A recent article in The Economist on the violence between Buddhist chauvinists and Muslims in Myanmar (“When the lid blows off”) lamented, “so much for a plural society”. The suggestion seems to have been that the current ethnic and religious violence was an aberration for such diverse societies. But perhaps this view confuses a “pluralistic” society with a “plural society”.

In fact, the great scholar of colonial society in Southeast Asia, John S. Furnivall, knew that this was the risk of plural societies everywhere. Furnivall’s concept of the “plural society” (see Colonial Policy and Practice: a Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India [1948]) refers not simply to a diversity of races, but the problematic nature of such societies that emerged under European colonial regimes. In a plural society people “mix but do not combine”. There is no common “social will”; they are a “crowd”, rather than a “community”. Members of the plural society are bound not by “custom”, but by “law” imposed by outsiders. Furnivall argued that plural societies were unnatural and fragile precisely because they were held together only by economic self-interest, mediated by the market, and the coercive apparatus of European colonial power. Take away one of those factors and little is left to hold such societies together.

If one looks at the fate of Southeast Asian societies post-independence, when economic crisis coincided with a political vacuum following the departure of the colonial powers, this was precisely the predicament many countries found themselves in. Ethnic violence was especially the fate of the commercially dominant ethnic Chinese, who often found themselves persecuted by impoverished, politically powerless indigenous majority populations and their governments.

If we view the Burmese military regime as analogous to the colonial regimes, which similarly imposed order through coercion without rooting that order in “social will”, then following Furnivall’s logic the weakening of central power as a result of Myanmar’s recent “democratization” risks upsetting the delicate balance of Myanmar’s military-era plural society.

So far, much of the media commentary on the violence in Myanmar has attributed the cause to Buddhist chauvinism, the conniving of the central military-dominated government – including the silence of the formerly respected figure, (ethnic Burman) Aung San Suu Kyi – or the mutual hatred of “primordial” religious identities.

Viewing the current violence through the lens of Furnivall’s concept of the “plural society” may be a more helpful way of understanding what is going on in Myanmar today.

Patrick Jory teaches Southeast Asian history at the University of Queensland