I have heard about "ethnic cleansing" as an inappropriate euphemism. Is it only inappropriate when it's referring to mass killing, or is it also inappropriate when talking about the forced expulsion of ethnic groups from an area?

For example, can I say "It's nice that Bhutan is 60% forest, but they have also committed ethnic cleansing"? If not, what should I use instead?

  • I have no idea if it's considered "politically correct." I would avoid it because it seems inappropriately vague. Since "ethnic cleansing" often is used to refer to mass killings, your sentence might imply to some readers that Bhutan has carried out mass killings. – herisson Apr 19 '16 at 22:02
  • @Tim in that my title sounds like it's asking about the acceptability of the act, instead of the term? The title may be misinterpreted without context? – Andrew Grimm Apr 19 '16 at 22:08
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    @AndrewGrimm: I think Tim was actually saying that these terms are too vague, and seem to be asking for opinion-based answers. – herisson Apr 19 '16 at 22:13
  • It seems obvious to me that (ever if murder isn't involved) forced removal of people from their homes based on their cultural identity is inhumane. So yes, I think to spin this as "cleansing" in any sense is offensive. – Brad Thomas Apr 10 at 22:14

The term appears to have arisen in 1992 in connection with Serbian policy against its Croation and (subsequently) Bosnian minority populations. Some books of the period 1993–1995 explicitly equate the euphemism with genocide—the extermination of the target population. For example, Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1994):

Exploding the strategy pioneered a year earlier in Croatia, Serbian military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been, as the world now knows, carrying out a campaign called "ethnic cleansing." This is a euphemism for genocide. It means removal or liquidation of all non-Serbs from the territory that was called Yugoslavia. This campaign of expansion through ethnic extermination has included rape, forcible impregnation, torture, an murder of Muslim and Croatian women, "for Serbia."

Whether what Stiglmayer calls "genocide" fits the usual definition of the term is a separate question. What is clear from her discussion is that she sees "ethnic cleansing" as nothing more than a less horrifying term for genocide. But other authors distinguish between the two ideas. For example, Brad Roberts, Order and Disorder After the Cold War (1995) has this:

Many of today's most intractable political problems and related humanitarian disasters, such as civil war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing or forced population transfers, stem from nationalist disputes.

Roberts clearly considers genocide to be one thing and "ethnic cleansing" to be another (namely, "forced population transfer").

William Johnson, Deciphering the Balkan Enigma: Using History to Inform Policy (1993) seems to see little difference between "ethnic cleansing" and "mass refugee movement" beyond the involuntary nature of the former and the quasi-voluntary nature of the latter:

Large-scale population shifts–either through ethnic cleansing or mass refugee movements fleeing combat operations–already have changed the ethnic distribution of peoples throughout the former Yugoslavia. Large-scale population shifts–either through ethnic cleansing or mass refugee movements fleeing combat operations–already have changed the ethnic distribution of peoples throughout the former Yugoslavia.

I suspect that insofar as "ethnic cleansing" may have been a euphemism invented by its perpetrators, it probably envisaged something less distinct than either "mass extermination" or "mass expulsion"—namely, the removal of the victimized population from the country's midst by unspecified means not limited to deportation and not stopping short of murder if, in the opinion of the enforcers on the ground, that option made the most logistical sense.

Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem inappropriate to use the term "ethnic cleansing" to refer to any governmentally prosecuted policy involving the systematic expulsion of an ethnic group and the denial of citizenship to its members, whether mass killing is part of the program or not.


I believe your question in considering the use of "ethnic cleansing" in the comment in which you contrast that term with the existence of 60% forest in Bhutan has to do with a criticism that involves the complexities and paradoxes of eco-geo-ethno-politics there. Your question is about the use of "ethnic cleansing" within a comment that is critical of certain practices regarding people and trees in Bhutan, correct?

