It wasn’t an incredible photo-op, and it’s unlikely to be included in this month’s valedictory roundup of 2012 highlights. In fact, it was barely reported. One of this year’s most remarkable events, however, was the agreement between the Philippine government and the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
If successful, it may not only terminate decades of secessionist violence in Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines; it may also inspire hope in a wide swath of Asian countries damaged, politically as well as economically, by internecine conflicts. Divide-and-rule European imperialists, favouring one ethnic group and persecuting or neglecting another, or drawing arbitrary lines in the sand or the grass, originally transformed social and religious differences into political antagonisms within Asian societies.
Their local opponents — mostly educated natives — hardened religious and ethnic identities by turning them into a basis of anti-imperialist solidarity. In the end, the principle of self-determination was widely exported from relatively homogenous Europe to multicultural Asia, where it was embraced by rising native elites.
The result was the proliferation of hastily and poorly imagined national communities — unwieldy nation-states where patchworks of relatively autonomous groups and individuals with multiple, overlapping identities had existed. Since then, postcolonial rulers eager to hold on to their inheritance — centralised states, administrations and large, resource-rich territories — have made the map of Asia bleed red.
Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Pattani Muslims in Thailand, Baloch secessionists in Pakistan, Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, India’s Kashmiri Muslims and northeastern minorities — there is barely an Asian nation-state where centralising governments haven’t fought, often with brute military force, to hold down religious and ethnic minorities.
The secessionists have occasionally succeeded, if after much horrific bloodshed, as in East Pakistan and East Timor. More often they have looked to be upholding doomed causes. But the tremendous strain of fighting them has had uniformly devastating results, whether in Indonesia, Thailand or Sri Lanka: an enhanced political and economic role for men in uniform, the diminishment of rule of law and the loss of civil liberties.
The imperative to uphold territorial integrity turned the army into the most powerful institution early on in Pakistan, Indonesia and Myanmar, and set back prospects for democracy for decades.
The Javanese leader Sukarno prepared his own demise by frequently deploying the army to suppress disaffection across the Indonesian archipelago. More recently, Thailand’s former General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who had been empowered by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to crush the insurgency by Pattani Muslims, went on to lead a military coup against his civilian boss.
In India-ruled Kashmir, the local military chiefs openly overrule the state’s elected chief minister. Even in countries with stronger traditions of civilian rule and electoral democracy, such as India and Sri Lanka, an authoritarian-minded nationalism has productively deployed ethnic and religious minorities as a foil.
Racial politics has deeply compromised Malaysia’s great potential. India’s Hindu nationalists rose to power on a programme of demonising Muslims. The more recent success of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s president, confirms that in large parts of Asia, closely identifying your nation with its racial, religious and ethnic majority can still bring you huge electoral harvests.
Fearing loss of likely support among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, even Aung San Suu Kyi is reluctant to denounce the disenfranchisement of her country’s Rohingya Muslims. Her stance on the militarised state’s longstanding battles with the Kayin, Shan, Chin and Kayah minorities is not much clearer.
Myanmar’s military ruler, Thein Sein, renewed ceasefires with these obdurate secessionists. But violence in Kachin State in the resource-rich north has worsened. It would be too optimistic to expect improvements as Myanmar’s economy is integrated into global networks of trade and finance.
The promise of quick and great prosperity is likely to deepen, not heal, old divisions. Indeed, what look like ethnic and ancient hatreds often conceal very modern battles over precious resources — minerals and fossil fuels — in ethnic-minority regions.
Pakistan’s Baloch as well as Myanmar’s Kachin separatists claim to fight for a fair share of benefits from the riches extracted from their lands. Furthermore, predatory war economies, from timber and prostitution rackets in Kashmir to gem smuggling on the Thai-Myanmar border, have struck deep roots in many Asian borderlands.
Power here has long flowed out of gun barrels and, until the announcement of the peace accord in the Philippines in October, it wasn’t easy to see how this could change. Brokered by Malaysia, the deal between Manila and the MILF paves the way to radically enhanced autonomy for the Muslim-dominated southern region of Mindanao.
Greater federalisation, which includes clear guarantees on the sharing of natural resources and land, cultural and religious rights, may also be the way out for countries that have frittered away too much national energy and resources in affirmations of sovereignty. The agreement in the Philippines is a timely reminder of the much less fraught relationships that have existed and can exist between the periphery and the centre and between majority and minority communities.
The European idea of the nation-state, realised after much horrific bloodshed in Europe itself, was always a poor fit for Asia’s diverse mosaic. Joseph Roth, who grew up in the multinational Hapsburg empire, was appalled by the imperatives of modern nationalism, according to which “every person must belong to a definite nationality or race” in order to be treated as an individual citizen.
Roth, a Jew, suspected that members of minority groups, like himself, would be relegated to third-class citizenship, and vicious prejudice against them would be made respectable in the new nation-states built on the ruins of multinational empires. The ethnic cleansers of 20th century Europe proved him right. It required a monstrous crime and a repentant political imagination to institute peace between warring European nations and soften attitudes toward minorities. The battle against bigotry is far from over; Europe’s long and violent past today looms over its inevitably multicultural future. For Asian nations beset by their own present and potential ethnic cleansers, it is even more important to remember the relative youth of sectarian nationalism on the continent — and the long centuries when it did not exist.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.