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The Malaysian state and the transnational politics of the Chins and the Acehnese.

posted on 22.03.2017, 01:43 by Murugasu, Sheila
In order to examine the nature of transnational politics, this thesis explores the interactions between the Malaysian state and the largely undocumented Chin and Acehnese migrants who are politically active within its borders. The aim of this thesis is twofold: first, to develop a more nuanced account ofthe purportedly adversarial and oppositional relationship between the host state and irregular migrants actively seeking self-determination for their homeland, and second, to better understand how migrant agency is deployed within the confines of a host state and to what ends. The thesis is a comparative ethnographic study based on interviews, document analysis and participant observation. Its primary interest lies in trying to uncover the factors that shape the different kinds of interaction that go on between politically active migrants and the state. Another important element ofthis study is to better understand what constitutes the political, by going beyond those activities carried out by the elites, be it at the migrant community level or the state level. In undertaking a comparative study of two distinct groups, namely the Chins and the Acehnese, the intention is to determine whether cultural proximity between a migrant group and the hegemonic group within the host state plays a decisive role in the ability of the migrant group to engage in cross-border political activism. Several findings emerged as a result of this study. The first has to do with the nature of the Malaysian state, which then has a bearing on its relations with irregular migrants. What becomes clear is that the various state actors are propelled by their own self-interested goals that have to do with political hegemony, wealth accumulation and institutional goals which are not always in line with official state discourse. Given this pursuit of interests, I argue that cultural affinity with the Malaysian state elite does not necessarily guarantee preferential treatment for the Acehnese migrants, and that the politically active Chins and Acehnese in Malaysia often adopt similar strategies and tactics in order to survive and engage in forms of transnational politics. These strategies include acts of collaboration, gift-giving, negotiation and state mimicry. Such activities explain how transnational politics among migrants can occur in the face of little or no offiCially-sanctioned rights or protection in a host state environment such as Malaysia. Another major finding of this thesis has to do with the multi-levelled nature of migrant transnational politics: that it is not just about affecting change in the homeland, but about continuing with the local level politics of community-building and identity formation, which becomes transnationalised with the large outward migration ofthe target constituency. Finally, the overarching conclusion ofthis thesis is that even irregular migrants are far from being powerless up against the overweening power of the state, as they are so often portrayed in the literature. Migrants and the state are inherently pragmatic actors, driven by the need to secure their own survival in a challenging and shifting global landscape. This requires adaptability and innovation by both.


Principal supervisor

Penny Graham

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Social and Political Sciences


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts