Southeast Asia

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

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Customizable Maps of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia

Provinces of Iran MapToday’s GeoCurrents post provides free customizable maps of the provinces of Iran, the provinces of Indonesia, the states of Malaysia, and the regions of Saudi Arabia. An additional map shows the major cities of Iran as well as the country’s provinces. These maps are constructed with simple presentation software, available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats. To obtain these customizable maps, simply click at the links at the bottom of the post.


I hope to provide the remainder of the GeoCurrents customizable maps next week.

Regions of Saudi Arabia MapProvinces of Indonesia MapStates of Malaysia MapProvinces and Cities of Iran MapCustomizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

Customizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

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Population History, Population Density, and Cultural Values in the Philippines


Philippines Fertility Rate ChartWith 103 million inhabitants, the Philippines now ranks 12th on the list of countries by population. Owing to its moderately elevated birthrate, its population is still expanding at a brisk rate, outpacing those of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Steady population growth has been a feature of the country for some time. In 1903, the archipelago held fewer than eight million people, by 1940 its population had doubled, and by 1990 it had reached 60 million.



Philippines Popluation Density 1939 MapThe distribution of the inhabitants of the Philippine has historically been decidedly uneven. Some areas have been thickly settled for centuries, but vast expanses long remained open. As can be seen in the map posted to the left, in 1939 relatively few people lived in Mindoro, Palawan, northern Luzon (with the exception of the narrow Ilocos Coast of the northwest), and Mindanao (with the exception of the north-central coast). Central Luzon and the central Visayas islands (Cebu, especially) were densely populated. Philippines Religion 1890 MapThese same patterns are reflected in the map of religion from the late Spanish period. As can be seen, in the late 1800s most of northern Luzon, Mindoro, Palawan, and even Mindanao were inhabited primarily by animist tribal populations, most of which were small in numbers (although not all, see below).


Luzon Central Plain MapSome of the patterns seen on the 1939 Philippine population map were of long-standing, but others had emerged more recently. The island of Mindoro, for example, had been a lightly settled land since the early Spanish period, although prior to that it had been an important trading hub; evidently, struggles between the Spaniards and the Muslims of the south resulted in partial depopulation followed by the spread of malaria. The Central Plain of Luzon, now the agricultural heartland of the country, tells a different tale. Up to the mid and late 1800s, its central region was Ilocano Migrations Mapstill heavily forested. As Marshal McLennan’s maps show, only its southern and northern margins were settled in 1837 by farming communities, those of the Kapampangan and Pangasinan peoples respectively. Starting at about that time, however, a major stream of migrants from the densely populated Ilocos Coast began to flow southward into the Central Plain. Somewhat later, Tagalog-speaking people began to move north into the same belt of fertile lowlands. By the mid-20th century, the formerly peripheral central zone of the Central Plain had been added to the core region of the Philippines.

Philippines Internal Migration MapThe Central Plain of Luzon was by no means the only region of the Philippines to see large-scale migrations in the early 1900s. Ilocanos from northwestern Luzon were also moving into the Cagayan Valley of northeastern Luzon and other places as well, including Hawaii and California (the vast majority of Filipino migrants to the United States in the first half of the 20th century were from the Ilocos region). Other densely settled areas, such Cebu, Bohol, and southeastern Panay in the Visayas Island, also sent out large numbers of migrants, most of whom settled in Mindanao. A seemingly odd feature on Spencer and Wernstedt’s map of internal Philippine migration from 1948 to 1960 is the high level of emigration from Samar in the eastern Visayas, as Samar has never been a densely populated island. But it was—and is—a very poor place, another factor that often encourages people to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Philippines Popluation Density MapOwing to this long history of internal migration, the population distribution of the Philippines has become somewhat more even. Mindanao is no longer a frontier zone, and is now moderately populated by Philippine standards. To be sure, Palawan, Mindoro, and much of the Cordillera of northern Luzon still have relatively few inhabitants, but they also lack extensive lowlands that attract agricultural settlers. Central Luzon, on the other hand, has intensified its position as the demographic core of the country, a process closely associated with the explosive growth metro Manila, which now counts a population of almost 12 million. Today, the focus of Filipino migration is foreign rather than internal. An estimated 10.2 million persons born in the Philippines currently live abroad, representing around 10 percent of the country’s population.


Philippines Poplulation Growth MapOn the population density map of 2010 (above), the Ilocos Coast of northwestern Luzon appears as a zone of low to moderate population density. This standing seems surprising, as this area was noted for its dense settlement dating back to the time of the Spanish conquest in the late 1500s. The mapping here is a little bit deceiving, however, as the three provinces of the region all include rugged highlands as well as the narrow coastal plain. But it is true that the Ilocos Coast is no longer very demographically distinctive. Many Ilocanos, as we have seen, settled elsewhere, and in their homeland their fertility rate dropped, doing so sooner than almost all other areas of the country. As a result, the Ilocos region has seen relatively little population growth in recent decades.

In the Philippines, Ilocanos have a reputation for being hard working, thrifty, and somewhat stingy. As a result of this stereotype, they have been occasionally deemed the “Yankees of the Philippines.” To the extent that this common view is is accurate, the industriousness and frugality of the Ilocanos can be partially explained by the powerful theory of the Danish economist Ester Bosurup (1910-1999). In her classic anti-Malthusian work, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, Boserup argued that population pressure, which the Ilocanos long faced, forces agricultural communities to engage in ever more frequent and intensive cropping cycles. As this process generates diminishing returns over time, people living under such conditions are forced to develop a strong work ethic. Although Boserup framed her theory in cultural terms, a number of geneticists now claim that there is a substantial genetic component to this process as well.* This notion is, of course, extraordinarily controversial, and I remain unconvinced although open-minded. But I am convinced that Boserup figured out one of the most important dynamics of human history, and I also think that she should occupy a much more prominent position in intellectual history than she does.

In 2012, The Inquirer, a major Philippine newspaper, reported on a modest test of the supposed frugality of the Ilocanos based on an examination of savings rates by region in the Philippines. As the report concluded:

Finally, Ilocanos have statistical proof to show that their detractors are wrong in calling them the most tightfisted Filipinos. A study by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) shows that Ilocanos now rank only sixth among the prolific savers in the country’s 17 regions.

Ifugao Rice TerracesIntriguingly, the same study found that the Cagayan region of northeastern Luzon—populated almost entirely by Ilocanos—ranks as the second thriftiest region of the Philippines. The most savings-oriented Filipinos by a wide margin, however, are the highlanders of the Cordillera of Northern Luzon. The Inquirer article notes that most people of this region also speak Ilocano, but in actuality they do so as their second (or third, or fourth) language, and they certainly do not belong to the Ilocano ethnic group. But we can again turn to Boserup to gain insight on this finding. The ancestors of most Cordilleran groups migrated out of the lowlands into the highlands in order to escape Spanish taxes and to continue to worship their ancestors and practice their indigenous religion. There they had to undertake herculean labors to wrest a living from the rugged landscape, constructing some of the world’s most impressive agricultural terraces in the process. The Cordilleran people, in general, had to develop a strong work ethic to survive under such circumstances.

Owing in part to the highlanders’ predilection for intensive labor, and in part to their own prejudice against Hispanicized cultures, American administrators in the Philippines in the early 1900s often favored the mountaineers over the more civilized Filipino lowlanders. This attitude is explored by the historian Frank Jenista in his 1987 book White Apos: American Governors on the Cordillera Central. As Jenista frames the issue in his preface:

The purpose of this study is to examine the Philippine experience, the fascinating but hitherto untold story of the interaction between the American colonial authorities and the independent headhunting, terrace-building people of Luzon’s Gran Cordillera Central…. It focuses primarily on the province of Ifugao, for the American presence there was longest and best remembered. Despite the great cultural differences between the turn-of-the-century Ifugaos and Americans, the oral accounts which make up this story portray for us an intriguing relationship—a mutually satisfactory symbiosis due in large measure to an unexpected congruence of important cultural values…

*For an overview, see Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.



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The Geography of Poverty and Social Development in the Philippines

As previously promised, we now turn to depictions of the Philippines made with the province-level maps of the country that are available for download on this website. Today’s post looks at poverty and the Human Development Index, whereas the forthcoming one will examine population patterns and trends.

Philippines Poverty MapThe first map, that of the incidence of poverty as defined by the Philippine government, shows several clear spatial patterns. The first is the relative lack of poverty in the greater Manila Bay region of central Luzon. The standing of this area may seem surprising, as the densely populated Manila metro urban area is characterized by grim and extensive slums and squatter communities. But as is often the case, rural poverty in the Philippines tends to be more widespread and extreme than that of the large cities, which is one of the main reasons why people continue to move to crowded urban areas. The incidence of poverty is also markedly low in Benguet province in the southern portion of the highlands of northern Luzon. Benguet is home to Baguio City, a resort area and major educational center. Many of the indigenous people of the province, moreover, are noted for their devotion to commercial vegetable farming, a profitable but environmentally damaging enterprise that I analyzed in some detail in my first book, Wagering the Land.

As the map indicates, poverty is pronounced in several widely scattered parts of the Philippines. Overall, the poorest part of the Philippines is the Muslim-majority area in the southwest, which I have therefore outlined in red. But several non-Muslim provinces on Mindanao also have high poverty rates, and in general terms the island is much poorer than Luzon. Some of the historically tribal areas of the highlands of northern Luzon are also quite poor, quite in contrast to neighboring Benguet. In the central Philippines, Samar (particularly eastern Samar), eastern Negros, and Masbate have high rates of poverty, a deeply entrenched pattern of Philippine economic geography. The Philippine government recently announced that poverty in Samar and elsewhere in the eastern Visayas has intensified in recent years, a trend linked to the tropical cyclones that have devastated this vulnerable area.

Philippines HDI MapThe map of the Human Development Index, which takes into account issues of health, longevity, and education as well those of narrower economic scope, is similar but by no means identical to the map of poverty. Here the greater Manila region again scores high. The top-ranking provinces are Manila itself and Benguet, whose identical scores of .718 are in the same general league of those of Malaysia, Russia, and Mexico. Northern Luzon in general sores high on the HDI map, with the exception of the northern provinces of the highland belt. Relatively high scores are also found in Cebu, the Iloilo area of Panay, and Misamis Oriental in northern Mindanao. According to this map, the southern “inland seas” region of the central Philippines is doing better in terms of human development than the northern “inland seas” region. The Muslim region again comes at the Philippines Inland Seas Mapbottom of the chart, with the figures for Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Maguindanao falling in the same general category as those of Afghanistan, Malawi, and Yemen.


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Chavacano: A Spanish-Based Creole Language of the Philippines

Language FamiliesLanguage-family maps, like the one posted here, generally show Austronesian languages blanketing the entire Philippine archipelago. But such a depiction is not accurate, as the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants of the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula on the island of Mindanao is definitely not Austronesian. Perhaps as many as 700,000 people here speak Chavacano (alternatively, Zamboangueño or Chabacano* de Zamboanga), a Spanish-based creole language that has been influenced by a number of Philippine languages. Zamboangueño speakers are, moreover, scattered in minority communities across much of the southwestern Philippines and even into northeastern Borneo (in the Malaysian state of Sabah).

Language Families of the Philippines MapOther Chavacano dialects are found elsewhere in the Philippines, counting several hundred thousand speakers among them. The most important of these is Caviteño (or Chabacano de Cavite), found in the city of Cavite on Manila Bay, near the capital of the Philippines. Before World War II, Cavacano also dominated an important neighborhood in Manila itself, but this dialect, Ermiteño (named after the Ermita district), is apparently extinct.



Chavacano Language MapChavacano is interesting from both linguistic and historical-geographical perspectives. To begin with, it is widely considered to be one of the world’s oldest creole tongues, with a history dating back some 400 years. It is clearly based on Spanish, which is quite a rarity; although many creole language are Portuguese-based and many have been influenced by Spanish, the only other Spanish-based creole tongue is Palenquero, spoken by only a few thousand persons in a small area of Colombia. (See John McWhorter’s The Missing Spanish Creoles for an extended exploration of this topic.) The presence of words borrowed from Nahuatl indicate that Chavacano derives more from Mexican Spanish than from pure Castilian. Different dialects of the language show distinctive borrowing patterns from various Philippine languages. Other languages have contributed vocabulary elements as well. In the Chavacano dialects of southeastern Mindanao (Davao), the influence of Chinese and Japanese is marked, giving rise to “two sub-dialects, namely Castellano Abakay Chino and Castellano Abakay Japón.”

As mentioned above, one Chavacano dialect is extinct, and others may be diminishing. (Not surprisingly, the number of speakers and the current status of the different dialects is hotly disputed.) But Chabacano de Zamboanga is a healthy language, forming both the main mother tongue and the lingua franca of Zamboanga, the sixth largest city in the Philippines, with more than 800,000 residents. Efforts are being made to ensure the health of the Cavacano media. A recent article in the Philippine Inquirer, for example, highlights a Chavavano radio drama produced locally by a Canadian Catholic priest. As Christopher Sundita, writing a comment on a 2011 Language Hat post, claims:

[T]he Zamboanga variety is the healthiest variety of Chavacano. It has experienced exponential growth since the 1940s with Keith Whinnom (1957) reporting 1,300 speakers to the 2000 Census reporting around 380,000 (with the usual caveats). There is ample media in Zamboanga Chavacano and its local prestige ensures its survival. The future doesn’t look too great for the Cavite & Ternate varieties. And Ermita Chavacano is already gone, if its sole speaker hasn’t passed away yet.


The linguist John M. Lipski goes further than Sundita, dismissing the low estimate of Whinnon. He argues strongly against:

[T]he mistaken notion among creolists (beginning with Whinnom 1956) that the largest Chabacano-speaking population, that of Zamboanga City, is small and moribund, when in fact it is a thriving first- and second-language speech community of perhaps half a million speakers. Frake (1971) was the first to provide more accurate information on Zamboangueño, but to this day many scholars in the Philippines and abroad are unaware of the true strength of the Zamboanga Chabacano community.


The geographical distribution of Chavacano sheds light on the distinctive historical geography of the Philippines. Although Spain ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years, Spaniards never settled in large numbers and did not seek to impose their language on people of the archipelago. The two most important places of Chavacano development were of particular military significance to Spain, and thus housed many soldiers and other Spanish-speaking personnel. One of these was Cavite, located on Manila Bay, which housed the all-important shipyard (the Astillero de Rivera) in which most of the storied Manila galleons, which sailed annually to Acapulco Mexico, were constructed. After the galleon trade was discontinued in 1815, the shipyard was transformed into the Spanish Arsenal.

Zamboanga, quite in contrast to Cavite, was situated at the far extremity of the Spanish imperial possessions in the Philippines. But that gave it great significance in the never-ending war between the Spanish Empire and the Muslim sultanates of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Fort Pilar in Zamboanga long served as the bulwark of Spanish power in the region, albeit an insecure one that demanded constant reinforcement. Mexican soldiers, masons and other workers from Cavite, and laborers from the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines rubbed shoulders in the fort and adjoining town. In due time, the creole language of Chabacano de Zamboanga emerged, allowing these disparate groups to easily communicate with each other.


Philippine Languages MapThe map that I constructed to illustrate this post shows not merely the two main area of the Chavacano language in Zamboanga and Cavite, but also the main divisions of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. Several of these groupings are, however, controversial, particularly when it comes to the Batanic languages of the extreme north. But there is wide consensus that virtually all languages of the archipelago belong to the Philippine sub-family, a linguistic group that extends into a small slice of northeastern Borneo in Malaysia and a significantly larger swath of northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. The languages in this family are relatively closely related to each other, leading some scholars to suggest that they all derived from a language that spread long after the original Austronesian settlers reached the archipelago. As to Wikipedia puts it, “Although the Philippines is near the center of Austronesian expansion from Formosa, there is little linguistic diversity among the approximately 150 Philippine languages, suggesting that earlier diversity has been erased by the spread of the ancestor of the modern Philippine languages.”


Langauges of the Philippines Diagram MapFinally, I have posted an interesting hybrid map-diagram of the languages of the Philippines made by, “a physicist who is in dire need of a stress reliever.” I would be interested in comments on this map from professional linguists.

* Controversies arise over the use of “Chabacano” versus “Chavacano.” As the author of one article notes, “In Zamboanga City, the old-timers will be offended if you tell them that their language is chabacano instead of chavacano. To the new generation the words chabacano and chavacano are interchangeable.” The Wikipedia explains the origin of the word in this manner:

Chavacano or Chabacano originated from the Spanish word chabacano which literally means “poor taste”, “vulgar”, “common”, “of low quality”, or “coarse”. During the Spanish colonial period, it was called by the Spanish-speaking population as the “lenguaje de la calle“, “lenguaje de parian” (language of the street), or “lenguaje de cocina” (kitchen Spanish to refer to the Chabacano spoken by Chinese-Filipinos of Manila, particularly in Ermita) to distinguish it from the Spanish language spoken by the peninsulares, insulares, mestizos, or the elite class called the ilustrados. This common name has evolved into a word of its own in different spellings with no negative connotation, but to simply mean as the name of the language with that distinct Spanish flavour. However, most of its earlier speakers were born of mixed parentage – Hispanized urban natives, Chinese migrants and Spanish or Latin American soldiers and civil servants during the Spanish colonial period.


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Maritime Linkages in the Linguistic Geography of the Philippines

A crucial if often overlooked issue in world historical geography is whether seas and other waterways serve to separate or to unite human communities found on opposing shores. The answer, of course, is “it depends”: it depends on the distances entailed, the physical characteristics of the seas (and lands) in question, the maritime technology and orientation of the people involved, and so on. In some circumstances, even relatively narrow waters can form profound barriers, whereas in others seas provide easy linkages to distant lands.


Indian Ocean MapPerhaps the best example of waterways forming barriers comes from the western Indian Ocean. Madagascar and especially the Comoros are not particularly far from eastern Africa, the probable homeland of humankind, yet they were not peopled until the Common Era (the time period staring at the year zero)—and when Madagascar was settled it was initially by way Southeast Asia, not Africa. The fertile and sizable Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues), were not discovered until much later and were not inhabited until the modern era.





Largest Philippines Islands MapThe best example of seas connecting opposing shores is probably the Philippines, a quintessentially archipelagic country composed of more than 7,000 islands. The Austronesian migrants who came from Taiwan to the Philippines some 4,000 years ago were superb sailors with a well-developed maritime technology, and in the archipelago they found rich and inviting Central Philippines Google Earthseas sprinkled with a profusion of islands. In this environment, waterways tended to link peoples found on the opposing shores, whereas the mountainous interiors of the larger islands tended to form barriers. It is not coincidental that the smallest administrative division of the Philippines is the “barangay,” a term that originally meant “village” but is actually derived from “balangay,” an indigenous watercraft.

Maritime Linkages Philippine Languages MapThe fact that seas have historically connected, whereas uplands have tended to divide, the human communities of the Philippines is best illustrated by a language map of the country. One can see such patterns on any such map of the country, but one does have to look closely to perceive them. To clarify the situation, I have made a new linguistic map of the archipelago that highlights such maritime connections. This map is based on several sources, relying heavily on language maps published in Wikipedia and Ethnologue. Note that I have mapped both individual languages and minor language families and dialect clusters, doing so in order to highlight maritime linkages. I have, however, left out some minor languages that have clear maritime geographies, such as Asi.



Central Philippines Language MapAs the title of my map specifies, only those Philippine languages that span more than one significant island are considered. As a result, important languages such as Kapampangan and Pangasinan are excluded, as they are essentially confined to one island. But as can be seen, most of the major islands of the country are divided among two or more languages. Even some relatively small islands, such as Tablas, Burias, and Biliran, are linguistically split. In the central Philippines in particular, the central points of distribution for most languages are found at sea, not on land.


Visayan Languages MapThe sea-based distribution of Philippine languages map was probably even more pronounced in earlier historical periods. Three Philippine languages expanded greatly over the course of the 20th century: Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilocano. Before that time, for example, Cebuano was not spoken in southeastern Mindanao, as it was largely confined to lands bordering the Bohol and Camotes seas. The oddly discontinuous distribution of the Southern Visayan languages, shown on my map as wrapping to the south of Mindanao, stems in part from the modern southward expansion of Cebuano. Before the Spanish conquest, languages in this group may have extended across much of northern Mindanao. The reduction of the geographical extent of the Southern Visayan languages may have been related to the eclipse of what had been the important city and state of Butuan in northern Mindanao, a decline that was itself closely linked to the Spanish imperial project. The Butuanon language survives to the present, although just barely. But at one time, Butuan was a very significant place indeed. As described in the Wikipedia:

Pre-Hispanic Philippines MapButuan, before its colonization, was known as the Rajahnate of Butuan, an Indianized kingdom known for its metallurgic industry and sophisticated naval technology. The rajahnate flourished at the 10th and 11th centuries CE, and had an extensive trade network with the Champa Civilization and the Srivijayan Empire.

On 1001 CE, the rajahnate had established contact with the Song Dynasty of China. The annual Song Shih recorded the appearance of a Butuan mission at the Chinese imperial court, and the rajahnate was described as a small Hindu country with a Buddhist monarchy, which had a regular trade connection with Champa. The mission, under a rajah named Kiling, asked for equal status in court protocol with the Champa envoy, but ultimately was denied by the imperial court. However, under the reign of Sri Bata Shaja, the diplomatic equality was eventually granted to the Kingdom, and as a result the diplomatic relations of the two nations reached its peak in the Yuan Dynasty.

(The pre-Hispanic history of the Philippines is vastly more complex and important than what is indicated by most historical accounts. I am pleased that Wikipedia has finally put up a decent pre-Hispanic historical map, posted here with Butuan emphasized.)

Finally, it must also be noted that distinguishing the various languages and dialects of the Philippines is a difficult task, as a great deal of linguistic mixing has long occurred. Consider, for example, the situation in the Bantayan Islands, found to the northwest of Cebu. I have left this small archipelago blank on my language map, following the Ethnologue in classifying its tongue, Bantayanon, as a separate language. The Wikipedia description of Bantayanon is brief but intriguing:

The Bantayan dialect is mostly a mixture of Visayan languages: principally native Cebuano, Hiligaynon (Negros), Waray-Waray (Samar), Masbatenyo (Masbate) and Boholano (Bohol). However it has words it can call its own such as “kakyop, sara, buwas” (yesterday, today, tomorrow).

(Note that in my language map, Boholano is classified as a dialect of Cebuano.)

(UPDATE: Customizable maps of the Philippines are posted here.)



Maritime Linkages in the Linguistic Geography of the Philippines Read More »

The Lost World of the Sago Eaters

Sago PalmThe previous GeoCurrents post mentioned the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices. The Manusuela rely on the sago palm for their dietary staple, as do many other peoples of eastern Indonesia and the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. (I am referring here to the true sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, not the unrelated cycads [genus Cycas] that are unfortunately given the same common name.) Sago is a most unusual foodstuff, as it is derived from the pith found in the center of the palm’s trunk. Sago boles accumulate starch that is used to support massive flowering blooms; after the seeds are formed, the starch content is exhausted and the trees die back, although new shoots later emerge from the roots. To harvest the edible carbohydrates, the trees must be cut and then the pith must be pulverized and thoroughly washed out with water. This process removes the starch from the fibers, allowing it to be collected in relatively pure form.

The process of extracting sago flour is laborious, but overall sago production requires relatively little work. Sago palms either grow wild or under conditions of “semi-domestication” that entail little care, and they produce large quantities of carbohydrates. Sago groves are, in general, more productive than agricultural fields. They also produce a number of other useful products. The dried petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem), for example, are widely used to make walls, ceilings and even rafts. Owing to these advantages, sago is being intensively studied by agricultural researchers who think that it has promise as a potential crop in many humid tropical areas.*

sago palm mapAccording to the conventional view, the use of sago as a staple food is essentially limited to Melanesian people, particularly those of New Guinea but including as well some of the mixed “Papuan” and Austronesian societies of eastern Indonesia. Botanical maps and descriptions paint the same picture. According to a map produced in association with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (reproduced here), the true sago palm was originally limited to New Guinea and a few eastern Indonesian islands, including Seram, Buru, and Halmahera. The same map also indicates that the plant has been introduced to western Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Other maps show the same general pattern. So too does the Wikipedia description, although it claims that the sago palm is also native to Malaysia and possibly the Philippines.


Other lines of evidence, however, indicate that the sago palm has (and had) a much wider distribution and, more importantly, that it once played a much larger role in human sustenance. In a 2013 PLOS One article, for example, a team of scientists claim that sago had once been a staple foodstuff of southern China. As the abstract of the article puts it:

Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.

Although sago apparently no longer grows in southern China, that is not the case in regard to northeastern India. In a number of remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh, sago is still an important source of food, although its use seems to be declining. As reported in a recent paper by Robert Blench:

The only other region [other than New Guinea and eastern Indonesia] where [sago] is exploited extensively is in NE India, where the Puroik [=Sulung] of Arunachal Pradesh still process it (Stonor 1952; Deuri 1982; Sharma 1984; Gangwar &Ramakrishnan 1990). Peoples such as the Milang prepare it to feed to pigs but will no longer eat it for everyday consumption (Modi 2008), although it is acceptable as a famine food (Photo 5). Peoples such as the Idu also remember the processing of sago in the recent past (Bhattacharjee 1983:57).

Puroik people mapThe Puroik people, who are the main remaining sago-eaters of Arunachal Pradesh, are themselves a most intriguing group. To begin with, they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, unlike all the other people of the region, although they have recently adopted some basic forms of cultivation. Their language, moreover, is highly distinctive. It has generally been assumed to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan family, like those of most neighboring groups, but it had been little studied. Current thinking tends to regard it either as an aberrant member of the Austroasiatic family (which includes Khmer and Vietnamese), or as a linguistic isolate, not provably related to any described language family. Roger Blench, who as we saw above traces the origin of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole to the eastern Himalayan region, thinks that Puroik is probably a linguistic isolate, based in part on the subsistence activities of the people who speak it: “The past of the Puroik as foragers, the distinctiveness of their language, and the low incidence of CTB roots suggests that it may best be considered a language isolate.”

The social position of the Puroik people, formerly called the Sulung, is itself unusual, as the entire group had been essentially enslaved by members of neighboring tribes. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Earlier forming the bonded labour of other tribes such as the Nishi, the term Sulung indicates slavery, and they were renamed as Puroik to rid their name from this association.” The situation in earlier times was rather complicated, as conveyed in this passage from Rann Singh Mann’s The Tribes of India: On-Going Challenges (M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1996, page 389):

In their marriages, they traditionally had and still have to pay a heavy bride-price, and the people are not that sound economically to pay toward their bride-price. For obvious reasons the people had to borrow mithuns (Bos frontalis), which formed an essential part of the bride-price, from neighboring tribes… . These tribes, subsequently, started establishing supremacy over the Sulungs as they were never able to pay back the amount borrowed. Indebtedness is hence a major cause for which the Sulungs had to remain as thralls and that too for generations. …. A Sulung has developed the habit of tolerating all sorts of torture [that] his master, known as Ato, does to him because he is a Nyeru (thrall). In recent years, the Sulungs have expressed an intention to change their name to Puroik as they think Sulung is a derogatory term.

The role of the mithun, or gayal (Bos frontalis), a semi-domesticated bovine, in the economy and culture of Arunachal Pradesh was nicely depicted in Frederick and Elizabeth Simoons’ 1968 book, Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History. This work, coincidently, help convince me to pursue a Ph.D in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, as Fred Simoons was a product of the same department. A first-rate scholar, his work never received the attention that it deserves. I would especially recommend his 1961 book, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present.


* As argued in the abstract of a 2008 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety article:

The common industrial starches are typically derived from cereals (corn, wheat, rice, sorghum), tubers (potato, sweet potato), roots (cassava), and legumes (mung bean, green pea). Sago (Metroxylon sagu Rottb.) starch is perhaps the only example of commercial starch derived from another source, the stem of palm (sago palm). Sago palm has the ability to thrive in the harsh swampy peat environment of certain areas. It is estimated that there are about 2 million ha of natural sago palm forests and about 0.14 million ha of planted sago palm at present, out of a total swamp area of about 20 million ha in Asia and the Pacific Region, most of which are under- or nonutilized. Growing in a suitable environment with organized farming practices, sago palm could have a yield potential of up to 25 tons of starch per hectare per year. Sago starch yield per unit area could be about 3 to 4 times higher than that of rice, corn, or wheat, and about 17 times higher than that of cassava. Compared to the common industrial starches, however, sago starch has been somewhat neglected and relatively less attention has been devoted to the sago palm and its starch. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been published covering various aspects of sago starch such as molecular structure, physicochemical and functional properties, chemical/physical modifications, and quality issues. This article is intended to piece together the accumulated knowledge and highlight some pertinent information related to sago palm and sago starch studies.

The Lost World of the Sago Eaters Read More »

Intriguing Patterns in Scolbert08’s Map of Religion in Insular Southeast Asia

Insular Southeast Asia Religion MapScolbert08 does an excellent job of mapping the religious complexity of Insular Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. I have therefore posted a detail of his or her map of world religion that focuses on this region, both with and without my own annotations. Many interesting and important spatial patterns of religious affiliation are revealed on the map.

Scolbert08’s map does not show the presence of animism (mapped as “other”), which is widespread across the eastern portion of the region. That is to be expected, however, because animism is essentially illegal in Indonesia, as the government recognizes only six official faiths: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Religion Insular Southeast Asia MapBuddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Missionaries, moreover, are active in most areas of traditional animism, resulting in widespread conversion, which can be rather superficial. The Wikipedia article on a specific variant of animism found on the island of Sumba nicely frames the situation:

The Marapu religion (also known as Marafu in Sumba) is a form of ancestral religion that is practiced mainly in the island of Sumba in Indonesia. Marapu is also practiced in many more remote areas of Sumba and Flores. Both the Christians and Muslims on these islands tend to combine their faiths with Marapu. Since Marapu, like Kaharingan of the Dayaks [Iban], is not an official religion of Indonesia, and all Indonesian citizens are required to identify as of one of a member of the sanctioned religions by law, members have chosen either Christianity or Islam to self identify.

The island of New Guinea, which is politically divided between Indonesia in the west and the independent state of Papua New Guinea on the east, has an interestingly symmetrical appearance on Scolbert08’s map, with Catholicism widespread in the northeast and southwest and Protestant Christianity prevalent in the southeast and northwest. This pattern reflects, of course, the efforts of different groups of Christian missionaries. One might be surprised that Catholic missions were so widespread and successful in eastern Indonesia, which had been colonized by the Dutch, as the Netherlands is usually considered to be an historically Protestant (Calvinist) country. But the southern Netherlands is traditionally Catholic, and as recently as 1970 some 40 percent of the Dutch professed Roman Catholicism (today the country is most irreligious, as reflected in Scolbert08’s map). Dutch and Flemish Jesuit missionaries played an important role in converting animists in many remote areas of Southeast Asia. This was the case in the highlands of northern Luzon in the Philippines, where I encountered Flemish priests in the 1980s. The Muslim majority and plurality areas in western New Guinea seen on Scolbert08’s map largely reflect recent migration from Java, a phenomenon that has generated pronounced ethnic and religious tensions. I am a bit surprised that Papua New Guinea is shown as so heavily Christian, as animism there is very widespread. Many Papuan Christians, however, are recent converts who have by no means entirely abandoned the beliefs of their ancestors.

In peninsular Malaysia, Scolbert08’s map shows a Muslim majority in the east and a Muslim plurality in the west. This pattern is to be expected, as most Malaysian of Chinese and Indian descent, the vast majority of whom are non-Muslim, live in the western half of the peninsula. But only the area around the city of Ipoh, which is 41 percent Chinese and 14 percent Indian, stands out for having a Buddhist plurality, reflecting the local Chinese imprint. Although it is barely visible on the map, the northern part of Penang, also heavily Chinese, is also colored yellow for Buddhism. The same pattern holds in the Chinese-majority city-state of Singapore.


