationalities oppressed in the case of claiming their  legitimacy and the historical.

            Incorrect Map of Sunni/Shia Distribution in the Middle EastNot surprisingly, even the most basic demographic information on the Iranian Arabs is disputed. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network claims that around four million Arabs live in Khuzestan alone, whereas the Wikipedia pegs Iran’s entire Arabic-speaking population at something between 778,000 and 2,336,000. By most accounts, Khuzestan’s rural population is mostly Arab, whereas the urban population is mixed, with Persians predominating.  The religious disposition of the Ahwazi community is also unclear. Most sources claim that “most” Iranian Arabs are Shiites, which certainly makes sense. Some unspecified proportion of the community, however, follows Sunni Islam, which would greatly intensify its hostility toward the Iranian state. Surprisingly, the most widespread map of Islam on the internet portrays Khuzestan as mostly Sunni, which is almost certainly incorrect.

The situation in Khuzestan also figures in discussions of US–Iranian relations, especially in regard to the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A recent article in the left-leaning New American Media website, for example, speculates that Iran might be tempted to move military forces into southern Iraq to safeguard its own oil reserves; in the face of any such advance, the author continues, “Washington would have little alternative to an invasion of Khuzestan, ostensibly aimed at halting Iranian incursions…” This scenario seems highly unlikely, but the potential for serious, near-term conflict in the province does seem real.

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Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand

Maps of Thailand’s 2007 legislative election clearly show that the pro-Thaksin redshirt movement currently threatening the government has regional as well as economic foundations. In Electoral District 3, which covers much of the northeastern Isan region, the Thaksin-affiliated PPP party received over 66 percent of the vote, while the anti-Thaksim Democrat party received less than 14 percent; in Electoral District 8, which covers southern Thailand, the PPP received only 8 percent of the vote, while the Democrats received almost 80 percent. Although southern Thailand is wealthier than the Isan region, it is largely agricultural and not particularly prosperous. The per capita GDP of Surat Thani, the largest province of the south, is less than half that of Thailand as a whole – and Surat Thani it is the second richest of the south’s 14 provinces.

Religion may have something to do with the south’s antipathy to the redshirts. Southern Thailand has a substantial Muslim population, and the Thaksin regime was noted for its harsh military approach to the long-simmering Islamic insurgency of the far south. But most of southern Thailand is actually dominated by Thai-speaking Buddhists; the Malay-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the four southernmost provinces. Intriguingly, it was the Buddhist majority provinces of Electoral District 8 that voted most strongly for the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party.

Thailand’s Buddhist-Muslim divide may be playing into the current struggle in a different manner. Although Islam in Thailand is commonly associated with the Malay-speaking areas of the extreme south, a recent report issued by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that more than 80 percent of the country’s Muslims live elsewhere. Many are Thai-speakers residing in the greater Bangkok area. Although official statistics maintain that fewer that five percent of Thailand’s people practice Islam, some observers think that the actual figure is much higher. Thai-speaking Muslims tend to be hostile to the redshirt movement, and correspondingly supportive of the ruling Democrat Party.

A recent report in the ethnic news site New America Media by Japanese investigative journalist Yoichi Shimatsu highlights a possible religio-economic dimension of the present conflict. Thailand’s Democrat Party, Shimatsu argues, “is increasingly reliant … on the ‘river Muslims’ of Bangkok,” a group that purportedly dominates informal commerce and smuggling along central Thailand’s numerous waterways. Shimatsu claims that these ethnic economic networks were targeted by former Prime Minister Thaksin as part of his “war on drugs” campaign. As a result, according to his report, the so-called River Muslims are now mobilizing against the Thaksin-inspired redshirt movement. Shimatsu warns that such a dynamic could provoke a massive Buddhist backlash: “Unless the elite yields its untenable privileges and accepts a secular democracy, populist Buddhist militancy will radically alter the political and demographic landscape. The Land of Smiles could soon become a vale of tears.”

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Language, Regionalism, and Political Protest in Thailand

“If the people of the NE want their independence from Thailand, I say go ahead. Go back to Laos, where your ancestors came from, and enjoy the life there.”

— “Pappa,” writing in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010.

“Pappa, you may want to do some more research about history of Thailand before you tell the people in Isaan to go back to Laos. The Siamese themselves are descendants of the Lao people that became mixed with the native Khmer and Mon of Southern Thailand.”

— “Mustang 67,” responding in the Bangkok Post discussion board, April 25, 2010

The massive protests currently threatening the government of Thailand are generally described in the U.S. press in terms of class dynamics. The red-shirt demonstrators, followers of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are said to represent Thailand’s peasantry. Poor and politically marginalized farmers had benefitted from the economic and social security initiatives of the populist billionaire PM, and continue to rally fiercely to his cause. The yellow-shirt counter-protestors, in contrast, are portrayed as well-off members of the urban establishment, keen to maintain order and wary of any popular surge.

While such analysis captures much of what is significant in the current struggle, it misses a crucial geographical component. Most red-shirts hail from northern and especially northeastern Thailand. As a recent Bangkok Post article put it, “when Thais from other regions talk about Isan [i.e. northeastern] people, they dismiss them as ‘red all over’ – meaning Isan people are strong supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Puea Thai Party.”

