The Problem of Ethnic Conflicts in Asia

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Fritz Staal (2003) and Fernando Zialcita (1999) attack the “Asian Values” rhetoric as being empty. Staal criticizes Mahathir Mohamad for using “Asian Values” as a way to jail Anwar Ibrahim. He also points out that there has been (especially in the past) a vibrant homosexual tradition in Asia, unlike what Mahathir says. Zialcita, meanwhile, says that the “Asian Values” rhetoric is empty in the sense that it does not explain what Asia is. It only creates an illusion of what Asia is. He says that individualism and communitarianism can be found both in Asia and in the West. He rejects this picture of Asia being communitarian as “continentism.” Chua Beng Huat’s (2000) work on civil society in Singapore shows how the dominant PAP represses dissent and compels people to just join the PAP-sanctioned organizations.

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Benedict Anderson (1983) also created “Imagined Communities” as an approach in studying nations. He says that the nation has four characteristics: it is imagined, limited, sovereign, and a community. It is imagined because peoples of a nation can never meet all members of a nation yet they feel a certain kinship with them. It is limited because it has finite boundaries and has other nations beyond it. It is sovereign because it can impose its will within its borders. It is a community because it is composed of peoples who think they have a common history, language, heritage, etc. Imagined Communities can be used to study Asian societies. Anderson himself studied, for example, how Jose Rizal and other Filipino nationalists in the 19th century saw themselves, i.e. how they imagined what their community was like.

Said’s work on Orientalism is still valid today in light of the Trump administration’s efforts to ban Muslims and immigrants in the US. That Muslims are all seen as potential terrorists only because of their religion is Orientalist. Orientalist attitudes can also be seen in popular culture, like the movie 300 which sees West Asia as an exotic place full of monsters and otherworldly and illogical and mystical Asians. This can be applicable when we study different societies in the sense that we must be conscious in not Othering the population that we are studying. If we use ethnography, for example, we must apply cultural relativism (judging other cultures based on those cultures’ standards) and not ethnocentrism (judging other cultures using the standards of the researchers’ culture). We must not be like the Orientalists described by Said in his work. The same can be said when we use phenomenology when we seek to know the worldviews of a specific group of people. When we focus on the life of other persons in narratives, we must avoid the pitfall of judging their actions based on our own standards. Orientalism must also be kept in mind when we create theories from the ground, especially since theories are the main tool for organizing the body of knowledge about societies. These theories created from the ground must be grounded in the experiences of the groups being studied, not in the experiences of the researcher (as was the wont of Orientalists).

Orientalism is still valid as a guiding light in helping us not Other the peoples we are studying. As mentioned earlier, Orientalism at least makes us conscious that we are engaging in dichotomies. This is the strength of Orientalism. The weakness of Orientalism in focusing on just West Asia was addressed by Said himself in his later works. The strength of Orientalism is such that we can we can also see Samuel Huntington’s work The Clash of Civilizations (1996) as having shades of Orientalism. By carving the world into civilizations like the Japanese, Confucian, Hindu-Buddhist, Christian, Orthodox, he overlooks other salient factors. For example, he says that one cannot belong to two religions. However, in the Chinese and Japanese cases, the two societies are syncretic. Hence, a Chinese can be a Catholic but a Buddhist and also a Daoist (especially in the cases of Chinese-Filipino Catholics). A Japanese can be a Shintoist and a Buddhist.

The “Asian Values” rhetoric can be framed in postcolonial theory. Newly independent Southeast Asian nations Singapore and Malaysia wanted to project their “Asianness” and to dissociate themselves from the perceived decadence of the West. This is important in the study of Asian societies because we cannot essentialize the Asian societies that we are studying. For example, we cannot say that Asian societies exhibit certain characteristics. The “Asian Values” rhetoric’s strength, if it can be called its strength, it that galvanized the governments of Malaysia and Singapore to use “Asian Values” in blasting their homegrown critics and the outside world for being un-Asian, that they do not exhibit communitarian spirit, that they do not exhibit shared values, as per Chua Beng Huat. “Asian Values” as an idea was used to jail opponents and say to the West especially that Asia supposedly has a different understanding of human rights since it is communitarian in nature. That Asians can let go of their individual rights (since they are communitarian) in the name of economic advancement. The weakness of “Asian Values” is that it has no meaning at all. Different Asian societies have different experiences. Mahathir’s claim of Asian societies being tolerant of religion falls flat when we talk about China’s repression of Catholics who see themselves as being under the Holy See. Also, the idea of “Asian Values” conveniently reinvents or papers over history when it suits it. In the case of homosexuality, Mahathir says that homosexuality is a Western vice that Asians copied. This is patently not true since in China for example there was the Passion of the Cut Sleeve, in Japan there were love affairs between the bushi, in the Philippines there were asogs and bayugins (transvestites) among the precolonial babaylans and katalonans.

Staal’s work helps us to question the Euro-American mode of thinking and in using concepts, terms, theories that originate in the West (which Staal also questions). He challenges Asian scholars to come up with indigenous or local terms that help understand the Asian worldviews. Zialcita’s work also helps us question the assumptions behind essentializing statements about Asia itself. He himself says that the definition of Asia should just be restricted to the geographical borders between Asia and Europe. He also says that we should be wary of continentism and should not ascribe statements about Asia like Asia is community-oriented, that Asian food is spicy, all Asians are black-haired and brown-eyed, etc. since these statements do not hold water. Anthony Reid’s work is essential in finding out the history of nationalist movements, actually of any organization. If we use the case study approach, for example, we can study the different civil society and nationalist organizations that sprung in Asia. We can explore the different strands of each movement within the same sector.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities has been very useful in understanding Asian societies. However, the very concept of the nation has been threatened by the phenomenon of global migration, terrorism, and social media. Thus, the borders of the nation have become porous. The Imagined Community has been extended. Global migration now makes it possible for peoples belonging to different nations to reside in other nations. For example, a Filipino may not necessarily be in the Philippines to be considered part of the Philippine nation. He or she may reside in Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, the US, Canada, the UK, but still he or she considers himself or herself as part of the Philippines. Terrorism nowadays has become transnational and hence cannot be confined to just one area. We cannot accuse for example a certain nation to be the breeding place of terrorist since terrorism can come from anywhere. Social media has made the nation also part of the virtual world and thus has been made essentially borderless. To paraphrase the words of Rifkin (2001), nowadays it is not just enough to say that “I think therefore I am” but “I am connected so therefore I exist.” Social media has allowed members of a nation to talk with many other members of their nation in a space that no one owns, no nation owns.

In conclusion, the above-cited approaches offer educators perspectives to frame their curricula for area studies courses in post-ethnic conflict areas, especially in Asia. These approaches can also help in formulating other policies that can result from the study of areas/countries in Asia, especially those in areas that seek to heal the experiences brought about by past ethnic conflicts.

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