In many parts of insular Southeast Asia, large numbers of people of Chinese background have been converting to Christianity. The sizable Roman Catholic area seen on the map in western Borneo reflects the conversion of both the indigenous Iban (Dyak) people and local Chinese residents. Pontianak, the capital of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, has a Chinese majority, although the province of West Kalimantan as a whole has a slight Muslim Malay majority. The Malaysian state of Sarawak in northern Borneo, on the other had, has a clear Protestant plurality, which largely reflects the conversion of the indigenous Iban people. (This Protestant zone on the map extends across the border into Indonesia, where the almost entirely Christian Kenyah people are located). Although Sarawak as a whole has historically experienced relatively little religious tension, that situation may be changing. As analyzed in a 2014 article in The Malaysian Insider:

Such changes in attitude reflect a creeping extremism that is infecting Sarawak’s Muslim community – one that is often held up as an example of tolerance and inclusivity that their brethren in the Malay peninsula should learn from. There is now a growing worry that such attitude – imported from across the South China Sea – threatens to rupture the social glue that has bound Sarawak’s diverse community. This is even while Sarawak’s Muslim leaders continue to insist that their minority community is still moderate and able to embrace its more populous non-Muslim neighbours.

Tensions between Muslims and Christian have been much more pronounced in eastern Indonesia, particularly in central Sulawesi and in the Maluku Islands, although the situation is much calmer now than it had been at the turn of the millennium. I had expected the map to show more religious mixing in these areas, but instead most areas are indicated as having either a clear Muslim or a clear Christian majority. Note, however, that the Poso region of central Sulawesi, where some of the most extreme violence occurred, is depicted as having a relatively thin Christian majority, which means that it has a substantial Muslim minority. The opposite pattern is found on the island of Seram (Ceram, formerly), which is another site of pronounced religious tension. As explained in the Wikipedia:


Seram has been traditionally associated with the animism of the indigenous Alfur (or Nuaulu), a West Melanesian people who reputedly retained a custom of headhunting until the 1940s. Today, however, most of the population of Seram today is either Muslim or Christian due to both conversion and immigration. Seram was affected by the violent inter-religious conflict that swept Maluku province starting in late 1998, resulting in tens of thousands of displaced persons across the province but after the Malino II Accord agreement tempers cooled. Seram has been peaceful for many years but towns like Masohi remain informally divided into de facto Christian and Muslim sections. Around 7,000 people belonging to the Manusela tribe follow Hinduism.*


Bangsamoro Territory MapThe Muslim majority area of the southwestern Philippines is accurately shown as relatively small on Scolbert08’s map. What is more significant, however, is the sizable area of Catholic plurality in the areas to the south and east, which indicates substantial Muslim (and animist) minorities. The province of Sultan Kudarat, as its name indicates, formerly had a Muslim majority, but it is now roughly 56 percent Catholic and 10 percent Protestant, a change that has occurred mostly because of immigration from Christian areas of the Philippines. Such changing patterns of religious affiliation help explain the religious/political violence that plagues the region. I am Basilan Religion Ethnicity Mapsurprised, however, that the map does not show a Christian zone in the north-central portion of Basilan, the northernmost island of the largely Muslim Sulu Archipelago. This area has been an issue of contention between the Philippine government and Islamist insurgents in the stalled-out negotiations over the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in country’s Muslim-majority districts.

The largest Protestant group in Indonesia is the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP), or Batak Christian Protestant Church, which is centered in the land of the Batak people in northern Sumatra around Lake Toba. Conversion began here in the mid 1800s, owing largely to the efforts of the German Rhenish Missionary Society, which was formed from a union of Lutheran and Indonesia Sharia MapReformed (Calvinist) churches. Tensions have recently been mounting between the Christians of North Sumatra and the Muslims of Aceh (to the north), which is an autonomous region of Indonesia under strict Sharia law. As reported in a recent Tempo article:

The attack [on] Deleng Lagan Batak Protestant Church (HKBP) in Gunung Meriah, Aceh Singkil, on Tuesday (13/10) has to be condemned.

The incident once again shows that in a country with the motto ‘Bhineka Tunggal Ika’ (unity in diversity), intolerance is still fast growing.

Yet, this is not the first incident that happened in Singkil, Aceh, which share a border with North Sumatera province.

In September 2005, a church in Siompin Village, Surou Sub-District was also burned down. The attack was triggered by the same reason: local residents objected to a private house made as a place of worship.

The conflict should not have happened if the regional government and the police could take a firm and strong action.

Regency governments have indeed arranged a meeting between religious figures and the people. The meeting eventually agreed to demolish a number of ‘troubled’ churches on October 18. However, the tension was already heated up. Provocation has also been spread.

Members of the HKBP and of other Christian demonization as well have been increasingly complaining of discrimination across much of Indonesia. They have been particularly galled by the fact that the government has been shutting down existing churches and preventing the construction of new ones in Muslim majority areas, particularly in metropolitan Jakarta. According to a May, 2015 article in GlobalPost:

Although more than 85 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim, Protestantism and Catholicism are two of the nation’s approved faiths, helping give Indonesia its reputation as a pluralistic democracy. Even so, many local governments are shutting down churches as politicians crumble under pressure from their Muslim constituents.

“They want to stop the increasing number of churches, and if possible, reduce it,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “That’s why, in the last 10 years, 1,000 were closed.”


*The assertion that a small tribe on this remote island follows Hinduism is quite surprising, but unfortunately I have not been able to find much information on this matter. Here is what the Wikipedia tells us:

The Manusela [of Seram] follows the syncretic faith of Naurus, which might have come from the Aluk’ To Dolo faith. The Naurus faith is a combination of Hinduism and Animism, but in recent years they also have adopted certain Protestant principles. A few Manusela have also adopted Protestanism as well. Not much is known about their religion about them, but their religion may include worshipping of Hindu and Animist gods, with this influence coming from the Mindanao during the early periods, and presence of Hinduism is evidenced from the fact that archaeologists have found several statues of Hindu gods in Mindanao.

Intriguing Patterns in Scolbert08’s Map of Religion in Insular Southeast Asia Read More »

Narendra Modi and the Rise of India

China's Map of India

Yet again, teaching duties are preventing me from making regular GeoCurrents posts. All that I can do this week is post my slides from last evening’s lecture on Narendra Modi and the Rise of India.

Part of this lecture focused on the relationship between India and China. I find it quite significant that some Chinese media sources are using a map of India that excludes all of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Arunachal Pradesh, as can be seen in the image posted here.




Narendra Modi and the Rise of India Read More »

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas

Disputed Islands in the East Asian SeasDear Readers,

East Asian Seas MapRegular GeoCurrents posts continue to be delayed, due to a combination of illness and teaching obligations. Today’s post merely links to a set of slides that I used for my lecture last night on territorial conflicts in the East Asian Seas. I made several original maps (on Google and Google Earth base maps), which are posted here directly.

Six Seas of Eurasia's Eastern RimNext week’s lecture  will be on the 2015 UK election. I hope to write a blog post or two on the election before  next Tuesday.

East Asia Seas Conflicts

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas Read More »

The Uncertain Role of Religion in Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election

Indonesia 2014 Election Wikipedia mapThe on-line maps that I have found of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election are not very helpful. That of the Wikipedia is particularly poor. To begin with, it merely shows which candidate received a majority of votes in each province, with no information provided on the margin of victory. But the returns actually varied quite significantly across the country, with the winning candidate Joko Widodo receiving more than 73 percent of the votes cast in Papua and fewer than 24 percent of those cast in West Sumatra. The color scheme used in the Wikipedia map is also poorly conceived. Crimson?Provincial victories for both candidates are marked in shades of red, although, as the caption notes, a more standard red is used for Joko Widodo, whereas “crimson” is used for Prabowo Subianto. But according to the Wikipedia’s own article on “crimson,” the shade used on the map is actually something different. To be sure, the Wikipedia does differentiate a number of shades of crimson, many of which are associated with college sports teams, but none approximates the color used on the map.

Indonesia 2014 Presidential Election MapDue to such quibbles, I have made my own map of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, posted here. The map shows relatively weak regional patterning overall, with both candidates taking provinces in most parts of the country. But it also shows reasonable strong voting differentiation by province, as noted above. I have tried, although perhaps not hard enough*, to find explanations for such electoral behavior, albeit without much luck. The patterns on the election map certainly do not Indonesia 2014 Election GDP Mapscorrelate well with those found on the map of GDP per capita, as can be seen in the paired maps (compare, for example, the showings of East Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara on the two maps.)

