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?

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