Tyranny of borders

Francis Wade

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Photo: Greg Constantine

Precarious Belongings: Affect and Nationalism in Asia
Chih-ming Wang & Daniel PS Goh (Eds)
Bowman & Littlefields: 2017

Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal: Religious Rites, Colonial Migrations, National Rights
Michael Laffan (Ed)
Bloomsbury: 2017
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How deep must we go to unearth the roots of Asia’s internecine battles over questions of identity and belonging? Are today’s nationalist conflicts the result of age-old contestations that refuse to die, or are they driven by very modern dynamics between newly antagonistic interest groups, and equally modern incentives for those engineering them?

The pendulum swing between democracy and authoritarianism in some Southeast Asian countries has animated recent media coverage of the region, but it has also confounded onlookers. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has mobilised nationalist opinion against foreign critics of his lethal war on drugs to garner overwhelming popular support, while in Myanmar, a campaign of ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, of Rohingya Muslims — depicted as an act of defence by virtuous Buddhists against a rapacious Islam — is cheered on by the majority. Similarly, it was only recently that support for Thailand’s junta, self-styled guarantors of stability and order in a politically fissured nation, began to wane.

Leaders in each case exhort citizens to help protect the borders and, thus, the delicate societies within them. Foreign pressure is seen as conniving and corrosive, while “alien” — or newly alienated — communities within are considered threats to supposedly long-standing hierarchies. Majority populations in each case have done the seemingly incomprehensible and embraced authoritarian, sometimes chauvinistic, governance as a countermeasure to the anxiety-inducing alternative: participatory political systems in which all communities are enfranchised, and in which new ideas and cultures are embraced rather than rejected as pernicious. How has this come to be?

Precarious Belongings: Affect and Nationalism in Asia, published late in 2017, when xenophobic agitators seemed to be marching across the globe, seeks to explore the modern-day drivers of exclusionary nationalism across Asia. More than a dozen authors offer varying takes on the contemporary ebb and flow of discourses in Japan, Indonesia, China and elsewhere that use the spectre of a threatening “other” to rally otherwise disparate groups around a singular, supposedly common, cause. Some common themes run across this collection of essays: that contemporary modes of communicating hateful prejudices, particularly via the internet, have had a profound effect on their spread and the degree of traction they receive; that the precise object of revulsion is never static but evolves alongside the society that nationalists seek to mould.

Adrian Vickers examines how, in the case of Indonesia, the “other” has metamorphosed over time, from the Westerner in post-colonial Indonesia who cruelly reminded locals of their disgrace and suffering at the hands of an imposing colonial power, to the communist movement of Suharto’s era that, in the eyes of the “Smiling General”, threatened the delicate nation-rebuilding project and thereby provided him with but one rationale for three decades of autocratic rule.

Political entrepreneurs can always find new targets towards whom they can direct popular ire. But the mechanisms they use and the resources they draw on remain largely consistent across time. One quality of Precarious Belongings lies in its analysis of those mechanisms — nationalism’s “affects”, as it calls them — and in particular the emotional drivers of majority-on-minority hostility. Several notable works aside, this field of inquiry has received surprisingly little deep analysis.

Precarious Belongings thus becomes all the more important in an age of increasing bewilderment at the seeming ease with which violent prejudices are sown, in Asia and elsewhere. Are these prejudices innate, and therefore always susceptible to activation, or are they cultivated by shrewd political entrepreneurs for self-serving gain? Myanmar, which is not included here, provides a compelling and current example of how political and religious figureheads can draw on the precarity of an evolving political system and exploit the accompanying anxieties to make mass nationalist-driven violence in the name of safeguarding society an apparent moral imperative.

In light of this, the evolution since 2012 of a poisonous and majoritarian antipathy towards Rohingyas in Myanmar would have made an essential case study, making its absence from Precarious Belongings all the more glaring, particularly given its emphasis on exploring how hatreds are nurtured and transmitted across different regional contexts. Nevertheless, broader questions along these lines do come up in a searching essay by Kwai-Cheung Lo: is love of the nation “some kind of political manipulation … an instrument appropriated by the ruling elites to control and monitor the governed”?, he asks. Do activists draw on that love “to lend support to their moral and political beliefs”?