Indonesia 2014 election religion mapsA better, although far from perfect, correlation is found in regard to religion. As can be seen in the second set of juxtaposed maps, Muslim-minority provinces all supported Joko Widodo (Jokowi), several of them quite strongly. But then again, a number of strongly Muslim provinces also cast a high proportion of their votes for Jokowi. It is also noteworthy that Aceh in far northern Sumatra, which is the most resolutely Islamic part of Indonesia, supported the losing candidate Prabowo Subianto by a relatively thin margin.

Unfortunately, the map of religion does not indicate either degrees of religiosity or the prevalence of orthodox interpretations, both of which may also play a role. This issue is particularly significant in regard to Java, the demographic core of the country (of Indonesia’s 252 million inhabitants, 143 million live on Java). Central and Western Java have long been noted for their heterodox interpretations of the faith; until recently, a majority of people here have adhered to a form of worship sometimes called Kebatinan, which is defined by the Wikipedia as a “Javanese religious tradition, consisting of an amalgam of animistic, Buddhist, and Islamic, especially Sufi, beliefs and practices … [that is] rooted in the Javanese history and religiosity, syncretizing aspects of different Java Language Mapreligions.” Although mainstream Islam is spreading in eastern and central Java—the Javanese-speaking portions of the island—this area still remains much less conventionally devout than the Sundanese-speaking area of western Java. In the 2014 election, perhaps not coincidentally, western Java supported Prabowo, whereas the east and especially the center opted instead for Jokowi.

The best report what I have found on the role of religion in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election is found in an Al Jazeera article entitled “Religion the Dark Horse in Indonesia Election.” Published before the election was held, it argued that:

[P]rior to Jokowi’s emergence as a political figure in 2012, when he was elected governor of Jakarta, members of religious minorities tended to support a Prabowo presidency – viewing him as a forceful figure able to crack down on impunity, and noting that his brother and mother are both Christian. Now, he says, Jokowi is the favourite among religious minorities.

“In general, Prabowo has been pandering to Islamist sentiment and Jokowi has been more pluralist in his outlook,” said Gregory Fealy, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University. Accordingly, three of the four Islamist parties that won seats in parliament have joined Prabowo’s coalition; the fourth, the moderate PKB, supports Jokowi.

Prabowo has also been endorsed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group whose members have been involved in attacks against religious minorities, bars and nightclubs.

Minangkabau MapThis explanation, however, leaves me with two perplexities. First, why would hyper-devout Aceh have given Prabowo such lukewarm support? Could it be that many Acehnese people are chafing under the region’s harsh imposition of Sharia law? More surprising still is the extremely high level of support for Prabowo in West Sumatra. West Sumatra is certainly a Muslim-dominated province, but, like central and eastern Java, it has long been characterized by a rather lax form of their faith, one that historically prioritized customary law (adat) over Sharia. Indeed, the dominant ethno-linguistic group in the province, the Minangkabau, are noted for their matrilineal system of reckoning decent and familial property, a system so engrained that the Minangkabau have been characterized (incorrectly, in my view**) as forming a “modern matriarchy.” As a result, the extremely strong showing of Prabowo in the province seems odd. If any readers have any insights into this issue, I would love to hear them.

*It is currently exam- and paper-grading season, which is taking up most of my time.

** The Wikipedia describes Minangkabau culture as “matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men.” I do not, however, think that either “matriarchy” or “patriarchy” are appropriate terms in this context.

The Uncertain Role of Religion in Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election Read More »

Sexualized Dangdut Performances in Indonesia and Resulting Controversies

As the most recent GeoCurrents post explained, heavy-metal music has been of some political importance in Indonesia, with the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, being a major fan. Although cultural tension between “metalheads” and conservative Muslim organization is an on-going issue, overt clashes have been relatively rare and restrained. Religious groups in Indonesia have, however succeeded in shutting down musical performances that they judge threatening to public morals. In 2012, for example, international news outlets widely reported the cancellation of a Lady Gaga show scheduled to be held in Jakarta. The performer reported feeling “devastated” by the news, but her Indonesian critics were highly pleased. As the BBC reported:

The Islamist FPI had threatened violence if the concert went ahead, calling Lady Gaga a “devil’s messenger” who wears only a “bra and panties”. Habib Salim Alatas, the group’s FPI Jakarta chairman, said the cancellation was “good news” for Indonesia’s Muslims. “FPI is grateful that she has decided not to come. Indonesians will be protected from sin brought about by this Mother Monster, the destroyer of morals,” he told AFP news agency. He added: “Lady Gaga fans, stop complaining. Repent and stop worshipping the devil. Do you want your lives taken away by God as infidels?”

Dangdut Jupe PhotoWith this Lady Gaga commotion in mind, many observers might conclude that overt displays of female sexuality are not allowed, or are at least are highly frowned upon, in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But in actuality, this is not the case. For several decades, the most popular form of music across the Indonesia archipelago has been dangdut, described by the Wikipedia as a “genre of Indonesian folk and traditional popular music that is partly derived from Hindustani, Malay, and Arabic musics.” My own knowledge of popular music of obviously quite limited, as the dangdut performance that I have watched on YouTube strike me as more “techno” than folk in style. But regardless of the various influences that dangdut incorporates, the stage dancing that often accompanies the music can be extremely sexualized. Jupe, the genre’s star performer, has certainly not been shy about issue of sexuality. As reported first in the International New York Times and then in the Jakarta Post:

Julia Perez, 30, better known as Jupe (pronounced jew-peh), has quickly become one of this nation’s most sought-after celebrities and a mainstay of television gossip shows. In a society increasingly polarized between supporters of political Islam and Western-style openness, Ms. Perez has led the charge one way with her sexy shows and music videos, her celebration of female sexuality and frank talk about sex. Her best-selling album, “Kamasutra,” included a free condom, which drew the ire of Islamic organizations and got her banned from performing in several cities outside Jakarta, the capital.

Actress and dangdut singer Julia “Jupe” Perez did a pole dance at the Kuningan intersection, South Jakarta on Tuesday night, in order to fulfill a promise. In her Twitter account, Jupe had promised to do the dance if she got 1 million followers “Jupe promises to dance at a red light if [she] gets a million followers! Allah, please make it happen during this fasting month, so I can dance with my clothes on”…. Within a week, her wish came true. Donning a tight suit and a black leather jacket, Jupe moved sensually around the pole of a traffic light at the intersection.

Indonesia Religion MapAs these reports indicate, dangdut is widely disparaged by the more conservative portions of the Indonesian public, and some provinces have banned several songs for being “pornographic.” But overall, it remains the most beloved form of music in at least western Indonesia, by far the most populous and powerful half of the country. A 2012 article in the Jakarta Post reports that the popularity of dangdut has declined in eastern Indonesia (apart from Maluku), although it does not specify what is meant by the term “eastern Indonesia,” nor does it give any reasons for the drop in popularity in that region. (The terms “eastern Indonesia” and “western Indonesia” are often used, but have no formal boundaries to my knowledge; the division that I have inscribed on the map here is a mere estimation.) It is notable, however, that eastern Indonesia in general has a lower percentage of Muslims than western Indonesia, as can be seen in the map posted here.

The Jakarta Post article in question almost seems to imply that the decline of dangdut in the east is a possible threat to national unity. As the author contends:


When the media began promoting the music in the 1980s — and the government did the same in the 1990s — dangdut helped to provide a national narrative popular with most Indonesians. Government officials strategically used the genre to promote political messages on a national stage, often singing and dancing alongside dangdut artists, while cultural institutions used the music to create national unity. In March, an Indonesian official said the government was in the process of having dangdut promoted to the heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


One problem with the use of dangdut, or of any other form of “traditional” music, to enhance national unity in Indonesia is the fact that most of these traditions extend across the border to include Malaysia (and, to some extent, Brunei, far southern Thailand, and other adjacent areas). In 2007, a minor diplomatic scuffle emerged over Malaysia’s use of the popular folk song Rasa Sayang in a tourism promotion campaign. As reported by The Star On-Line:


The call by Indonesian lawmakers for action against Malaysia for using the Rasa Sayang folk song – which Indonesia claims to be its traditional song – in its Truly Asia tourism campaign is unrealistic, said Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. The Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister said the issue should not have arisen as the song, like other folk songs such as Jauh Di Mata, Burung Pungguk and Terang Bulan, were songs of the Malay archipelago inherited by the people from their ancestors.  “I think Indonesia or other parties will not be able to prove who the composer of the song (the Indonesian version being Rasa Sayange) was,” he told reporters at the breaking of fast organised by his ministry here on Tuesday. He was commenting on Indonesia’s House of Representatives member Hakam Naja, from the National Mandate Party, calling on his government to sue Malaysia over the use of Rasa Sayang in its tourism campaign.


In response, one Malaysia blogger re-wrote the song’s lyrics (in English) to showcase Malaysia. My favorite verse runs as follows:


Though it’s great to be Malaysian,

Not everything is perfect, you see,

Rasa Sayang is claimed to be Indonesian,

And it’s cause for controversy.


Malaysia’s world stance is on the rise,

We keep our image looking bright,

Our government is pretty wise,

And our people are super tight.


As a first take-home message from all of these controversies, I can only conclude that public values in Indonesia remain quite distinctive and far more open to displays of female sexuality than those of the Muslim areas of South Asia, or of the Middle East. I cannot imagine a Pakistani equivalent of Jupe performing a pole dance at a major intersection in Karachi while praising Allah for giving her enough Twitter fans so that she could remain clad while doing so. The second message concerns the generally successful efforts to create a strong sense of national identity across the sprawling archipelagic country of Indonesia. Here the pronounced degree of cultural commonality with Malaysia remains an obstacle, and will likely generate new controversies in the years to come.

Sexualized Dangdut Performances in Indonesia and Resulting Controversies Read More »

Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election and the Geography of Heavy Metal Music

Jokowi Napalm DeathWhen lecturing in my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events, I always begin by showing an enigmatic map or other image and asking if anyone can make sense of it. This week the topic was Indonesia, focusing on the country’s 2014 presidential election (which is admittedly rather old news). I began the class with the image posted to the left, as I wanted to see if anyone could draw a connection between the heavy-metal band Napalm Death and His Excellency Joko Jokowi Napalm Death 2Widodo, the seventh president of Indonesia. No one supplied the answer, which is provided in the next image: Jokowi (as he in called in Indonesia) is a huge fan. He also follows other Metalhead Presidentmetal bands, and he has helped promote metal concerts in his native city, Surakarta (also known as Solo).

Heavy metal music comes in a variety of sub-genres, as I learned in preparing the lecture. That of Napalm Death (“grindcore”) is particularly harsh, at least to my untutored ear, and I must admit to feeling rather astonished that its appeal would extend much beyond angst-ridden teenagers, and especially that it would reach a powerful middle-aged politician such as Joko Widodo. But Jokowi is no ordinary political figure, as he is very much a “man of the people.” More important, metal bands have played a significant role in recent Indonesian history. As Madeleine King explains in a blog post entitled “Live for Satan,” “It may surprise some to learn that heavy metal—a sub-genre of rock music that emerged largely from America and England in the 1970s—was at the heart of Indonesia’s late 1990s pro-democracy movement.” Jokowi was, of course, a much younger man at that time, and it is thus perhaps not so surprising that he would still favor a musical genre associated with the downfall of Indonesia’s authoritarian government.

With all of that in mind, I tried to listen to Napalm Death with a more open mind, but hearing their songs still seemed more like an assault on my ears than a genuine musical experience. (Here I am perhaps merely showing my age, but my 15-year-old daughter agreed.) The growled and grunted vocals were especially off-putting. But the actual lyrics (see the end of the post for one example) are not unintelligent, and here I can begin to see the attraction.

Metal Hand SignsBut the fact that a major fan of Napalm Death could win a presidential election, and do so in predominantly Muslim country, still strikes me as remarkable. I doubt very much that such a candidate could triumph in the United States, as accusations of “Satanism” would fly thick and would likely stick. And indeed, satanic imagery is common across much of the metal world. Some would even say that the hand gesture made by Jokowi in the image posted above indicates the horns of Satan, although here I remain skeptical – and I find the satirical poster of “satanic hand signs” posted here to be quite amusing.

Certainly many Muslim critics, both in Indonesia and elsewhere, have accused metal music of encouraging Satanism. As the abstract to Mark Levine’s “Doing the Devil’s Work: Heavy Metal and the Threat to Public Order in the Muslim World” puts it, his article shows “the largely negative reaction to the music by Muslim governments and societies, and how, in a certain sense, today’s Muslim metalheads are fulfilling a historic function of Satan in Islamic theology.” But as Levine also shows in his book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, the genre is highly popular among certain youth segments in many Muslim countries, and it often incorporates pro-Islamic overtones. As the author of a recent blog-post frames it, “Today, metal and Islam play a more synergistic role.” The same post also notes that the Israeli metal band Orphaned Land is one of the few institutions in the region able to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims.

In Indonesia, it would seem that hardline Sunni Muslim stalwarts are currently more interested in countering Shia and Ahmadiyya Islam than they are in taking on heavy metal music, although I would have to do more research here to make any conclusive statements.

Metal Bands MapAlthough heavy metal music may be widespread in the Muslim realm, it is even more popular elsewhere. As the map posted to the left indicates, metal bands are far more numerous in Europe and the Americas. In regard to Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia does occupy a prominent position, although it is surpassed by neighboring Malaysia. According to this somewhat dated map, sub-Saharan Africa is the only major region of the world to have been largely bypassed by the metal phenomenon. It would be interesting to see an updated version, as I would be especially curious to find out if the genre has reached Afghanistan.

Per capita Metal Nands MapIn per capita terms, a different map emerges. Here we can see that the Nordic countries form the core region of metal music, with Finland occupying the top spot. A 2013 BuzzFeed post attempts to explain this intriguing fact through climatic determinism—“The dark winter surely plays a major role in this attachment to suicidal lyrics, double bass drum, and the color black”—but such an explanation does not work for sunnier metal-loving countries, such as Greece. The same BuzzFeed post notes that Finland leads the world in a number of additional categories, most of which seem quite distant from the realm of heavy metal, including education, lack of corruption, and the borrowing of books from libraries. Finland is also the world’s top coffee-consuming country. Perhaps if I had enough caffeine in my system I would be able to appreciate the music of Napalm Death.


Judicial Slime

(by Napalm Death)


Taste me,

You made me what I am,

Mind polluting worthless fuck.


Am I the mental feast,

Bruised and scarred,

The underdog.


A pawn within a losers game,

My strength will grow upon your fear.



In time you’ll face your end line.

Judge me not before yourself.


Take my pride – that’s all you can.

Hatred surges burning me.



For what atonement do you seek,

Your dying grasp of loyalty breaks like brittle bones.


Forgotten past,

I stand condemned,

For I am more powerful than you’d imagine.

Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential Election and the Geography of Heavy Metal Music Read More »

A New Political Bifurcation of India?

India 2004 election mapAs mentioned in the previous GeoCurrents post, the 2014 Indian election reveals a intriguing division across the country, one separating the greater southeast, where regional parties generally prevailed, from the rest of the country, where the BJP generally triumphed. There are, of course, a number of exceptions to this pattern, such as Punjab and much of the far northeast. It is also too early to tell if this division will persist, as many of the patterns evident in the 2014 electoral map are relatively new. As recently as 2004, Andhra Pradesh in the southeast voted fairly solidly for the Indian National Congress (INC) rather than regional parties, whereas most districts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar did not support either the BJP or the INC. 2014 India Elections Regional Parties map 1To illustrate the current regionalist voting pattern in India, I have prepared three maps. The first shows the states where a single regional party took a majority of constituencies. As can been seen, this category includes three large and two small 2014 India Elections Regional Parties map 2states, all located in eastern India. In making the second map, I considered as well states in which several regional parties together dominated the election. Here he only addition was Andhra Pradesh, which has recently been embroiled in the movement to create the new state of Telangana. This map best fits the southeast/northwest bifurcation of India mentioned at the beginning of the post. The final map includes as well states in which regional parties took a significant 2014 India Elections Regional Parties map 3number of seats, but did not dominate the election. Here the simple split of India into two electoral regions is not so clearly evident. Two Indian state, Kerala and Bihar, exhibited particularly complex electoral patterns; they will be analyzed in a separate post. Three Simplistic Divisions of India MapFinally, and at the risk of undue if not grotesque simplification, I would note that this electoral division runs against two other bifurcations of the country. In terms of economic and social development, India is vaguely split into a more prosperous and educated southwest and a poorer and less educated northeast (but with much of the far northwest fitting in much better with the southwest). Linguistically and perhaps in broader cultural terms as well, the main divide is between the Dravidian south and the Indo-Aryan north. The second-to-last map juxtaposes these three admittedly simplistic macro divisions of the country. Although I don’t put much credence in this map, I do find it intriguing that the lines converge in the vicinity of Hyderabad, a city and region that nicely exhibit the diverse economic, cultural, and India per capita GDP by state mappolitical conditions of contemporary India

A New Political Bifurcation of India? Read More »

Regional Patterns in India’s 2014 General Election

India 2014 Election mapThe overriding story of India’s 2014 general election is of course the massive triumph of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi, along with the corresponding defeat of the Indian National Congress (INC). The BJP gained 166 seats in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament) for a total of 282, while the INC lost 162 for a total of only 44. Yet in regard to the overall vote, the BJP victory does not appear so overwhelming, nor does the gap between the two main parties loom so large: the BJP took only 31 percent of the total vote against the 19.3 percent share of Congress. This discrepancy reflects the collective strength of India’s many regional and minor national parties, along with the fact that the Indian National Congress has few areas of concentrated support. But both the BJP and the INC do gain addition clout from their allied parties. In the nationwide vote, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance took 36.5 percent, whereas the INC-led United Progressive Alliance took 22.2 percent. But regardless of such complexities, if one analyzes the election results for all Indian political parties, the conclusion is clear: the 2014 contest reflects a major swing to the political right.

India 2014 Election BJP MapTo illustrate the main geographical patterns in the election, I have posted the Wikipedia map (originally in German) of the results above. The numerical data provided in this post come from the same source. I have also outlined some of the regional results found on this map to create a series of more simplified maps, with stylized boundaries. These maps, unfortunately, are rather crude, due to time constrains. In some cases, I have juxtaposed these maps with maps showing the results of the previous national election (2009).

India 2014 Election NDA MapThe main national pattern, clearly evident on the first map posted here, is a new electoral split between greater northwestern India, where the BJP dominated, and the south and east, where regional parties prevailed. The BJP’s current zone of support spans some of the deepest economic and cultural divides in India. It includes many of the country’s most prosperous and socially developed areas as well some of its poorest regions. It also bridges the gap between the Indo-Aryan-speaking north and the Dravidian-speaking south; although the south largely supported regional parties, most of Karnataka opted for the BJP.

India 2009 2014 Elections NDA mapThe zone of BJP support expanded greatly from 2009 to 2014. Its main new areas of electoral success include the mountainous north (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir), impoverished and densely populated Uttar Pradesh, prosperous Haryana, and relatively poor and arid Rajasthan. Congress and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance saw major declines in these same areas, but their most spectacular drop was in the southeast. Here regional parties unaffiliated with their alliance did particularly well. In Andhra Pradesh, the INC was undermined in part by the controversies surrounding the creation of the new state of Telangana.

India 2014 Election INC MapThe paucity of districts taken by the Indian National Congress is striking. The only sizable areas in which the party was victorious were the lightly populated and peripheral far northeast and a few mostly rural zones in India 2014 Election UPA Mapsouth-central India. Although southeastern Karnataka constitutes one of the largest remaining Congress strongholds, Bangalore—the regional metropolis and center of India’s high tech industry—surprised some observers by voting for the BJP. The INC’s allies in the United Progressive Alliance also performed poorly, with the Maharashtra-based Indian Nationalist CongressIndia 2009 2014 Elections UPA Map—which had been “expelled from the Indian National Congress … for disputing the right of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi to lead the party”—losing three seats to take only six, and the Bihar-based Rashtriya Janata Dal taking only four. In West Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress, which broke away from the INC in 1989, triumphed handily, but it also dropped its connection with the broader United Progressive Alliance two years ago.

India 2014 Community Parties Election MapIndia’s Third Front alliance, dominated by parties of the far left, also suffered a sharp loss in the election of 2014. This coalition saw a significant loss of representation in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. India’s two major communist parties triumphed only in the small state of Tripura in the far northeast and in a few scattered districts of Kerala and West Bengal. Marxism’s electoral decline has been steep; as recently as the 2004 contest, most districts in West India 2014 Election Third Front MapBengal and Kerala supported communist parties. Nationally, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) dropped seven seats and retained only nine, whereas the Communist Party of India lost three seats and kept only one. Several other parties in the Third Front alliance saw even larger declines. The Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party dropped 18 seats and kept only five, and the Bihar-based Janata Dal (United) Party lost 18 seats India 2019 2014 Election Third Front mapand retained only two. (Curiously, Janata Dal [United] is a secularist, socialist party, yet it had previously been in an alliance with the BJP, which it dropped “in protest against the elevation of Narendra Modi.”) One party in the Third Front, Odissa-based Biju Janata Dal, gained both seats and votes. But this social-India 2004 election mapdemocratic party joined the Third Front only in 2009, having previously been affiliated with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. In India, political parties and especially party alliances do not always follow clear ideological lines.

Several parties allied with the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance also gained representation. Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena, a hard-core Hindu Nationalist party, added seven seats for a total of 18, and the populist Andhra Pradesh-based Telugu Desam Party gained 10 for a total of 16. In Bihar, the Lok Janshakti Party—which is officially described as secularist and socialist—went from zero seats to six. In Punjab, the Sikh-oriented Shiromani Akali Dal held even at four seats, although its share of the popular vote dropped.

Several central portions of Punjab, on the other hand, supported the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party. In India overall, this party performed much worse than had been expected in late 2013, when its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was elected chief minister of Delhi. Kejriwal, however, stepped down several months after his victory due to his frustration with the lack of progress against graft, a move that was evidently costly to his party. Nationally, Aam Aadmi took only two percent of the vote.

Several non-aligned regionalist parties did extremely well. The centrist, Tamil Nadu-based All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam gained 28 seats for a total of 37. In the emerging state of Telangana in the south-center, the center-right Telangana Rashtra Samithi went from two seats to 11. In southern and northeastern Andhra Pradesh, the new YSR Congress Party, which recently broke from both Congress and the United Progressive Alliance, gained nine seats.

Two major regional parties crashed. In Tamil Nadu, the democratic-socialist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam went from 18 seats to none, taking only 9.6 million votes as opposed to the 18 million that went to the more conservative All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Party. In Uttar Pradesh and environs, theBahujan Samaj Party lost all 21 of its seats. Despite this gargantuan drop, the party still took 23 million votes—four percent of the total—putting it in third place in the popular count. Such a discrepancy between votes and seats reflects in part the huge population of the central Ganges Valley. In 2009, Bahujan Samaj had taken ten per cent of the vote nationwide. This party gains its strength primarily from the Dalit (“untouchable,” formerly) community and the so-called Other Backwards Castes (OBC). The fact that the BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, is himself a member of an OBC may have helped siphon off some support from Bahujan Samaj Party.

Modi’s membership in an OBC, however, has been the subject of controversy. As was reported in DNA, Congress Party representatives recently claimed that:

 Narendra Modi doesn’t belong to any backward caste, but was in fact born into an upper caste “Vaishya” family, that is given title of “Modh”, for being super rich, like Mod Brahmin and Modh Bania.  Alleging Modi was a “fake OBC”, former Gujarat Assembly opposition leader Shaktisinh Gohil armed with documents said Modi belonged to a Vaishya sub-caste the “Modh Ghanchi”, a microscopic minority found only in Gujarat. “He, in fact, belongs to the upper caste since he comes from a prosperous business community,” said Gohil.

Modi’s proponents, as well as some of his local opponents, disagree. As reported in RediffNews:

 The moot question is — is Modi an OBC?

“Yes!” says Achyut Yagnik, co-author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat and a staunch critic of Modi.

Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based thinker and social activist, says, “The Modh Ghanchi community is part of the Other Backward Classes in Gujarat. They are NOT upper castes.”

It will be interesting to see if Modi’s caste positions continues to be discussed.

The discussion on India’s 2012 election will continue with additional posts later this week. Maps showing the success of the major regional parties, along with state boundaries, will be posted.

Regional Patterns in India’s 2014 General Election Read More »