Understanding Ethnic Conflict and Coexistence

Ethnic conflict is an imbalance of relations between two or more ethnic groups. In other words, ethnic conflict can be understood as a conflict between two or more ethnic groups, one of which may or may not possess the actual state power but possess some coercive power that may or may not be used over the other.

Ethnic conflict is also a form of struggle for power between one group that controls or tries to control power, institutions and resources and another that seeks to protect it. Ethnic conflict is also a relation between one group who happens to be majority but does not have the actual state power due to the structure and system imposed on them and another group that seeks to acquire or sustain power.

Ethnic conflicts are also considered in relation to the modernisation process. Horowitz (1985) describes three ways of relating ethnic conflict to modernization. One view is to regard ethnic conflict as a mere relic of an outmoded traditionalism, doomed to be overtaken by the incursions of modernity. Another view is that ethnic conflict is a traditional but unusually stubborn impediment to modernisation. The third approach is to interpret ethnic conflict as an integral part – even a product – of the process of modernisation itself.

Horowitz (1985) further argues that the very elites who were thought to be leading their peoples away from ethnic affiliations were commonly found to be in the forefront of ethnic conflict. Militantly ethnic political parties sometimes had their deepest roots among educated elite.

In most cases, ethnic conflict is the result of an extraordinary persistence of traditional antipathies so strong that they can survive the powerful solvent of modernisation. It may explain the persistence of ethnic allegiances even among modern elites in modern countries. Ethnic conflict is particularly potent when it reflects ancient enmities. Where no such longstanding antagonism could be identified, it has sometimes been dismissed as artificial or temporary.

Therefore, ethnic conflict is not just the persistence or recrudescence of earlier antagonisms. Many ethnic groups are rather new creations. The new groups cannot be traditional. Therefore it could not be possible to have traditional rivalries among themselves. Many groups encountered each other for the first time in recent times. Their relationship is the product of this relatively recent encounter, sometimes, due to external forces.

Ethnic conflicts assume diverse forms. Ethnic conflict may be violent protest against the state ruled by a dominant ethnic group. The conflict of secession occurs when an ethnic group wants to secede and create its own independent state by carving out a part of the territory. Irredentist conflicts are structurally identical as the parent state similarly loses territory when an ethnic group wants to unite with another state. The conflict of replacement is when an ethnic group wants to replace another ethnic group at the top of the power structure in the same state.

Ethnic conflict is an asymmetric conflict. The memory of violence suffered by an ethnic group continues to affect the relationships within and outside the polity. The conflict does not disappear. It can switch to a latent form but sometime in the future, it will recur. Ethnic conflicts suppressed by force start anew after years of latent survival as was in the territory of the former USSR were extinguished by force after the Bolshevik revolution and the imposition of the Soviet rule. After the collapse of the USSR, they started anew (Karabakh, Chechnya, Abkhazia, etc.). Other conflicts in Moldova, Ukraine, Poland and Yugoslavia were extinguished with the end of the Second World War. They started anew after forty years of latent survival.

Coexistence is a situation in which two or more ethnic groups are living together while respecting their differences and resolving their conflicts non-violently to developing together. The idea of coexistence is not new but the term came into common usage during the Cold War. Then, coexistence developed as a tool for reframing the relationship between two powers or groups.

In coexistence, two or more ethnic groups exist together in time or place and they also exist in mutual tolerance. Coexistence is to learn to recognise and live with the differences between the ethnic groups. It is a kind of relationship between persons or groups in which none of the parties tries to destroy the other. To interact with a commitment to tolerance, mutual respect, mutual understanding, and the agreement to settle conflicts without recourse to violence is also coexistence.

Weiner (1998) takes a radical departure from both the human rights based problem solving based on legal protections and formal negotiations and strategies of socioeconomic development. He focuses on the lives of individual persons and communities: Coexistence work concentrates neither on the deep rooted psychological level nor on the macro-societal, political, and economic levels.  Coexistence work goes on where either ethnic enemies actually interact: in the street, in neighbourhoods, in institutions of higher learning, in hospitals, in sports clubs, in market places, in business enterprises, in community groups and in religious organisations etc.

Khaminwa (2003) argues that at the core of coexistence is the awareness that individuals and groups differ in numerous ways, including class, ethnicity, religion, gender, and political inclination. These group identities may be the causes of conflicts, contribute to the causes of conflicts, or may be solidified as conflicts develop and escalate. A policy of coexistence, however, diminishes the likelihood that identity group differences will escalate into a damaging or intractable conflict.

Coexistence does not mean the exclusion of conflict but they do exclude widespread violence. Coexistence is a dynamic process. This means that coexistence exists before and after violent conflict.

Like all social environments, coexistence fluctuates, depending on the level of social interaction. Khaminwa (2003) explains that coexistence exists in situations where individuals and communities actively accept and embrace diversity of groups is Active Coexistence and where individuals and communities merely tolerate other groups is Passive Coexistence. Communities that are not experiencing violent conflict can be located anywhere within this range.

Passive coexistence is a condition where relationships are characterized by unequal power relationships, little inter-group contact, and little equity. In short, the principles of social justice are not apparent here. While this type of environment may lack overt violence, the continuation of unequal relationships is unlikely to lead to the overcoming of injustice or resolution of conflict. Institutions in this environment are not designed to support equality and, consequently, unjust and oppressive structures can be maintained. These structures often impede community growth, peace processes, and the development of democracy. Yet, since inter-group conflict is not widespread, the groups can still be said to coexist without violence.

In active coexistence, relationships are characterized by a recognition and respect of diversity and an active embrace of difference, equal access to resources and opportunities, and equity in all aspects of life. This type of coexistence fosters peace and social cohesion based on justice, equality, inclusion, and equity. In addition, institutions in this environment are designed to ensure fairness.

Therefore Active Coexistence is possible only when the structural violence embedded in the ethnic relationship is addressed properly. It will necessarily demand enormous patience and clear-headedness about their basic human needs on the part of the parties to the conflict. No less important will be the quality of leadership of the ethnic groups. It may also require the services of neutral experts to develop sustainable peace.  -IFP

By Rajkumar Bobichand


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