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Indigenous Peoples and the State. Politics, Land, and Ethnicity in the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo”, Robert L. Winzeler (Ed.)

New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1997
Bernard Sellato
p. 128-130
Référence(s) :

Indigenous Peoples and the State. Politics, Land, and Ethnicity in the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo, Robert L. Winzeler (Ed.), New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, Monograph No. 46, 1997, 316 p.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Indigenous Ethnic Groups and the State, by David Maybury-Lewis, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997.

1The expressions ’fourth-world colonialism’ and ’internal colonialism’ have been used since the mid-1980s to refer to certain types of relation ships developed between post-World War II nation-states - whose aim is to promote a national culture, religion, and language - and their ethnic minorities, the ’indigenous peoples,’ particularly those inhabiting politically marginal regions. For a recent general reference work on the subject of indigenous peoples and the State, see Maybury-Lewis (1997).1

2Indeed, these nation-states, most of which have in common the need to achieve ’development,’ are reluctant to tolerate what they view as backward beliefs, customs, and lifestyles. They attempt to change and integrate their minorities into an emerging national society and culture. Moreover, in many instances, the valuable resources that exist in minorities’ lands have become crucial to the State’s economy. And the minorities’ interests often are regarded· as secondary to the State’s priorities. The bottom line is that, generally, the State does not want its ’indigenous peoples’ to remain what they are, and it wants access to the resources these peoples’ marginal lands contain.

3This book, originating in a panel held at the American Anthropological Association’s 1990 annual meeting, sets out to investigate the situation prevailing in peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. One rationale for such a book was the need to bring together two existing - and even well developped - scholarly networks, one focused on Orang Asli studies, the other on Borneo, which so far have had little contact. This is certainly a highly commendable endeavor.

4As Winzeler rightly points out, the indigenous groups in the region under consideration are often much better known in traditional ethnological terms than as minority communities within developing nations; thus, the need to understand how these peoples react to their fast-changing predicaments. Here, the existing anthropological knowledge of these groups is put to best use as background to the studies. This work is definitely one by anthropologists interested in modern processes, not one by development sociologists.

5The book includes nine essays. Four of them cover the Orang Asli of Malaya (peninsular Malaysia) - three dealing with specific groups (Kirk Endicott’s on the Batek; Rosemary Gianno’s on the Semelai; and Shuichi Nagata’s on the Semang) and amore synthetic essay by Robert Dentan on the Orang Asli in general - and five essays cover particular minority groups of Borneo, including groups in Sarawak (Robert Winzeler’s on the Bidayuh and Ida Nicolaisen’s on the Punan Bah), Brunei Darussalam (Allen Maxwell’s on the Kedayan and Jay Bernstein’s on the Dusun), and Indonesia’s Kalimantan (Anne Schiller’s on the Ngaju).

6These contributions investigate in great detail -from the pre-colonial to the colonial to the modern nation-state period – the evolution of local and regional politics, economics, and policies regarding minorities, the ways in which these minorities adjusted and adapted to changing situations, and, ultimately, how they are coping with their present circumstances. These essays are fine-grained pieces of good scholarship, not the ’Save-the-Noble-Savage’ sort of literature now found everywhere, and, although some of the views held are deliberately provocative, they are quite convincingly argued.

7The focus here is on “non-Malay indigenous peoples.” Although the reader certainly grasps - more or less - what this expression refers to, Winzeler attempts in his introduction to deal with the Malay vs. non-Malay contrast in relation to the pervasive opposition of identities throughout the area – “traditional indigenous” vs. “mainstream national” (i.e., the State, cf the book’s title). This appears a bit confusing. Firstly, the status of “Malayness” does not stand on very firm ground. “Who are the Malays?” is indeed an old question. ln Borneo, ’Malay’ polities emerged from coastal tribal groups that got involved in trade and connected to maritime networks. The current major religious criterion, Islam, only came later. And, to this day, this ’Moslem’ criterion has remained hazy, as quite a few Moslem Dayak groups refuse to be called Malays. All this, to some extent, also applies to Malaya.

8Secondly, while the ’center’ to peripheral Sarawak or Sabah is peninsular Malaysia (here, Kuala Lumpur), to Indonesian Borneo it is Java (and the Javanese). The situations of the Kalimantan provinces and the eastern Malaysian states are very similar, with the prominent local Moslem groups (the Borneo Malays) holding an intermediate position between their respective national centers and the local, non-Moslem ’indigenous’ minorities. In many instances, the Borneo Malays would readily side politically with the latter against the former and, to a large extent, they are just ’indigenous,’ as opposed to the Javanese or the peninsular Malays. This makes the Malay vs. non-Malay contrast somewhat non-operational in trying to draw a parallel between the situations of ’indigenous peoples’ in Malaya and Borneo.

9Winzeler is right, however, to stress the politically dominant role of Islam, part of the mainstream national culture - and of an explicit or covert ideology - in the shaping of modern ethnicity in both Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s marginal regions. The emergence of Christianity and, locally, of revived traditional belief systems (e.g., the Ngaju’s Kaharingan religion) as modern identity markers in the face of a strongly proselytizing Moslem culture is likewise rightfully stressed.

10Facing situations ranging from ethnocide to assimilation, our non-Malay indigenous peoples’ reactions, predictably, show considerable variation. Between dependency and acceptance on the one hand, and hostility and resistance on the other, these peoples have come to look upon their own customs and way of life in a new manner, whereby hitherto implicit cultural patterns have become objectified or externalized, particularly due to the politicization of religion and ethnicity and under the influence of tourism. These indigenous peoples, although involved for several decades in the nation-building process, have yet to achieve a satisfactory position. Their prospects appear to vary widely: ln certain instances (Sarawak, Kalimantan) cultural survival, if not political autonomy, seems negotiable, and even locally, under modified forms, indigenous ethnic identities are seen making some progress; in others (Malaya, Brunei), due to either the minuscule numbers of their participants or the State’s powerful cultural bulldozing, indigenous cultures seem doomed to disappear.

11This volume will be an indispensable reference to all scholars interested in the hot question of the conflictual relations between centers and peripheries and in the modern processes of ethnicity change in Southeast Asia.

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1 Indigenous Ethnic Groups and the State, by David Maybury-Lewis, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997.

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Bernard Sellato, « Indigenous Peoples and the State. Politics, Land, and Ethnicity in the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo”, Robert L. Winzeler (Ed.) »Moussons, 99 | 1999, 128-130.

Référence électronique

Bernard Sellato, « Indigenous Peoples and the State. Politics, Land, and Ethnicity in the Malayan Peninsula and Borneo”, Robert L. Winzeler (Ed.) »Moussons [En ligne], 99 | 1999, mis en ligne le 06 juillet 2022, consulté le 30 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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