Regionalism

The Mughal Empire and Fears of a New Mughalstan


Much of the Ayodhya dispute turns on issues of historical memory andinterpretation. Of particular importance is the Mughal dynasty, which gained power in northern India in the early 1500s and subsequently spread over most of the subcontinent before contracting sharply in the 1700s. Different parties see the Mughal legacy in strikingly different terms, as is evident even in Wikipedia articles on the topic. According to one Wiki article, the first Mughal emperor, Babur, ordered the Babri mosque to be constructed on the acknowledged place of Rama’s birth after one of his generals seized the Hindu temple occupying the site. Not surprisingly, the neutrality of this article has been disputed. According to another Wikipedia entry, archeological excavations show no evidence of a Hindu religious structure existing on the Ayodhya site before the Babri mosque was built.

To ardent Hindu nationalists, the Babri Mosque is an icon of the past victory of a foreign power motivated by a militant religion. The Muslim conquerors, they maintain, selected the site of Rama’s birth for a major mosque precisely to signal Islamic supremacy. The Mughal regime, they argue, destroyed many Hindu temples and sought to arrogate sacred Hindu places for its own religious purposes. Only by cleansing the land of such symbols of conquest and restoring Hindu religious structures can India redeem its birthright.

Those opposed to Hindu nationalism offer different interpretations. The Mughals, they point out, were not the first Muslim conquerors of the region; by the time Babur arrived, northern India had been firmly under Muslim rule for several centuries. More importantly, the Mughals, like earlier Islamic dynasties, quickly reached a mutually acceptable accommodation with their Hindu subjects. Not only were Hindu religious institutions generally respected, but many Hindu elites rose to high positions in the regime. The most powerful Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great (reigning from 1556 to 1605), went so far as to try to meld Islam and Hinduism into a new religion, with a few elements of Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity thrown in for good measure. Considering the attitudes of the mighty Akbar, it is hardly surprising that Indian Muslims and Hindus once worshipped together at the Ayodhya site.

Hindu nationalists stress different aspects of the Mughal heritage. They note that Akbar was denounced as a heretic by key Muslim clerics, and they emphasize the actions and policies of his great-grandson Aurangzeb, who instituted Islamic orthodoxy and harassed Hindus and other non-Muslims (the extent of his religious persecution, however, is hotly debated). Aurangzeb also sought to bring all of South Asia under Mughal rule, his armies pushing far into the south of India. By overextending the state’s resources, Aurangzeb’s military exploits gravely weakened the regime; after his death, the Mughal Empire quickly contracted until it encompassed little more than Delhi and environs.

Some Hindu nationalists fear that the Mughal dream of maintaining Islamic power across South Asia never perished. A handful of websites allege that Muslim militants, working with elements of both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi political establishments, seek to seize a swath of northern India, which they would join to both Pakistan and Bangladesh to form the new country of Mughalstan (or Mughalistan). As one website propounds: “The comprehensive plan for a second partition of India was first developed by the Mughalstan Research Institute (MRI) of Jahangir Nagar University (Bangladesh) under the patronage of the two intelligence agencies, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and Bangladesh’s Director General of Forces Intelligence, DGFI.” The website further alleges that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, sits at the heart of the conspiracy: “The Pakistani Punjabi-dominated ISI’s influence on MRI is evident even in the Punjabi-centric pronunciation of the word ‘Mughalstan’ (without the “i”), instead of the typical Urdu pronunciation (Mughalistan).”

To many observers, the entire Mughalstan scenario reeks of paranoia. The idea of rejoining Pakistan and Bangladesh is outlandish enough, but to do so by grabbing a swath of nuclear-armed India would seem sheer lunacy – especially considering that the proposed annexation encompasses India’s most crowded and impoverished districts, almost all of which have solid Hindu majorities. But fears of a resurgent Mughalistan persist; the map posted above appears on numerous websites.

