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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

Does globalisation act as an ethnocide?

Olivier Ferrari et Jacques Ivanoff

Texte intégral


2The observations made here are the result of years of studying the Moken and their Moklen and Urak Lawoi cousins, which have witnessed changes in their lifestyles over time and remarkable cultural resilience. These groups of Austronesian maritime nomads are spread out along the west coast of Thailand and Burma, forming the northern point of Austronesian migration. What do these observations consist of?

3Today, people are seeking “the authentic”. Ethnologists and an increasing number of tourists in Thailand, who follow them in search of the exotic, regret the disappearance of the traditional costumes of highlanders and the wide boats of the sea nomads, which give the islands of the Mergui Archipelago a “spiritual feel”. Similarly, the media, which had spread the image of endangered groups, mourn the fate of Mlabri nomadism – the “spirits of the yellow leaves” of the Lao-Thai border, and the blowpipes of the men of the forest. At the same time, another discourse has been established that NGOs and civil society must now help minorities which have traditional, precious, but unsuitable know-how to become integrated into the country for the benefit of all, but to the detriment of their culture. Thus, these “shamefully poor” people (as the Moken were described at the beginning of the last century and as they continue to be portrayed – even though their poverty, which nevertheless allows for survival and egalitarianism, is ideologically expressed) are either destined to die out or are “educated” by Westerners and nations, which have been freed from colonialism in order to better control those on the fringe of society and change the image of the remainder of the population from being perceived as under-developed. What is surprising is the persistence of this discourse despite the survival of the ethnic groups that everyone seems to want to see disappear since their “discovery”, but who also insist on their survival, even if, demographically, their numbers are declining (which does not stop them from rebuilding and forming alliances with other groups). That which is exotic is an obstacle for new nation-states and its first discoverers who gave way for ethnological analysis, ethnic theories and, finally, the conclusion that they will inevitably die out. Who has not personally witnessed a culture changing or the loss of its fundamental symbols? From these observations it would almost be too easy to deduce that populations die out.

4Do the Moken sea nomads, Mlabri Laotian border nomads or even the Semang at the Malaysian border still exist? If so, what are the indicators that enable us to immediately recognise these preservers of secular traditions that are adapted to the environment? The question is, how will we be recognised as an ethnic group and are we willing to accept the change that we impose on ourselves through development? The problem is that researchers, especially most anthropologists, have prematurely declared the death of ethnic groups because they can no longer simply adapt their methods to the world’s new pace – that of so-called inevitable globalisation.

5The management of Thai national parks has tried to have the Moken put in prison or send them back to Burma. However, researchers in Thai universities and UNESCO recognise the Moken as, nevertheless, sea nomads. In Burma, they are also recognised by the government, but under another name. However, the wide boats, nomadic symbols and pride are disappearing. Yet the totem poles and “magic” dances are being replaced with changes in rituals and frescos representing the afterlife. A new definition of nomad activity must be given because, although Burmese Moken have abandoned their boats, it is also a way of coping with living with the tens of millions of Burmese fishermen who have come to their islands. They have invented a “cultural exogamy”, using the border to separate their ethnicity, detaching themselves from the Thai Moken and becoming socially closer to the Burmese emigrants, with whom they consistently intermarry, as illustrated by Maxime Boutry in his thesis. These couples, forming new pioneer colonies and creating new rituals and social codes, integrate easily into the nomadic culture. The nomadic basis is not rejected, but is integrated in exchange for the loss of a certain exoticism. The Thai Moken dealt with this situation by bringing themselves closer to other sea nomads in the country – the Moklen and Urak Lawoi – and by joining the chaole (“inhabitants of the sea” in Thai) by adopting the structure of their rituals. It is this apparent unity among Thailand’s maritime populations that guarantees their survival in the country and which changes their ethic identities. A State initiative, inspired by the model used to regroup the Hill Tribes (which was a failure), has set up projects to regroup “maritime minorities”. Although this was incorporated into the identity dynamics of these three groups of nomads, the Moken, unlike the Moklen and Urak Lawo, still pose insurmountable problems to Thailand in terms of nationality, while in Burma, they were recognised as a population in their own right. It therefore depends on whether the state chooses to interfere or not, determining if ethnic groups become an ethnologically integrated object in the process of globalisation, the phenomenon, which researchers are using to explain their disappearance. In short, the local contemporary history of globalisation has revived these nomads’ activities that had to be created so as not to die out. A new movement on either side of the border has been born, which shows that ethnicity is in constant construction and even if elements of exoticism disappear, it does not necessarily mean this will be the case for ethnic identities. These perpetual changes are expressed in Frederik Barth’s work on inter-ethnicity, but, as Maurice Godelier reminds us, it is engrained in history.

