Asia's progress still shackled by politics of identity

opinion August 14, 2014 01:00

By Curtis S Chin
Special to The

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Widespread Use of ethnicity, race and religion to divide or define citizens threatens a return of wars and divisions of last century

Even as Singapore recently celebrated its 49th National Day and its own ability to forge “one people” out of ethnic Chinese, Malay, Indians and others, the spectre of identity-based politics continues to haunt the region.
How fitting it would be if the latest return visit to Asia by America’s top diplomat, US Secretary of State John Kerry, on behalf of America’s first African-American president, also helped push the region, including Southeast Asia and China, to move beyond stereotypes. This is critical if Asia is to move forward toward greater peace and prosperity.
Whether China with its large Uighur and Tibetan populations or Myanmar, also known as Burma, with more than 130 distinct ethnic groups, Asia is facing growing protests and unrest among minority communities who feel poorly served by national government policies and attitudes. Use of ethnicity, race or religion to divide or define one’s own citizens should have no place in the Asia of today, whether in giant India under newly elected Prime Minister Nahendra Modi or the smallest Pacific island nation.
Each of the destinations on Kerry’s itinerary – Myanmar, Australia and the Solomon Islands – has had its share of race-based controversy, religious antipathy or identity-based politics. In Australia, debate continues over the government’s contentious policy of stopping would-be asylum seekers at sea and then housing, some might say detaining, them at “processing facilities” on the remote island of Nauru or on Papua New Guinea. The Solomon Islands is plagued by tensions stemming in part from polarised “Malaitan” and “Guadalcanal” identities.
And, of course, there is Myanmar, where persecution of a Muslim minority, who call themselves the Rohingya – a term and identity unrecognised by the government – continues. Tensions remain high also between the nominally civilian and predominantly ethnic Bamar government and the Shan, Kachin and Karen peoples, among others, who long for greater freedom and autonomy.
Strikingly, Kerry is also the first in a long while of what had traditionally been the face and stereotype of America’s top diplomat – that of a distinguished, white male statesman. In the two decades prior, America’s secretaries of state had included a white woman (Clinton), two African-Americans (Rice and Powell) and a Jewish-American woman (Albright), dating back to January 1997. One can only imagine an ethnic Tibetan serving as China’s Foreign Minister or a Muslim from Rakhine state becoming Myanmar’s next top diplomat.
Whether speaking of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar or of religious minorities being attacked by ISIS in Iraq, Kerry should make clear that America’s values remain clear. A rebalanced pivot to Asia includes support for efforts not just to drive business growth but also to call out and end government actions in Asia-Pacific that are defined by the dividing politics of race, religion and ethnicity.
I am reminded of the derogatory words coming from China this February as US ambassador Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to serve as the top US envoy to China, prepared to depart that country. At that time, a major Chinese government news service issued an opinion piece, “Farewell, Gary Locke”, calling the third-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants a “banana”. That term is used by some Chinese to describe Asians who identify too closely with supposedly “Western values” (such as freedom of speech and religion, and a Western concept of “human rights”) despite their skin colour. In essence, “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. (I should know – having served as the US’s fourth ambassador of Chinese heritage, and pressed for reforms at the Asian Development Bank, I have been called one too.)
“But when a banana sits out for long, its yellow peel will always rot, not only revealing its white core but also turning into the stomach-churning colour of black,” read the China News Service commentary.
Respect for culture and heritage, it seems, was not enough for the state-run China News Service. With such an attitude, however, it is understandable should some Tibetans, Uighurs or any of China’s other “recognised minorities” or members of “unrecognised religions” feel uncomfortable and never fully Chinese citizens, if by virtue of who they are they are viewed by authorities and fellow citizens as targets of suspicion.
The sentiment voiced in the anti-Locke editorial also does little to help the tens of millions of ethnic Chinese around the world who are proudly citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Brazil or elsewhere. To the contrary, it may well reinforce suspicions and a lack of trust of ethnic Chinese, amid China’s rise.
It remains time for Asia to move beyond a nationalism narrowly defined by ethnicity, religion or any of the many other ways that divide a people and a continent. Should such narrow nationalism continue, Asia may well face a future that harks more back to the wars and divisions of the last century – and to the hit US television series “Game of Thrones” with its contending kingdoms – than one of extended peace and prosperity. That’s sad for all of us.
One lesson from America’s own struggles with race and racism is that sustained business and economic growth should leverage every individual’s abilities – to succeed and to fail – regardless of background, ethnicity, race or religion. That’s clearly a battle still being fought in America, and certainly remains the case in many parts of Asia, given recent headlines from Myanmar and elsewhere.
Sectarianism has now joined what I call the “little bric” of bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption that too often holds back economic progress and development.
The US secretary of state can do his part to bring attention also to this growing constraint to growth in Asia and the Pacific, but so can every citizen.
Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.  Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin

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