Unfortunately, such concerns are given credence by the stated aims of the potent terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, according to the Wikipedia, include “establishing an Islamic state in South Asia by uniting all Muslim-majority regions in countries that surround Pakistan to raise jihad against all non-Muslim communities.” The fact that Lashkar-e-Taiba is viewed favorably by roughly a third of Pakistani Punjab’s 81 million people, and has in the past if not the present enjoyed close linkages with Pakistani military intelligence, is certainly cause for alarm. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s hopes for a Muslim state incorporating all of India is more ludicrous than the Mughalstan proposal, but the organization is capable on inflicting horrific violence to further its aims; its 2008 attack on Mumbai took 166 civilian lives.

Contested Regionalism in Andalusia, León, and Asturias

Controversies over identity and territory in Spain are not limited to the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Calls for regional autonomy, nationality recognition, and even national status are being voiced elsewhere, too.

Andalusia in southern Spain is one such place. Some seek to enhance the autonomy of Andalusia as a whole, while others seek to divide it into two separate communities. Andalusia’s distinctive speech is classified as a dialect of Spanish — sometimes even as Castilian (see map above). As a result, it was not initially identified as one of Spain’s historical nationalities, much to the consternation of its people. Andalusia’s statute of autonomy was finally amended in 2006 to proclaim its historical nationality, but some Andalusians go further, demanding recognition as a nation. Their main political vehicle is the Andalusian Party; the smaller Nación Andaluza seeks outright independence.

The differentiation of the Andalusian people from other Spaniards is based in part on historical class identity. Andalusia was a land of large estates worked by hired labor, with few of the small-scale peasant proprietors common in northern Spain. Long noted for its flourishing anarchist and socialist movements, today it still votes solidly left. But both large estates and Andalusian nationalism characterize the western lowlands much more than the rugged lands to the east. An organization calling itself The Platform for Eastern Andalusia regards the lowland-based regional government as overly centralized, accusing the political elite in Seville of exploiting the eastern uplands. This group calls for the creation of a new autonomous community to be constructed out of the provinces of Jaén, Granada, and Almería.

Elsewhere, linguistic differences reinforce historically based claims for new autonomous units. In northern Spain, advocates of “Leonesism” seek to build a self-governing community in the provinces of León, Zamora, and Salamanca, which currently belong to Castile and León. This area, they point out, had been the core of the independent kingdom of León, once the strongest Christian state in Iberia. León was annexed by Castile in 1301, but it persisted as a subordinate territorial unit until 1833. Autonomy advocates also stress the distinction of the Leonese language. Although Leonese is given some encouragement and protection by the existing autonomous community, it does not have the official status that its proponents desire. A few hard-core Leonese nationalists call for independence, but such a view is not popular.

Leonese national identity confronts a problem in the distribution of the Leonese language. Most residents of both León and Zamora, and almost all of Salamanca, speak Spanish rather than Leonese as their first language; others grow up speaking Galician, which is sometimes viewed as a dialect of Portuguese. Linguists also debate the status of Leonese. The most common view is that it is merely a local form of speech in a continuum of dialects known as “Astur-Leonese,” whose center is located to the north in the Autonomous Community of Asturias.

It should come as no surprise that local partisans in Asturias proclaim the distinction of their own tongue, alternatively called Asturian or (yes!) Bable. Since 1980, the “Academy of the Asturian Language” has sought to codify and standardize this form of speech, and to stop its gradual replacement by Spanish. Even though Asturias is an autonomous community, Bable has no official standing, although it is sometimes used by the local civil service. The local government is also gradually changing official place names from their Spanish to their Asturian variants. But even if one excludes Spanish-speaking areas, not all of Asturias is Asturian-speaking. In the western part of the province, one finds dialects of Galician so distinctive that they are sometimes classified as forming their own language, Eonavian.

The Astur-Leonese group of dialects extends to the east of Asturias through much of the autonomous community of Cantabria. But again, debates over linguistic status abound. Some authorities view Cantabrian as a language in its own right, others as a dialect of Asturian, and others as an “ancient dialect of Castilian.” Due to the spread of modern Spanish, UNESCO has classified Cantabrian as a “language in danger of extinction.” As is true in neighboring regions, the diversity of speech forms here is notable; the Wikipedia map of linguistic map of Cantabria, reproduced above, locates seven distinct dialects.

