Don’t Let the Flames of Nationalism Engulf Southeast Asia
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Don’t Let the Flames of Nationalism Engulf Southeast Asia


Nationalism was the powerful and revolutionary idea which inspired and mobilized the people of colonized countries in Southeast Asia to fight for their political independence after World War II. Then, post-colonial governments invoked it to unify their nations against real or imagined foreign aggressors. 

In the era of globalization, nationalism became appealing once more for people who wanted to preserve their local identity and culture, especially in developing nations with governments that are suspicious of the Western promotion of the Washington Consensus.

On the whole, nationalism is useful and even necessary to stabilize the hegemony of nation-states. But its unifying power could also turn deadly if allowed to mutate into xenophobia, creating race-based prejudices, ethnic hatred, and religious conflict.

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Today, there seems to be a surge of this deadly brand of nationalism across Southeast Asia. 

Burma is embroiled in conflict as riots between Buddhists and Muslims flared up anew in the towns of Meikhtila, Minhla, Moenyo and Latpadan. More than 40 people have already been killed in the two weeks of conflict, while shops, houses, and places of worship have been burned to the ground. 

President Thein Sein blamed the violence on religious extremists “who exploit the noble teachings of religions and tried to plant hatred among people of different faiths for their own self-interest.”

Buddhism is a state religion in Burma. Meanwhile, Muslims comprise about four percent of the country’s population. 

What is most unfortunate in the Meikhtila riot is that it was a mere private dispute in a market which turned ugly and became a bloody riot in a town where Buddhists, Muslims, and people of other faiths have historically lived peacefully as neighbors. 

The civilian government must immediately investigate the possibilities that someone or some groups deliberately instigated some of the recent violence in Burma. It should also probe its police and army officers who are suspected of being involved in the riots, as reported by Tomas Quintana, UN special envoy on human rights in Burma.

Francis Wade speculates the riots could also reflect the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma. Likewise, dissident scholar Maung Zarni warned against “genocidal Buddhist racism” whose proponents “have chosen to pursue a destructive nationalism that is rooted in the fear of losing property, land, and racial and religious purity.”

While religious nationalism is stoking the flames of violence in Burma, the issue of national identity has triggered a divisive debate in Singapore. The Singaporean government’s population strategy published in January mentioned the protection of a so-called “Singapore Core” as it continues to accept more foreign workers and immigrants to reverse the country’s shrinking and aging population. 

Many Singaporeans rejected the proposal to increase the number of foreigners and demanded that Singapore remain a country of Singaporeans. More and more Singaporeans are blaming the influx of foreigners for rising prices, worsening traffic, and difficulty finding jobs. Fortunately, the heated debates on the meaning of Singaporean identity and citizenship has not escalated – at least for now

The motivation to define an authentic citizen is not limited to Singapore. In 2006, researchers from the Chulalongkorn and Mahidol Universities in Bangkok claimed that they have already identified the Thai gene sequence – the so called “true Thai” DNA. Moreover, the Filipino genome project was revived in February, eliciting discussions on Filipino race and ethnicity. While the scientific basis of these initiatives is benign, the results can easily be appropriated by ultra-nationalists to bolster racist agendas. 

Meanwhile, Malaysia has allegedly stolen Indonesia’s cultural heritage, provoking nationalist outrage on the part of the latter. While Indonesia and Malaysia have good relations as neighbors, they often clash over the ownership of certain cultural icons. In 2009, Indonesia accused Malaysia of stealing Balinese dance. Last year, an Indonesian education official claimed that Malaysia has misappropriated seven Indonesian cultural products as part of its national heritage.

Territorial wars are natural triggers for nationalist propaganda, as seen in the way that the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute in Preah Vihear sparked an intense ultra-nationalist hate campaign in both countries. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu wanted to reclaim Sabah for the benefit of the Philippines, but the Malaysian government insists that Sabah will remain part of Malaysia forever.

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