News and Reviews
A well-known Malaysian sports figure recently spent a day at a Semai village to find out the needs of the people and to highlight a report on the major development issues facing the nation.
According to the Wikipedia, the sports star, Nicol David, is ranked as the world’s number one women’s squash player, and she is considered to be “one of the greatest women’s squash players of all time.” More to the point, she also serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The Star, a Malaysian news service, reported that Ms. David visited Ulu Tual, a Semai village in Pahang state, as part of the forthcoming release of the UNDP report “Redesigning an Inclusive Future,” which will analyze the development of Malaysia. It apparently will focus on issues concerning the minority communities in the nation.
Ms. David was evidently impressed by her reception: “The villagers have been so warm and welcoming,” she said. “They are so open and willing to learn. You can see that they’ve got so much potential and that if we were to just give them a little bit of support, they would then go the extra mile.”
The Semai villagers have been building a community learning center, assisted by the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC). The learning center, called “cenwey penaney” (shoots of ingenuity), intends to teach the Semai children traditional, useful skills such as making bird snares and basket weaving.
The head of the village, Yok Ek Chantan, indicates that while progress on the new center has not been rapid due to financial constraints, the community is enthusiastic about it since it will focus on continuing the traditions of the Semai. Yok Ek discussed with the reporter the issue of schooling for the children in the village. “We’ve tried sending some of the children off to boarding school but they don’t seem to fit in well with the rest of their classmates. We’ve also had some children who find it hard to ease back into the Orang Asli way of living after they’ve been away for some time.”
The Assistant Coordinator of COAC, Jenita Engi, has been working with the villagers in the development of its cenwey penaney center. She told The Star, “when it comes to the Orang Asli, every tribe has its own customs and cultures. I’ve seen many cases where city folks try to take the villagers out of their comfort zone to try and ‘rehabilitate’ them into one of them. That’s just wrong because we’re not listening to what it is that they really need.”
She adds that the Semai are quite capable of doing many practical things, such as building their own homes or finding sources of income. Outsiders need to assist them in furthering what they already can do effectively. They should support them in continuing their own ways of life as they wish.
The Star article indicates that the children of Ulu Tual have to walk 10 km (6 miles) to school every morning through rain forest conditions. During the rainy season, it is very difficult for many of the children even to make it to school. The news report adds, however, that formal education is often not a high priority for the Semai, since they would rather engage in activities that continue their traditional customs and lifestyles. The Semai children would prefer to “learn skills to enable them to find their living from the land,” The Star writes.
Scholarly researchers do not take such a simple view of the Semai interest in education. Dentan and Juli (2008), which is freely available online, point out that many Semai children face a variety of factors that inhibit them from attending school, such as a lack shoes, clothing, bags, stationery, books, and transportation. Nonetheless, the anthropologists contradict some of the points made in the news report by arguing that Semai families are often enthusiastic about their children getting educated. They will go into debt to afford an education for a child.
Dentan and Juli amplify these issues. While many of the Semai children, supported by their adults, appear to be eager to go to school so they might have more prosperity in their lives, the schools in or near their communities are run by outside authorities appointed by the state and they usually do not include much if any local involvement by the Semai people. The reason, according to an earlier research report (Endicott and Dentan 2004), is that Malaysia is more interested in converting the Semai to Islam than it is to providing the children with modern educational advantages within their own cultural contexts. Within that perspective, last week’s news report is hopeful.
A further issue is that the Semai frequently suffer in their schools from poor instruction, bullying by the majority children, and a lack of quality teachers and relevant materials. Furthermore, the teachers in the state-run schools often do not hesitate to use corporal punishment on the children, a practice which is part of the Malay culture but not that of the Semai. Maintaining the peacefulness of a society is not a concern of the Malaysian authorities (Dentan and Juli 2008).
In schools such as those endured by the Semai, the approaches and curricula transform the kids from “peaceable cheerful Semai children willing to make friends with other peoples who treat them well and eager to learn about the wider world into unhappy, aggressive, cliquish kids under so much stress that it is hard to do their homework, and with such low self-esteem that it becomes an enormous task for them to attempt accomplishing anything,” in the words of Dentan and Juli (2008: para. 66).
So while the news report last week sounds positive in some ways, the background provided by Dentan and Juli prompts the hope that Malaysia will go even farther in respecting the traditions of their peaceful, minority peoples.
Tense political borders in and around northern India have produced regional political stresses that have fostered strains in the traditional peaceful relations between Ladakhis of different religious beliefs. These strains have produced hostilities and divisions among families, friends, and communities throughout Ladakh, and particularly in Leh.
A fascinating scholarly article last year by Sara H. Smith analyzes, from the perspective of a geographer, the complex historical and geographical factors that have produced these newly divisive ways of defining religious identities in the Leh District, part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir State. Hardening religious divisions such as these threaten the traditional nonviolence of the people.
Smith, who has published earlier research on Buddhist and Muslim family relationships in Ladakh, begins her work with a discussion of the way the Line of Control, the cease fire line between Pakistan and India established in 1948, divided the peoples of the region. She writes carefully and thoroughly, though evocatively, throughout her article. “Conflict and uncertainty about the border has become a haunting presence that allows for a particular set of political narratives to take root, even when the border is out of sight,” she writes (p.50).