Catalonia: Nationality or Nation?

The Spanish policy of preserving national unity by devolving power to the regions faces three main challenges. First, some groups remain unsatisfied, pressing for enhanced self-rule or even outright independence. Second, members of several smaller unrecognized groups seek to hive off their own autonomous communities. Third, the borders of the existing autonomous communities poorly correspond with those of the cultural groups on which they are ostensibly based, as discussed yesterday in Languages of the World.

The big problem is the call for outright secession in the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Most Basques and Catalans want more autonomy, and many would be content with nothing less than full sovereignty. Independence-seekers in these two regions have adopted divergent strategies. Hard-core Basque nationalists have long embraced militancy, attacking the Spanish state and its institutions with bombs and guns. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, have almost entirely eschewed violence in favor of public demonstrations and electoral politics. In an important recent article in Foreign Policy, Paddy Woodworth argues that the former policy has been a dismal failure and the latter a marked success. Not just Spaniards at large, he contends, but the majority of Basques themselves have been so disgusted with the terrorism of the separatist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) that the movement for Basque nationhood has lost its impetus. Catalan nationalism, by contrast, is gaining ground.

Catalan stalwarts have long insisted on recognition as a nation and not a mere nationality, generating untold tensions with the central government. Where Catalonia leads, other regions tend to follow. The current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, strongly backs regional autonomy, encouraging the Catalan parliament to press its demands. With Zapatero’s support, the Spanish parliament recently accepted Catalonia’s status as a nation. In July 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled the maneuver, arguing that there can only be one nation in Spain. The decision prompted outrage in Barcelona, inciting an estimated one million people to take to the streets. As Woodworth observed,

[The protests] were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero’s party, who described the decision of Spain’s highest court as “offensive.” The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.

Other sources have ascribed an economic rationale to Catalonia’s surging independence movement. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, its tax receipts subsidizing the poorer parts of the country. With Spain’s current economic crisis, many of the region’s residents feel that they can no longer afford to support Extremadura and other poor neighbors. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, this is one issue that binds indigenous Catalans with migrants from other parts of Spain: “Newcomers from Andalusia or Aragon may shrug at warm-hearted appeals to protect Catalan culture, but they respond to hardheaded arguments about their tax money being spent on schools or hospitals far from Catalonia.” But as the map posted above shows, economic considerations cannot explain the different trajectories of Basque and Catalan nationalism, as the Basque region is even more productive than Catalonia.

Whatever the reasons for Catalonian separatism, it will be interesting to see whether Woodworth’s assessment of surging support will be confirmed in upcoming elections. In the 2008 Spanish General Election, the independence-seeking Republican Left of Catalonia lost five parliamentary seats, taking only three. But as the Electoral Geography map posted above shows, most Catalonian districts rejected the nationally dominant center-left and center-right parties to support the local coalition called Convergence and Union, which supports augmented autonomy while remaining ambiguous on independence.

Even if Catalonia were to become an independent country, the aspirations of hard-core Catalonian nationalists would not be satisfied. Such people seek sovereignty not merely for their existing autonomous community, but for all Catalan-speaking areas: the Països Catalans. In addition to Catalonia proper, this region includes the Balearic Islands, most of Valencia, and parts of both Murcia and Aragon in Spain; it also potentially encompasses the entire micro-country of Andorra, most of the French department of the Pyrénées-Orientales, and even the Italian city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. Sentiments in favor of such a greater Catalonia, however, do not run strong outside of the autonomous region itself. In the early 1980s, the possibility that much of Valencia might be incorporated in an expanded Catalonia prompted an anti-Catalan reaction and even a few physical attacks. Inhabitants of Valencia opposed to the Països Catalans idea insist that Valencian is a language in its own right, not a dialect of Catalan.

Even within the autonomous community of Catalonia, a common national identity is far from universal. Many residents hail from other parts of Spain, and feel put upon by the constant cultural demands of local nationalists. And in the far northern Catalonian comarca (county) of Val d’Aran, the indigenous inhabitants have their own speech, Aranese, considered a dialect of the southern French language of Occitan. The commentator “Ninja,” writing in response to the Foreign Policy article cited above, argues that, “There is also a nascent movement for the independence of Val d’Aran as they speak a different language, Occitan, and have an unique identity.” With a population of 7,130, Val d’Aran would make Andorra seem like a populous country.

The Nation, Nationalities, and Autonomous Regions in Spain

In everyday speech, “nation” and “nationality” are largely synonymous terms. “Nationality,” my desktop dictionary informs me, is “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” In Spain, however, the Spanish equivalents of the two terms have come to convey distinct meanings through political fiat. The official differentiation of the Spanish nation from several distinct Spanish nationalities is bitterly contentious, potentially threatening the Spanish state.

When Spain began to democratize after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 it faced an existential crisis. Franco had presided over a centralized state that suppressed regional languages and identities – in turn intensifying secessionist sentiments. Basque- and Catalan-speakers especially tended to insist on their nationhood, seeking political autonomy if not outright independence. To maintain the integrity of Spain yet satisfy regional aspirations, the country’s new leaders crafted an intricate terminological and geopolitical compromise, which they institutionalized in the new constitution. Spain, they declared, was an indivisible nation that joined together several territorially defined nationalities. “Nationality,” in the process, was redefined to refer not to a group of people possessing or aspiring to political sovereignty, but rather to a region whose inhabitants have a strong, historically constituted sense of identity.

The changes pushed forward were not merely rhetorical. Initially, the three most linguistically distinct regions were offered substantial autonomy as historical nationalities: Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque County in the north-center, and Galicia in the northwest. Autonomy was promised to Spain’s other regions as well, but at a reduced level; it also had to be gained through a more involved process. Such unequal treatment proved unpopular in several areas. In Andalusia, a million-and-half-person protest broke out as residents clambered for similar consideration. As a result, Andalusia joined the “fast track” to regional autonomy as its own nationality. Elsewhere, provinces were allowed to establish their own foundations for self-rule, either by themselves or in conjunction with neighboring provinces of similar background. Through this process, the internal political geography of Spain rearranged itself between 1979 and 1983, with seventeen “autonomous communities” coming into existence. The process reached completion in 1996, when Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa were reconstituted as “autonomous cities.” Spain is now a highly decentralized state in which most tax revenues are spent not by the central government put by the first-order political subdivisions, the autonomous communities. Spain’s fifty provinces still exist, but they serve more as geographical referents than as administrative units.

As the reorganization of Spain proceeded, different regions based their self-government claims on different grounds. Aragon, Valencia, and the Canary Islands, each of which emerged through the union of two or more provinces, declared in their statutes of autonomy that they too formed nationalities. So did the Balearic Islands as a single province. Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha emerged from provinces banding together as “regions of historical identity,” as did Murcia as a single province. The new multi-province aggregation of Castile and León selected the term “historical community,” as did the provinces of Asturias and Cantabria. La Rioja claimed autonomy as a “province with historical identity.”

Only one Spanish province did not officially become “autonomous,” whether in its own right or as part of a larger region: Navarre. Instead, Navarre reemerged as a “chartered community,” updating and expanding on the historical autonomy that it had long maintained. In practice, however, it functions as if it were an autonomous community. Navarre’s official name is Comunidad Foral de Navarra (or, in Basque, Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa). “Foral” is usually translated into English as “chartered”: it stems from “fuero,” the traditional rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective) that were historically granted to certain regions of the Spanish kingdom, especially those in the Basque-speaking north-center (see the map showing “Foral Spain”). In the case of Navarre, such rights were bestowed when the formerly independent kingdom of Navarre was divided between Spain and France in the 1550s; to ensure the loyalty of its new subjects, the Spanish monarchy allowed them to retain their traditional customs and laws. Navarre’s fueros were subsequently whittled back and contested, but the basic idea has persisted.

