The two countries whose recent history and politics are reviewed here, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in South and Southeast Asia1 respectively, are excel lent case studies on the dual and conflicting roles ethnicity plays, at once a powerful constructive agent in state building and a potent destabilizing one. In its most constructive phase, nationalism in alliance with ethnicity, was one of the principal driving forces in the successful agitation for independ ence against colonial rule, an integral part of the historical anti-colonial struggles of the post-second world war era. Sri Lanka’s independence came in 1948, in the critically important first phase of decolonization; Malaysia’s followed in 1957. While ethnicity gave support and provided legitimacy to the nationalist upsurge against colonialism it proved to be a formidable obstacle to the peaceful consolidation of the power of these same national ist forces in post-colonial state construction, especially because both states
were multi-ethnic or multi-religious or both. The contrasting history of the two countries in regard to post-independence state construction is reviewed below.