SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Histories of Ethnicity and Conflict in South East Asia 1 - Making States and Building Nations

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2019/2020
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 2
The course will consider the ways in which ideologies of state and nation and of ethnicity have emerged across mainland and island South East Asia over a broad historical and geographical landscape. Its objective is to explore comparatively how and why South East Asia as a region has experienced so many entrenched conflicts in which ethnic identities have been mobilized and why so many spaces of resistance to the centralising state can still be found region-wide today.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • An understanding of comparative historical processes of state formation in South East Asia in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial settings
  • A critical understanding of the significance of the Nation and nation building in colonial and postcolonial South East Asia, and its discontents
  • An understanding of the historical contexts of ethnic conflicts in South East Asia
  • A critical awareness of the ideological context of discourses on nationality, citizenship and ethnicity in historical and contemporary South East Asia
  • An ability to discuss issues raised by the course comparatively both temporally and spatially in relation to both mainland and island South East Asia
  • Ability to use inter-disciplinary models to discuss the issues raised by the course and to relate those to historical contexts


This course will be taught over a  period of 10 weeks. You will spend one hour in lectures and one hour in tutorials.

Scope and syllabus

The course will be divided into two parts. The first part (weeks 1-5) will focus on establishing a broad, comparative analytical framework across both regional space and time:

Weeks 1 & 2 will begin with a critical consideration of the principle debates on pre-colonial state formation in island and mainland South East Asia and discussion of what we can read from these of the nature and/or significance of ‘ethnic’ and other forms of social and cultural identity. This will provide students with an overview of the main ideas and debates concerning the emergence of states, nations and ethnic identities in South East Asia, considered both anthropologically and historically. 

Weeks 3 & 4 will then explore comparatively the history of state building by colonial states and the various ways in which ethnic identities and ideas of citizenship and nationhood were redrawn through these processes. 

Week 5 will continue this theme to consider the emergence of indigenous nationalist movements, including a critical analysis of ideological constructions of ethnicity and difference by indigenous elites within the later colonial state. 

The second part of the course will concentrate on the histories of conflict within individual states, particularly in the period after World War II to consider in more detail comparative postcolonial histories of nation-building, the development of ethnic discourse within particular nations, and the strategies used to integrate alternative identities (Week 6 – Burma and Thailand; 7 – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; 8 – Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei; 9 – Philippines; 10 – Indonesia). 

In this, the particular ideological nature of the postcolonial state and its understandings of ethnic difference will be considered and compared to facilitate understanding of why conflicts took on certain shapes and trajectories in different countries, and how states have idealised, actualised or fail to realise the resolution of conflicts. 

At the end of the course, the students will have a good understanding of these issues regionally and historically. They will also be able to relate these historical models to other literature in anthropology and political science. They will have good comparative understanding of the fulcrum of conflict as a contestation between national and other identities.

Method of assessment

Essay of 3,000 words worth 80% of the final mark, Reaction paper/book review of 1,000 words worth 20% of the final mark


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules