Monday, October 24, 2011
Border Troubles (Part 1)
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".
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?
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.
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.