Monday, October 24, 2011

Border Troubles (Part 1)

In recent weeks tensions have flared between Indonesia and Malaysia.  The current dispute stems from allegations that Malaysia moved several markers delineating the boundary between the two countries on the island of Borneo, resulting in the "loss" of several thousand hectares of territory for Indonesia.  This dispute provides an opportunity to discuss a number of issues very important in the field of geography.  In the past, borders and boundaries of different kinds have been a central interest in the field of geography.  Now geographers are leading the way in an ongoing discussion of borders and boundaries.  Over the next couple of posts, I'll address two questions: 1) what are boundaries and borders; and 2) what do they really mean?

Ganyang Malaysia?

This is not the first and certainly won't be the last border dispute between the two countries.  Between 1962 and 1966 there was an armed conflict in the border region of Kalimantan ("Confrontation" or "Konfrontasi").  At that time, Malaysia was forming itself from various bits of territory located on the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo.  Although the sultanates on the Malay Peninsula had gained independence from the British in 1957, the two territories of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo had not yet been incorporated into what would become Malaysia.  Some people in the two territories were against incorporation into Malaysia because, in addition to the spatial separation, there are significant differences in terms of culture, history, language, and religion between the Malay-dominated peninsula and the predominantly Dayak areas of Borneo.  At the same time, Indonesia was struggling with internal issues of its own.  Seeing an opportunity to unite his country through the creation of a common enemy, the charismatic president Sukarno exhorted his citizens to "Ganyang Malaysia" (Crush Malaysia) and incorporate the two areas into a greater Indonesia.  Over the next few years there was light skirmishing around the border and several hundred people were killed.  Though the campaign ultimately failed for Indonesia, the slogan "ganyang Malaysia" was a powerful one and reemerges from time to time.

Nations, States, and Nation-States

Why are borders so contentious?  In some cases it's about resource control and access.  But that doesn't seem to be really important in the Camar Bulan case.  Here there's something else at state.  To get to the heart of it, it helps to understand several sometimes confusing concepts used by political geographers to describe peoples and political entities: nations, states, and nation states.

A state to political geographers is a self-governing political entity with sovereignty.  It must have a population and be recognized internationally.  It has boundaries, economic activity, and an organized economy.  A "state" is what you think of when you use the word "country".

A nation, on the other hand, is a group of people that share a similar culture, tradition, history, and in many cases, religion.  Nation doesn't refer to a location on a map; rather it refers to people.  Not all nations have states; one of the best examples of this is the "nation" of the Kurds, a group of people spread across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.  They have a common culture, historical tradition, and language, but they don't have a "state".  Instead they form large minorities in the aforementioned countries.  Because of discrimination and oppression, many have long been actively campaigning for the creation of a Kurdish state. 

Lastly we have the nation-state.  A nation state is when the boundaries of the state roughly correspond to the geographic distribution of the people.  Commonly used examples include France and Japan.  I don't like the French example as much, because although "Frenchness" is very important in France, the country is facing some challenges to its identity.  Japan, though, is a good example because it contains most of the "Japanese" nation, a group of people with shared traditions and culture.

Why Is This Important?

Although we take for granted the existence of "countries", they haven't always been the dominant form of political organization.  For much of human history power has been exercised through other types of entities, like tribal confederations and empires.  The notion of the "state" really emerged after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  The POW was a series of treaties that brought to an end several long conflicts in Europe (the 30 Years War and the 80 Years War).  Although this is a really pivotal period in history, the outcome that concerns us most here was the acceptance that the "prince" would be able to call the shots in his territory; he'd be able to determine the religion of his people without any interference from outside, and his absolute power would extend all the way to the boundaries of his territory, which could be clearly defined on a map.

These developments would change the way we map the world, both on paper and in our minds.  Although the Peace of Westphalia dealt with European conflicts, its effects have extended to every corner of the globe, since the Europeans would go on to colonize nearly every part of the planet, and so the idea of mappable, definable boundaries extended to their colonies.  When the colonies became independent, they inherited the boundaries.

The Mandala and Riverine Kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago

Defined boundaries are a relatively new concept in Southeast Asia.  Goegrapher Jeyamalar Kathirithamby-Wells (1995) contrasted the kingdoms of island Southeast Asia with those in India and China.  In the latter two countries, a large landmass lent itself to a relatively clear idea of where the country "ended" (think of the Great Wall of China).  But in Indonesia there are lots of islands and rivers, which encouraged "riverine configurations with dendritic patterns of human settlement".  The ruler was seen as the "lord of land and water".  Central to this were patron-client relationships rather than spatial configurations.  Power radiated out from a center, which was often a port city.  As you moved away from the center, the influence of the ruler got weaker and weaker, until you reached a broadly-defined frontier area, which in many cases fluctuated in terms of its allegiances.  The term "mandala" is frequently used to describe this core-to-periphery gradation.  The control of resources and trade goods was much more important than a clearly-defined boundary. 

Geographer Thongchai Winachakul described the experience of Siam (now Thailand) in his landmark work "Siam Mapped".  Winachakul was interested in how Thailand came to be; he describes how it was a process of "negative identification".  As the European powers carved up Southeast Asia, with the British in Burma and the French in Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the rulers of Siam were confronted with the conundrum of how to preserve their sovereignty against an onslaught of colonialism.  They had to quickly learn about how the colonial powers physically mapped territory and defined boundaries, which was alien to their understanding of political organization and the exercise of power.  In less than a century, Siam went from being a kingdom with fluid frontiers to being a state with definite boundaries and clearly limits to its sovereignty.  As Winachakul writes, "it was this triumph of modern geography that eliminated the possibility, let alone opportunity, of those tiny chiefdoms being allowed to exist as they had done for centuries.  In other words, the modern discourse of mapping was the ultimate conqueror.  Its power was exercised through the actions of major agents representing contending countries.  The new geographical knowledge was the force behind every stage of conceiving, projecting, and creating the new entity" (129).

As you can see, geographers have played an important role in how we view the world politically.  In the next post I'll delve further into the current conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia and revisit the question of what borders actually mean. 

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading the mass information n historical data provided bybu under this blog post :) Well done!