The Isan region is largely coterminous with the Khorat Plateau of northeastern Thailand, a low-lying sandstone platform noted for its thin and acidic soils, wet-season floods, and dry-season droughts. Considering its meager environment, Isan is densely settled; its twenty million people form roughly a third of Thailand’s population. Not surprisingly, it is the country’s poorest region. Lacking local opportunity, northeasterners often seek employment in prosperous central Thailand. Men typically work in construction; northeastern women are disproportionally represented in the sex business of Bangkok and Pattaya.

The idea that the redshirts should “go back to Laos” is rooted in the fact that the language of Isan is a dialect of Lao. Diet, music, and assorted cultural practices further link the people of Isan to neighboring Laos. Standard Thai-speakers from the core area of Thailand often look down on Lao culture as rustic and inadequately refined. The Isan people, proud of their own history, deeply resent such attitudes. Thailand’s Lao are hardly a minor outlier. Remarkably, the twenty million Lao-speakers in Thailand outnumber their counterparts in Laos four to one.

Lao and Standard Thai (which was once called Siamese) are themselves closely related languages of the Tai family, which originated in what is now Guangxi in southern China. Tai-speakers started moving into Southeast Asia roughly a thousand years ago, establishing small states and inter-marrying with – and borrowing culture from – local Khmer (Cambodian) and Mon peoples. By the 1400s, three sizable kingdoms had emerged: Ayutthaya (Siam) in what is now central Thailand, Lanna (Chiang Mai) in what is now northern Thailand, and Lan Xang (or Lan Sang) ranging from the Khorat Plateau into present-day Laos. All three were of mixed ethnicity, but they nurtured local dialects of Tai that eventually developed into three distinct languages. Siam, hooked into global trade networks, eventually grew strong enough to reduce Lanna and Lan Xang to vassalage. Unsuccessful Lao rebellions against intensifying Siamese rule in the early 1800s resulted in the forced relocation of Lao-speaking peasants into the western Khorat Plateau, further reinforcing the Lao majority in the area.

The kingdom of Siam came under pressure from French imperialism in the late 1800s. In response, Siamese monarchs modernized aggressively while playing the British off against the French. In 1893 and 1904, however, they were forced to cede lands in their northeastern periphery to France—the core of contemporary Laos. The French government wanted to annex the Khorat Plateau, but was unable to do so when Britain supported the Siamese cause. But Britain extracted a price: indirect British rule over a slice of Siamese territory on the Malay Peninsula.

In 1939, Siam’s fascist-influenced government renamed the country “Thailand” to help forge its different Tai-speaking peoples into a single nation. A concerted “Thaification” program followed, spreading Standard Thai (Siamese) through schools and government, discouraging the use of the Lanna and Lao scripts, and inculcating reverence for the Thai monarchy. The process was somewhat successful, as the people of northern and northeastern Thailand came to generally consider themselves members of the Thai nation. Certainly there is scant desire among the people of Isan to separate from Thailand and join Laos, a repressive county far more impoverished than the Khorat Plateau.

But if the people of northern and northeastern Thailand became Thai in the larger national sense, they did not thereby become Thai in the narrower cultural sense. The people of the area that was once Lan Xang not only maintain their cultural differentiation (see language map above), they also remain opposed to the country’s political establishment, based in central Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra, a native son of Chiang Mai in the north, championed the non-Siamese Thai, and they have rallied to his cause—hence the strong correlation of language, history (political status in 1540), and electoral behavior shown in the maps above.

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Ethnic Rioting in Suriname

Suriname, Population Density

In late December 2009, anti-Brazilian rioting broke out in the town of Albina in northeastern Suriname after a Brazilian man allegedly stabbed and killed a local resident. The ethnic violence grew so intensive that the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was forced to send in two aircraft to airlift its citizens from the riot-scarred town.

The recent ethnic violence in Suriname stems in part from the country’s low population density and abundant natural resources, which have attracted numerous migrants from neighboring Brazil.Over the past decade or so, as many as 40,000 Brazilians have moved to Suriname, a country with fewer than half a million citizens. Many if not most Brazilians in Suriname work as small-scale gold miners. Gold mining in the region is typically environmentally destructive and it often results in clashes between miners and indigenous peoples. Mining areas in northern Brazil are also noted for their generally lawless conditions. At the national level, political leaders in both Suriname and neighboring Guyana have long feared that their countries risk becoming economic adjuncts of their vastly larger southern neighbor.

Albina sits near the border of the even more sparsely populated territory of French Guiana, which holds only some 221,000 people in its 32,000 square miles (an area roughly the size of Ireland). French Guiana has also attracted Brazilian immigrants in recent years, but it does not have the same concerns about losing its national identity – largely because it does not have one. French Guiana is not, as its common name might imply, a mere “territory” of France. It is rather a French department, as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States (as such, it is more properly referred to not as “French Guiana” but rather as Guyane, its official name). France is thus, in small part, a South American country, just as the European Union extends well beyond Europe’s boundaries to include this sizable chunk of the Western Hemisphere.France is also a Caribbean country and an Indian Ocean country, but that is a matter for a later posting.

(Wikipedia Map below)

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