From what I read, the bombings in Bhutan have to do with clashes amongst groups, and the identities of those groupings have to do with ethnicity, power, and governance. "Ethnic cleansing" includes many tactics, some of which match the definition of genocide, but historically a combination of efforts are used simultaneously, so the distinction between just mass removal or just mass killings may not be practical in your definition. (See the glossary terms in: "Race and Ethnicity" by Stephen Spencer - Routledge 2014)

As the world-wide debate continues about how any of those terms (ethnic cleansing, genocide, eugenics, etc) are defined and applied - particularly regarding who is doing the defining,
and who may or may not be apologizing, or who is arguing for reparations, or even who is actively denying those terms and just summing it all up as "warfare" - the contrast of so much human suffering in the name of environmental saving is a contradiction that seems to be sharpening globally. (The UN Charter on Genocide was ratified in the U.S. by Ronald Reagan sometime in the 1980's, but archaeologists have found evidence of Anasazi involvement in a genocidal action against another tribe as early as the early 9th century...http://news.discovery.com/history/genocide-native-americans-ethnic-cleansing.htm)

If this is the issue pertinent to your question, then I would agree that yes, it's nice that Bhutan has 60% forest, and that the "but" in the "but they also have committed ethnic cleansing" is a very big, complicated, and ever-sharpening "but". The caveat is that there really is no euphemism for genocide, no matter how you word it; making a speech-comment with the intention to sharpen a contradiction via a loaded term is what it is. Just be prepared for mixed responses, especially if speaking in mixed company.

(Ironically, there's an opposite story in what happened in New England and Washington's campaign against the Seneca, (Susan Brind Morrow's "Wolves & Honey" has a poignant and poetic treatment in her narrative); he had the trees killed in order to get rid of the people...)

The following is an abstract (relatively old) that I think expands your point in a very verbose and academic way, but there are a few phrases that seem to match the point of your comment.

"Forest cleansing: racial oppression in scientific nature conservation [1999] L. Lohmann Abstract: Article looks at a specific case of racial oppression manifesting itself within development programs. At a more general level, the article looks at how ecological project can become politicised.

An example of this is South-East Asia, where valley-based states have regularly attempted to sedentarize or repress hill-dwelling ethnic minorities. Racist patterns and processes in the region have been sustained and strengthened through the activities of international environmentalists and developmentalists.

The potential for racial violence in the region is exemplified by a current conflict over water and forests in Chom Thong, a district in Chiang Mai province of Northern Thailand. Here, over the past decade, elite conservationists, state bureaucracies and politicians have helped each other exploit, rework and augment a legacy of highland-lowland ethnic tensions in the course of pressing for resettlement of mountain communities on "environmental" grounds and for greater elite and state control over mountain resources.The establishment by Thai elites, under the tutelage of US and other international conservationists, of parks and wildlife reserves has helped to entrench an upland vs lowland ethnic grid. A simplified people-vs.-trees narrative of forest decline was superimposed on the realities of forest history, making it possible to reinterpret the character and persistence of highland forests as a result of the relative absence of human influence rather than of human stewardship or commercial inaccessibility.

In an irony often noted by minority observers, the disproportionate survival of good forest in minority-occupied areas was transformed into a reason for evicting minorities.Physical violence against mountain minorities, much of it unreported, has been an integral part of their increased stigmatization and scapegoating. The violence is directed, again following the standard racist dualism, at either removal or assimilation. Certain conservation organisations involved in this issue have mobilised ethnic divisions in the service of "forest conseration" and centralisation through: Physical exclusion, Conceptual exclusion from the Thai nation! Division of minority groups from each other, dissemination of racial stereotypes.

Conclusion: Throughout their existence, campaigns to dispossess hill-dwelling minorities in Thailand have tapped the power of international racist science and development discourse. Understanding environmental racism means paying attention both to the uniqueness of particular cases and to wider parallels. Examples such as the one explored in this article provide rich materials for understanding evolving patterns of ethnic violence and their links both to local and regional inter-class politics and resource competition and to structures of racism embedded in international science and mainstream environmentalism"**

Here's the link - http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search/img/FAO-logo.png

(Please forgive my lack of visually helpful formatting - my iPad doesn't seem to agree with this platform - in future I will compose on a computer!)

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