Ethnic Conflicts

Ethnic conflict is a situation of a social crisis caused by contradictory interests and goals of ethnic groups in a joint ethnic-social space. The heterogeneity of the ethnic space is in itself a ground for problems, disputes, and tensions between ethnic groups. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, more than 70% of military conflict in the mid 1990’s had ethnic or ethnopolitical causes. One of the common reasons for ethnic conflict is territorial disputes. The cause of ethnic conflict is often connected to the historical memory of ethnic groups that were discriminated in the past. In addition, one more reason is the violation of the rights of national minorities and modern-day discrimination against ethnic groups. Ethnic conflicts tend to occur on the crossroads of cultural, economic, and administrative reasons and embody the collective expression of the shared sense of othering.

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Theoretical Section

Among the researchers, there is no unity in the approach to the definition of ethnos and ethnicity. In this regard, there are several most popular theories and concepts that directly influence views on causes of ethnic conflicts in the academic literature. For instance, primordialism suggests that ethnicity is an objective reality having its foundation in nature or in society. Therefore, ethnicity is impossible to be created as well as imposed artificially. Ethnicity is a community with real recorded evidence. We can point to signs that prove that the individual belongs to the ethnic group, and these signs help to distinguish one ethnic group from another. Assuming that ethnicity is real and objective entity, one cannot impose or erase it; if this is the case, ethnic conflicts are part of human nature being possible to comprehend, describe, and predict. However, they are impossible to prevent, and these conflicts will inevitably occur at some point in an ethnos’ history.

Pierre van den Berg transmitted some of the provisions of ethology and animal psychology to human behavior. He assumed that many phenomena of social life are subjected to the biological side of human nature. Ethnicity, according to Pierre van den Berg, is an “extended kinship group”. He explains the existence of ethnic communities through the humans’ genetic predisposition for kin selection (nepotism). Thus, by following the analogy with other species, causes of ethnic conflicts may be rooted in our genetic code. 

According to the theory of constructivism, ethnicity is an artificial creation, the result of purposeful activities of the people themselves. It is supposed that ethnicity and ethnic groups are not given, but they are the result of our creation. Those characteristics that distinguish one ethnic group from another are called ethnic markers and are formed on different bases depending on how distinctly one ethnic group differs from another. Ethnic markers are of physical appearance, religion, culture, language, etc. In this theory, ethnic conflict is understood to be a consequence of two groups developing mutually exclusive or conflicting ethnic markers. 

The theory of instrumentalism regards ethnicity as a tool that helps certain people to achieve certain goals. Unlike primordialism and constructivism, this theory is not focused on searching for the definition of ethnos and ethnicity. Thus, any activity of an ethnic group is seen as a purposeful activity of so-called ethnic elites in the struggle for power and privilege. In everyday life, ethnicity is in a latent state for most of the representatives,; however, if necessary, it becomes mobilized.

Scholarly literature defines an ethnic community in an incredibly wide range of ways. Our usage of the term follows Michael Edward Brown and Anthony Smith due to the acute and comprehensive wording. Smith’s definition of ethnic community includes six features: a shared name, a myth of common ancestry, shared memories, a common culture, a link with a historic territory or homeland (which it may or may not currently occupy), and a measure of common solidarity.

To put it simply, ethnic conflicts are the conflicts between people belonging to different ethnic groups. This is a special form of social or political conflict, which has some peculiarities. Firstly, the conflicting parties appear to be divided along ethnic lines. Secondly, the parties are looking for support in ethnically akin or friendly environments. Further, in certain types of ethnic conflicts, the ethnic factor tends to politicization. Finally, new members fall into solidarity with one of the parties of the conflict on the basis of common ethnic identity, even if the position is not close to them.

The wide scope of academic literature helps to organize relevant elements of primordialism, constructivism, instrumentalism, modernization, realism, and other theories for the sake of better understanding of time, place, and causes of ethnicity-based violence. However, the theoretical approaches and assumptions can be productively divided into two types: structural and contextual. While the first ones promote a view of an ethnic conflict as a system with constant set of elements having measurable impact, the second emphasizes the importance of excluding of any king-of-the-hill schemes and placing knowledge in the accurate paradigm of observations and admonitions about actual time and space of the event. However tempting it might be to insist on being neutral or natural, the contextual approach to comprehending causes and nature of an ethnic conflict is understood to be much more precise and valuable in terms of comparative political study. 

The ethnic conflict goes through the same stages of development as any other kind of conflict, but it has its own specific features. It is able to penetrate into all other types of conflicts, capturing the conflict situations formed by other lines of social interaction. A prominent feature of ethnic conflict is that certain ideology (nationalism, separatism, communism, anti-communism, fascism, pan-Islamism, etc.) plays a great role in its occurring and development. Ideology contributes to the consolidation of the ethnic group and creates more rigid opposition between “us” and “them”. It also attaches semantic orientation to the confrontation by creating the impression of following some important values and defining goals and objectives that are crucial in the development of the ethnic group. For instance, ethnic nationalism is essentially a political program of self-determination of an ethnic group. By incorporating ideologies into a conflict, its nature changes from the battle between people into the battle of discourses, thus gaining additional justification for violent actions. 

Another feature of ethnic conflict that is particularly prominent in cases of riots is the visible presence of the wealth gap influences. According to Ward Berenschot from University of Amsterdam/Amsterdam School of Social Science Research, “The dependence of poorer citizens on politicians to gain access to state resources makes poorer neighborhoods more susceptible to political mobilization”. This statement embodies the message of central importance in the context of the theory of instrumentalism, revealing a mechanism of organizing violence by using poorer citizens. Horowitz proposes a similar conclusion of this matter, additionally emphasizing that one should make no mistake by considering poor people more prone to violence. The scholar states that these people have simply less access and resources for appropriate communication with local and state authorities, thus being easier to be ignored, used, or manipulated. 

Keeping all the mentioned above in mind, the hypothesis is that reciprocal sense of othering that might be rooted in historical memory and reinforced by cultural, economic, and political factors and/or explode in the form of riot if escalated by ideological or religious narrative of enmity. 

Case Study 1. Hindu-Muslim Conflict in India

After the Second World War, an international community demanded from Britain to give the independence to nations in its various colonies. One of the main and largest colonies was India, which had thousands of years of history before the colonization. It also had marvelous cultures and many ethnic groups. Previously to the partitioning of India, it already had two major national leagues, namely the Muslim league led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the non-cooperation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Both national movements were influenced by the horrible Jallianwahla Bagh massacre which happened in 1919 in Amritsar. Gandhi proposed a program of the total refusal of imperial power and agitated for the decentralization of India and the politics of non-violence. This means that the riot took a form of anticolonial movement at its earlier stage. The involvement of India in World War 2 worsened the relations between Indian National Congress and Britain. The confrontation eventually led to the Lahore resolution of 1940, which demanded the partition of India into two separate states. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was following the two-nation theory, which meant that religious identity is a key to Indian Muslims, while language and ethnicity play no special role. According to Radcliffe’s line proposed after Indian Independence Act of 1947, the country was separated on two dominions between the regions of religious majorities, namely the Western and Eastern Pakistan and the Indian Union. This led to mass migrations of the people from both sides that were lethal for many of them. Further conflicts were largely situated in Kashmir, where the government led by non-Muslim prince Hari Singh refused to join his principality’s lands to Pakistan despite the absolute majority of Muslim people there. This conflict escalated through three Indo-Pakistani wars in 1947, 1956, and 1971. Even now, the ethnic confrontation is still present because India still preserves nearly 13 million of Muslims who ignite the riot on its territory.

Case Study 2. Indonesian Dayaks-Madurese Conflict: Indigenous against Immigrants

The tension between the indigenous people of Kalimantan (the Dayaks) and immigrants (the Madurese) are rooted in the events of 1960’s and 1970’s when the government in Jakarta initiated a mass migration of the residents in trying to solve the problem of overpopulation in some parts of the country. The Dayaks claimed that they did not have a chance to work or own their land as a result of the invasion of migrants. The economic crisis that hit the whole East and Southeast Asia in 1997-1998 was a hard blow to Indonesia. The national currency was devalued; more than 4 million people were left without work; the explosive growth in the price of commodities led to the destabilization of public order. The demonstrations turned into riots across the country, during which up to 12,000 people were killed. The Habibie government has loosened control over the media and lifted the ban on the formation of political parties and confirmed the intention to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. 

The leader of the National Awakening Party Abdurrahman Wahid became the President of Indonesia. However, the situation in the country remained harsh economically and territorially (the UN forces entered the East Timor). The sectarian and ethnic conflicts that appeared on Lombok, Sumbawa, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas added some new problems. The whole situation exploded In Kalimantan in 2001, where the Dayak and Madurese conflict took truly frightening forms. The government had to evacuate thousands of people. The authorities did not hide the fact that evacuation was the only way to ensure the safety of immigrants who came to West Kalimantan from Java and the nearby islands. There is evidence that the Dayaks, armed with machetes and spears, organized riots in the streets of Sampit and other cities in the area, sparing neither women nor children. Many of the victims were beheaded. More than 15,000 people were evacuated before the authorities managed to stop the riot.

Analytical Section

We are now in a better position to compare and contrast Hindu-Muslim and Dayaks-Madurese conflicts in search for causal similarities and distinctive features. It is evident that moving forces of these two conflicts are different. In the case study 1, predominant force is the religion, which determines the division between “us” and “them”. The second case reveals territorial and xenophobic presuppositions for confrontation. Basically, the first case embodies the conflict of the groups that used to exist within a single political unity, while the second case is a consequence of an attempt to form a unity out of two separate island groups. Noteworthy, both of these conflicts emerged after the dissolution of colonial rule. That can be explained by the tendency of imperial governments to suppress ethnic misunderstandings and disputes. Moreover, the very presence of an agent that is even more “alien” works against the escalation of the local ethnic conflicts.   

Further, another thing needs careful tracing here. Evidently, riots rarely result from a single cause. Multiple conditions can serve as a substrate for violent conflict; however, they usually need a powerful discourse to conduct justification narrative. As it was stated by Horowitz, the rioters tend to judge their actions without individualizing them; they see the wrongdoings as answers to some previous wrongdoings of the enemy, self-defense preventive tactics, or actions for the sake of protection of some higher order. Ideologies and religions usually function as such discourses that provide justification, strengthening the sense of othering, and creating the distorting mirror effect. Thus, “we”, who are the protectors of God/future generation/homeland, are justified in our violent actions against “them”. This judgment is usually made without an accurate image of “them”; for instance, Dayaks claimed that Madurese are all thieves and that they harvest crops from other people’s fields. Thus, both case studies discussed in this essay contributes to our hypothesis by revealing the role of religious narrative and territorial disputes in the causes of riot. 

To conclude, large-scale ethnic conflicts are understood to be too multi-causal in analyzing them in strict accordance with conventional cause-effect approaches. Overall, they are rarely prolonged unless there are multiple reasons for persistent violence. The dynamics of the conflicts rely a lot on the media and conceptual discourses around the conflict because of ideological discrepancies that might have historical and cultural, hence political implementations. Economic factors and local political culture interfere with ideologies; it is challenging for local leaders and state regulators to turn this interfering into peace-making direction. 

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