6The border has essentially forced ethnic groups to separate and rebuild themselves. With borders open to merchandise and illegal trafficking, certain states have given ethnic groups the possibility to play with nationalism, social affairs and identity. The border is an area of expression of socio-ethnic latencies, even more so because of the desire to control the different populations. The southern parts of Thailand are Burmese and nomadic, Malaysian and Chinese, but not Thai. Two national and ethno-regional systems exist alongside each other and thus seem to enable ethnic groups to adapt to development projects and the government’s social projects, while maintaining ties with networks that still determine the movement of people, merchandise and power. This superimposition coming from the many identities described by Thongchai Winichakui, presents gaps in history that no one can really fill, but that which reinforces the tensions between identities.

7Borders have become the last areas in which ethnic and social dynamics are portrayed, restoring flexibility to rigid states. Ethnic groups are creating new identities, separate from one another. They are becoming allies with newcomers, such as farmers and fishermen, building territories that go beyond the border, even integrating them into the construction of a structural and strategic base – a key aspect for the renewal of social and spatial dynamics. In return, these dynamics allow dominant central ethnic groups to take a stand on their ethnic fate and/or their future as citizens. These issues remind us of the relational dynamics between nomads and those who have settled down, which are often confused with centre-periphery relations. Border territories are rebuilt, interlock and especially use centre-periphery dynamics to create new modes of spatial representations, which express inter-ethnic dynamics and provide new spaces for cultural expression.

8Thus, although ethnic groups abandon certain cultural markers, which they consider exotic, they continue to survive and their capacity for resilience is strong. They adapt to the pretences of development, progressive tourism and other community-based projects, which nevertheless attempt to divide social regional realities into manageable units. It is necessary to recall that the killer waves of the 2004 tsunami, which hit the Moken first, did not kill a single one of them. Nevertheless, these several thousand nomads were subjected to harassment from NGOs and reconstruction projects to the detriment of their ethnic essence. Since the catastrophe, they have been the unfortunate witnesses and victims of the construction of new towns, the banning of nomadic life, obligatory schooling and the separation of couples. A number of years later, however, the nomads rebuilt their mobility system – millenarian for the Moken and a ritual for the Moklen. Today, globalisation and development; yesterday, colonisation, wars and slavery; these populations are living history and are constantly adapting their societies, ethnicity and even their ethnonym. It is not ethno-fiction, as Charles Keyes wrongly suggested, but identity dynamics in constant motion that we must understand today. Far from what Martine Ségalen and other researchers have claimed in the past, the dying out of ethnic groups is not planned, but depends rather on the ability of researchers to question their paradigms that destroys the perception of these groups. Once they have adapted to our own social and “global” realities, they will become poorly identified social objects in community projects glorified by the egalitarian arrogance of international organisations. Anthropologists tend to abandon their subject of study in an attempt to survive by believing in liberalism and national integration. However, they have not understood that globalisation is simply the contemporary establishment of a polycentric history, which gives ethnic groups new cultural objects to manipulate in new spaces. These spaces are no longer nations or micro-spaces of forgotten pioneer territories, but regional spaces in which inter-ethnic networks and ancient vassal relations and hierarchies continue to function. This contemporary historical movement called globalization – although it is actually just a new polycentrism invented by the liberal world – is simply, according to Godelier, the persistence of historical attacks, which were used to create ethnic groups in the past. These historical (slavery, for example) or economic (international commerce) weapons have never stopped populations from organising their “ethnic choices”, to use Geoffrey Benjamin’s terms. Slavery created a division between the Moken and the Moklen and Islam formed one between the Orang Laut and the sea nomads in Thailand and Burma today; slavery also created the Mlabri, who went from being slaves for “intermediary” populations (the Hmongs) to becoming autonomous populations; the Semang became a substrate, but continue to haunt the spirits and the forests in southern Thailand, while maintaining contact with their Malaysian neighbours, from whom means of protection and anti-discrimination have been put in place.

9These historical dynamics still exist today since globalisation continues to enforce the reconstitution of groups, while the establishment of borders brings new dynamics to populations – a new ethnic instrument to demonstrate their resilience. In short, ethnic groups still have much to teach us so that we can change our perception of them.

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