Lo takes a compelling Lacanian approach to the “entanglement of love [patriotism] and hate [nationalism]”, riffing the French psychoanalyst’s maxim that “one knows nothing of love without hate”. The juxtaposition of two seemingly polarising emotions neatly speaks to a key process involved in generating the divisive politics of exclusionary nationalism: that of separating a virtuous “in-group” from a despicable “other”. An intensification of hatred for the “other” inevitably drives love for the “self”; communities turn inwards, seeking solidarity among their kind, in response to fears of what lies beyond their community bounds. The insular mental space they inhabit directly lends itself to animating those hatreds. Without interaction, there is nothing to correct whatever narratives are being circulated.

We’ve seen this phenomenon manifest itself in multiple forms across the region. In some cases it has intensified in recent years. In multi-ethnic Myanmar, where myriad highly volatile and fluid nationalisms have developed over the past century, political figureheads have used fears of a democratic opening and played the time-worn ethno-nationalist card to rally their ethnic constituencies. A broader nationalism has developed in the Philippines, where a leader’s proclaimed bid to “clean up” society is being attacked as barbaric and anti-democratic by Western states. In turn, this has fuelled resentments against the West’s perceived self-righteousness. Wherever that “other” can be conjured, and whatever form it takes — a minority group or an entire league of nations — an in-group can be better consolidated.

Elsewhere the book analyses the new public square. Essays on the role of social media in communicating chauvinistic sentiments take in the cases of Japan and China. Within those is an examination of how elites have ceded their monopoly on shaping and disseminating nationalist discourses to grassroots networks — sometimes allied to them, sometimes not — that use the likes of Facebook and Twitter to proliferate ideologies across different geographies and to “bypass traditional power institutions”.

In an essay exploring image-driven nationalism in China, Jack Linchuan takes off from Benedict Anderson’s lauded analysis of the use of the print form to mobilise nationalist sentiment, both progressive and regressive, to argue that such media could “also strengthen democracy if properly channelled”. Alas, the opposite is too often the case, with Facebook in particular having become a powerful new platform for xenophobic agitators.

The Asia of today, like the world around it, is a region of hard borders and, on a superficial level at least, distinct identity groups. This socio-political landscape makes it all the easier to clearly demarcate an “us” from a “them”. Another collection of essays, Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal, however, puts the lie to the popular nationalist claim that today’s political landscape evokes a “natural” state, and that we can rightly define members and non-members of any given territory. The book begins by charting the historic movement of peoples between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. We learn how ideas and identities were transmitted across the vast ocean dividing the two land masses, borne by traders and holy men from India who over centuries navigated across and through the region’s maritime and riverine passages.

The reader having cut through what can at times be dense academic prose, the central line of the book emerges. There is neither a historical nor contemporary underpinning for the claim that ethnic or national or religious communities are fixed, contiguous groupings that have remained consistent across time. Likewise, borders do not and have never served as natural dividers of supposedly different peoples. Where they have been drawn, too often by colonial cartographers who revelled in the art of creating and codifying hitherto non-existent boundaries, we see the “tyranny of the border” at work: the artificial separation of once transient communities, the sharpening of identities and the inevitable conflicts that result.

The nationalist project relies on peddling the fiction, helped along by colonial powers, that certain peoples rightfully belong to certain territories. In narrating how the varying cultures and belief systems of south and Southeast Asia have forever been intertwined and animated by one another, Belonging shows the pernicious effect on communal harmony of the consolidation of the myth-laden modern Asian nation-state. Those fictions underpin much of the resentment towards minority communities and are used by elites to justify hard borders and hard policies. We see the political gains this affords to national and local leaders. We also see, playing out before us now, the devastation it brings.

Francis Wade is the author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

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