Madrid presented a conundrum for Spain’s geographical reorganization. Historical linkages called for its inclusion into either Castile-La Mancha or Castile and Leon, but the other Castilian communities were wary of being overshadowed by the capital and its environs. In the end, the province of Madrid was granted autonomous status in its own right, supposedly to uphold the “national interest” of Spain.

Spain’s reconstruction as a decentralized nation of regions and nationalities has been at best a partial success. Its basic structure is compromised by the geographical mismatch between ethnicity and autonomy; the autonomous communities were built out of preexisting provinces, several of which are themselves divided by language and identity. Navarre, for example, is Basque-speaking in the north and Spanish-speaking in the south, resulting in a considerable dissatisfaction. More pressing is the demand for greater autonomy – and recognition – among certain groups. Many Catalans, as we shall see tomorrow, are adamant that they constitute not a nationality but a full-fledged nation, thus roiling Spanish politics. When it comes to matters of political identity, terminology matters.

Note on sources: The Wikipedia has a number of excellent articles on this issue. Of special note are its competing articles, Nationalisms and Regionalisms of Spain and Nationalities and Regions of Spain.

Geopolitical and Religious Conflict in the Spanish Exclave of Melilla


As mentioned in Monday’s post, tensions came to a boil this summer between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s possessions on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla. The squabble began in July 2010, when Spanish forces allegedly beat five Moroccan men in Melilla for carrying a Moroccan flag. The government of Morocco subsequently encouraged or at least allowed its citizens to stage two massive border protests, which blocked the delivery of fresh produce into the exclaves. The blockade, in turn, incited political sparring in Spain, as the center-right opposition party accused the government of “failing to defend adequately the Spanish presence in North Africa,” while the government in turn denounced the “disloyal” maneuvering of the opposition, which included an unannounced visit to Melilla by former prime minister José María Aznar.

By August 23, the crisis had apparently abated. Spain claimed a “diplomatic victory” in its negotiations with Morocco after the two countries agreed to “strengthen their security and police cooperation to handle issues ranging from immigration to drug trafficking.…” But whatever agreements were made between Morocco and Spain, it is unlikely they will permanently settle the conflict. Morocco’s demand for the two communities still stands.

It is unclear what prompted Morocco to proceed with the blockade in July; no public statements have been made. But speculations on both the origin of the struggle and its diplomatic consequences are rife. A recent Time Magazine article suggests that the Moroccan government views Spain as severely weakened by its economic crisis, and hence vulnerable to intimidation. Spain stakes a great deal on its role as mediator between Europe and North Africa—a position threatened by any struggle with Morocco. According to another recent article, “Morocco wants to ensure continued Spanish support for its efforts to hold onto the disputed Western Sahara; Morocco’s government has internal problems and raised this fuss as a diversionary tactic; or maybe it wants more European aid money and is badgering Spain as a way to get it.”

What is clear is that relations between the people of Melilla and their Moroccan neighbors are both intimate and troubled. An estimated 30,000 Moroccan citizens cross the border everyday. Many come to sell their labor, as Melilla is vastly more prosperous than Morocco. Others come to shop and smuggle, returning to Morocco with “everything from booze to toilet paper.” Such day-trippers are apparently much abused by Melillans, a people anxious about illegal immigration and concerned about the security of their vulnerable community.

Tensions in Melilla cannot be reduced to a simple struggle between the Spanish inhabitants of the enclave and their North African neighbors. Some thirty to forty-five percent of the city’s 73,000 residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin, mostly of Berber rather than Arabic stock. According to the Wikipedia, Melilla remains deeply divided: “The culture in this little city is thus virtually divided into two halves, one being European and the other Amazigh [i.e., Berber].” Other sources depict greater communal cohesion. According to one recent article, “the vast majority [of Melilla’s Muslims] say they have no interest in joining their poor neighbor. ‘We feel Spanish and we are Spanish,’ said merchant Yusef Kaddur, as he stood under a date palm tree outside the main mosque in Melilla’s bustling Muslim quarter.” The fact that Berbers have little power in Morocco, even though they constitute almost half of the country’s population, no doubt contributes to the lack of pro-Moroccan sentiments among Melilla’s Muslim inhabitants.

Melilla’s Jewish population has a storied history, but is now diminishing rapidly. As Spain’s former prohibition against Jews was not enforced in its North African exclaves, Jewish settlement was continuous. In the mid twentieth century, twenty percent of Melilla’s inhabitants were Jewish; today that figure has been reduced to around five percent due to emigration. According to a 2002 article in Religioscope, Ceuta and Melilla were formerly considered “paragons of interfaith harmony,” but that is no longer the case. Many Muslim youths, the author argues, have been radicalized in recent years, and have thus turned against their Jewish neighbors: “eggs, rocks and bottles have been thrown at Ceuta’s Sephardic synagogue while Jews were at prayer, Palestinian flags and graffiti glorifying Osama bin Laden have been painted on synagogues and churches, and graves in Melilla’s Jewish cemetery have been desecrated.”

Melilla is obviously a troubled and insecure place. Its most serious clashes in recent years, however, have focused not on sovereignty disputes or religious rivalry but on immigration, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand

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

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

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

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

Language, Regionalism, and Political Protest in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia

Although Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been able to secure relatively high levels of electoral support, his campaigns have faltered in the northwest. In the Andean highland zone, closely linked to neighboring Colombia, the states of Táchira and Mérida both voted “no” on Chavez’s constitutional referendum in 2009. Anti-Chavez sentiments also run strong in the northwestern lowland state of Zulia, which brackets Lake Maracaibo. The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has deep connections with the United States. But even beyond economics, the culture of the Maracaibo region is at odds with that of the rest of the country.

The differences between the Maracuchos—the people of the Maracaibo lowlands—and other Venezuelans are considerable. Maracaibo speech is distinctive in intonation and especially in its use of “vos” for “you.” The region’s folk music—La Gaita Zuliana—is unique, and its coconut-heavy cuisine is unlike that found elsewhere in the country. Behavior differs as well. As Edward Teveris reports, “A question in the survey my company conducted a few years back asked: “Te consideras un ‘parandero’?” (“Do you consider yourself a ‘showoff’?” Meaning: lots of gold watches, necklaces, and other high machista behaviors.) The ‘Maracuchos’ responded at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the country. When we showed that slide to our clients they laughed in agreement.”

The Maracuchos seem to have embraced an oppositional culture so pronounced that it is even reflected in consumer choices. Brands that do well in Caracas and elsewhere in the country often fail in Zulia. While most Venezuelan smokers like Belmont cigarettes, the Astor Azul brand is preferred in Maracaibo; while Polar beer is favored elsewhere, regional brews are more popular in Zulia. Perhaps most tellingly, other Venezuelans drink Coca-Cola, but Maracuchos drink Pepsi. (See “A Psychographic Profiling of Venezuelan Consumers and Society,” by Jacobo Riquelme and Edward Teveris).

The same oppositional sensibility is also encountered in politics. It is thus not surprising that in 2008 leaders in Zulia proposed launching a campaign for autonomy, modeling their proposal on efforts made in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region. Nor is it surprising that such designs met concerted opposition from pro-Chavez forces. As one local representative responded, “we [pro-Chavez government] legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” adding that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight”(from “Autonomy Proposed in State Legislature of Venezuelan Oil State Zulia,” by James Suggett, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3423).

Caucasus Emirate: A Self-Proclaimed Virtual State Entity

In the global hierarchy of polities, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity” occupies a lowly position, being little more than a dream. But such dreams must be taken seriously if they are accompanied by violent actions intended to make them come true, as is the case in regard to the Caucasus Emirate. This Islamist “virtual state entity” claims (eventual) dominion over the northern Caucasus Mountains and adjacent lowlands. Currently part of the Russian Federation, the northern Caucasus is divided into handful of internal Russian republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya. Although violence in the region has diminished in recent years, it has hardly vanished. On February 3, 2010, for example, Russian security officials claimed that they killed a top Al Qaeda operative, Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, in the mountains of Dagestan (see http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=14783934&PageNum=0).