In sum, the macro-political situation, at the state and international levels, has been a prime factor in helping dissolve the traditional Ladakhi tolerance for differences. Smith captures the problem of growing intolerance by focusing on her own study area, Leh town, the capital of the Leh District and the center of the Buddhist community in Ladakh. She did periods of field research there in 2004, 2007-08, and 2010.
Historically—traditionally—Ladakhis have lived together quietly, intermarrying into families with different religious persuasions without much trouble. While the people of the Leh District are primarily Buddhists, the people of the Kargil District of Ladakh are primarily Shia Muslims. There are significant minority populations of Buddhists in Kargil and Muslims in Leh. Also, because of historic trade and missionary activities, people of other religious beliefs—such as Christians and Sunni Muslims—also live within the two districts.
Marriages between Buddhists and Muslims, especially in Leh, have always been acceptable. Smith found that 83 percent of the Buddhist and Muslim women she interviewed in 2008 had relatives from the other faith, and among 75 percent of those interviewees, the faith divide was at most only one generation back—parents, uncles, aunts. News reports as recently as 2012 have continued to emphasize the harmony, and stability, that has prevailed in Buddhist/Muslim marriages.
But such inter-community marriages are becoming part of the memories of Ladakhis, rather than aspects of their continuing realities. A street brawl between a Muslim and a Buddhist in the late 1980s led to some stone throwing, then gunfire, then police intervention. Since the police forces came from the Muslim-dominated state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Buddhists took strong offense when they imposed a curfew, invaded their homes, and beat up their people.
The Ladakh Buddhist Association called for a boycott of the Muslims, people with whom they had lived as family members, neighbors, and friends for centuries. The boycott from 1989 to 1992 was strictly enforced, and it has led to profound, continuing disruptions in what used to be normal Ladakhi life. The boycott ended when the leaders of both the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Leh agreed that inter-faith marriages should be ended.
Smith unravels the complexities of this continuing situation in Leh as it has affected the people’s perceptions of their community and their fellow inhabitants. For one thing, the monumental religious structures in Leh—the Buddhist temple, the Shia imambara, the Sunni mosque—have been significantly modified in the years since the street fighting and the hardening of the inter-religious divide.
The changes in the structures have been made to emphasize territoriality, the focus of each group on itself—“we Buddhists” or “we Muslims” are strong and in the right. This territoriality in Leh reflects the much larger claims on territory and political boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir, and larger than that, of India and Pakistan.
The author’s analysis of the ways the hardened divide affects the lives of the people of Leh forms the heart of the article. She quotes from her interview with Razia, a Sunni woman, who expresses nostalgia for Buddhists and Muslims who used to live, in Leh’s past, without these artificial borders between their communities, who used to live “like one person (p.53).” Older people told Smith many stories of the ways the Buddhists use to get along with Muslims, and vice versa.
She found that older Ladakhis were not the only ones uneasy about the marriage ban. The feelings of discomfort were shared by young people. Even though they accepted that inter-faith marriages were impossible at the present time, at least in Ladakh, it seemed reasonable to them for such couples to run away and have their affairs elsewhere. However, families often seek to forcefully end such relationships, even when the young couples have moved away.
But the campaigns by the Ladakhi Buddhist leaders have gone even farther than that. They realize that the birth rate in the Muslim community is greater than in their own, so they argue that the Buddhists will soon be submerged in a tide of Islam if they don’t strongly encourage their women to produce more babies. Buddhist leaders and their views have thus invaded the domain of individual family planning and contraception. While women in Leh still have official access in health centers to contraceptives, Buddhist women have to listen to pressures in the temples for them to have more babies.
Smith concludes her article by describing a workshop that she and three others organized for 25 young people in Leh. The participants, between ages10 and 20, were broken up into teams and sent out around the town to produce digital photographs and drawings that would best represent what they felt and hoped represented the past, present, and future of Ladakh.
A few of the teams took virtually the same picture, a scene of the Sunni mosque next to the Buddhist temple. The image conveyed, in the words of one team, the past and the hoped-for future of Ladakh, a future that they saw as requiring a peaceful relationship between Muslim and Buddhist Ladakhis.
Smith, Sara H. 2013. “‘In the Past We Ate from One Plate’: Memory and the Border in Leh, Ladakh.” Political Geography 35: 47-59
News and reviews of publications relating to peaceful societies—and sometimes to related topics—are normally posted here on Thursday mornings (U.S. time) and are kept on this page for one week. Older news and reviews for 2014 are listed below, and ones from previous years are listed on the News and Reviews 2004-2005 page, the 2006 page, the 2007 page, the 2008 page, the 2009 page, the 2010 page, the 2011 page, the 2012 page and the 2013 page. All stories are also included in the News and Reviews Subject Listing. Recent ones are listed at the bottom of each society entry in the Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies, after the heading: Updates: News and Reviews. News and reviews about peacefulness in general are referred to from the bottom of the Facts page, while news stories about this website are linked from the About This Website page. News and Reviews can also be found with the Google search bar.
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