Any efforts to create an actual Caucasus Emirate will be strenuously resisted by Russia. They also clash against the designs of another “self-proclaimed virtual state entity,” that of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This Chechen republic was proclaimed in 1991 as Chechnya unsuccessfully tried to secede from Russia. In 2007, its “president” merged the “republic” into the much larger “Emirate,” thereby reducing its status to that of a mere (virtual) province. Many Chechen insurgent leaders rejected this move, preferring to fight for an independent, stand-alone Chechnya.

The so-called Caucasus Emirate aims to unite all of the Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus into a single state. Its proposed territory, however, includes a substantial non-Muslim area, the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The Ossetians (or Alans) are mostly Christians, although a few are Muslims and many still practice quasi-pagan rituals. Tensions between Christian Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors can be severe. In 2004, for example, Chechen and Ingush insurgents took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in the Ossetian town of Beslan, an event that resulted in some 385 deaths.

The Ossetians, a surviving remnant of the once-powerful Sarmatians, are a people of profound world-historical significance. It is believed by many scholars that most of the legends of King Arthur can be traced back to the Ossetians’ Nart Sagas — but that is a story for another post.

Vojvodina: Europe’s Newest Old Autonomous Region

In late 2009 Europe gained a new autonomous region when Serbia granted its northern area of Vojvodinia control over its own regional development, agriculture, tourism, transportation, health care, mining, and energy.Vojvodina, population two million, will even gain representation in the European Union (although it will be allowed to sign only regional agreements, not international ones). On December 24, Serbia’s main opposition party challenged the autonomy provision in the country’s constitutional court, arguing that it could lead to Vojvodinan independence — further dismantling Serbian national territory. Most observers think that this objection verges on paranoia. Vojvodina’s population is 65 percent Serbian, and a recent poll found that only 3 percent of local residents want independence. Vojvodinans evidently favor autonomy largely for economic reasons. But claims for heightened self-rule can lead to further claims; already a local ethnic Hungarian group wants its own autonomous zone within the larger autonomous area of Vojvodina (see map).

The flat, fertile expanse of Vojvodina is noted for its ethnic diversity. The region has no fewer than six official languages (Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, and Pannonian Rusyn), and its actual linguistic diversity is greater than that. Romani (“Gypsy”), for example, has no official status, even though more Vojvodinans speak it than speak Croatian. Of the official languages, Pannonian Rusyn is the most intriguing. While Ukrainians regard it as a dialect of their own language, those who speak it insist that it is a language in its right. Pannonian Rusyn is a language of instruction in one of Vojvodina’s public schools, and regular television and radio broadcasts are made in the language. There is even a professorial chair in Rusyn Studies at Novi Sad University.

The struggle for the autonomy of Vojvodina is said to date from 1691, when local Serbs pushed the Austrian Empire for a separate “voivodeship” (the word “voivode” originally meant “one who leads warriors”). In 1849, the region was granted limited autonomy by the Habsburg emperor as a separate duchy, but that status was soon lost when the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of Vojvodina passed to Hungarian control. When that empire was dismantled after WWI, Vojvodina went to the new state of Yugoslavia.

The people of Vojvodina continued to push for autonomy. Limited self-rule was gained in 1945 when the new communist government of Yugoslavia began organizing the country on federal lines. In 1974, much greater autonomy was gained when a new Yugoslav constitution created the “Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.” But Vojvodina, like Kosovo (another “socialist autonomous province”), remained part of Serbia, and thus did have the full scope of self-rule granted to such constituent Yugoslav republics as Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. In 1990, as Yugoslavia was breaking up, Vojvodina lost ground. Under the rule of the hard-core Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic, it was still called an autonomous region, but it no longer had autonomy.

Although Vojvodina did not experience the ethnic violence that visited Bosnia, and while it has continued to make accommodations for its minority groups, tensions persist. Hungarians, by far the largest minority, often feel threatened, and many have been moving to Hungary. In Hungary itself, far-right nationalists continue to insist that Vojvodina, like Slovakia and Transylvania, are by rights Hungarian territory. But that is a topic for another posting.