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The quest for Asian pluralism

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Hmong children. The Hmong are a recognised ethnic minority in many countries, including Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, but not China. (Photo: Jeremy Horner / Panos Pictures).

In Brief

A defining characteristic of the Asian continent is its pluralism. The vast Chinese civilisation on one side and the civilisation of the Indian sub-continent on the other each embraces its own rich cultural, social and ethnic diversity around a dominant cultural stream.


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Indonesia is a nation that was built on the promise of bhinneka tunggal ika — ‘unity in diversity’. Malaysia is an ethnically bifurcated state. Australasia has committed to a multicultural future. And Myanmar is at the intersection of Asia’s plural diversity. Even Japan and Korea, whose self-conception is one of ethnic and social homogeneity, accommodate significant minorities. Think Asia, think heterogeneity — of cultures, ethnicity, religions, political systems, and economic circumstance.

Pluralism is an organising principle on which the idea of Asia, and its constituent nation states, must ultimately be founded.

The latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, edited by Ben Hillman and Ryan Manuel, looks at the experience of minorities in Asia.

As Hillman and Manuel observe reviewing minority groups, and minorities’ policies, across the region can appear a Sisyphean task. Understanding is fraught by the baggage of history, memory, war, border politics, and broken promises. Rather than celebrating the region’s ethnic and cultural diversity, or highlighting new strategies to protect citizen’s rights, discussion that is rooted in the status quo can lead backward not forward. But, as they point out, accurate knowledge of where things are at is essential to securing the gains that are essential to fuller celebration of the region’s wonderful diversity.

As this EAFQ makes abundantly clear, there have been gains; there is hope. Ali-Fauzi and Ben Hillman note a number of promising developments for religious minorities in Indonesia under the new Jokowi regime. Patricio Abinales discusses green shoots of development in Mindanao in spite the years of difficulty. These gains, though, are tempered with the constant realisation that there is backsliding, and much still to be done. Often, Hillman and Manuel point out, adjustments need to be structural. Eun Jeong Soh outlines the difficulties of securing the rights of minority groups in the Korean peninsula when ethnic nationalism is strengthening and there is little commitment to multiculturalism. Nicholas Farrelly shows that newly democratic Myanmar still enforces a government policy focused on a single centralised union, where minority claims to self-determination and autonomy are vigorously stamped out.

Given that the region faces, as James Leibold notes in his discussion on China, a range of challenges, but not an ‘ethnic crisis’, perhaps the best place to start is with what can be done now.

In our lead essay this week, Robert Barnett of Columbia University examines the factors that bedevil a solution to the problem of China’s Tibetan minority, the most important of these being an inability, he argues, to agree on what the principal issue is.

There are two views, says Barnett, of the Tibetan situation. ‘One sees it as a minority question, where structural inequities in a society have been exacerbated by problems of discrimination, religious difference and economic tensions’. This is the dominant Chinese characterisation of the problem. The other, found among Tibetans and Westerners, ‘sees Tibet as a nation annexed by a large neighbour and denied its history’. The distrust between the proponents of each view makes it virtually impossible for them to talk.

Tibetans comprise a mere 0.4 per cent of China’s population and the vast majority live in the countryside. Acceptance of Tibetan incorporation in China, among the well-intentioned and informed, is consistent with sympathetic acknowledgement that China’s Tibetan population faces serious stresses on their culture and their language from internal migration and rapid development, a predicament, it is reasonably posited, faced by most minorities and a result of uneven development or competition in the marketplace though complicated by limitations imposed on culture, religion and expression.

Barnett sees reason for hope on China’s Tibetan problem: while it may seem intractable, resolution is not impossible. The low incidence of violence, due largely to the insistence of the Dalai Lama, is one of many signs a resolution is still feasible. Each side has a leader who could sign a deal; the weaker side has long agreed on the need to compromise; and the two sides are — in principle — only arguing over one thing: what degree of autonomy Tibetans should enjoy. The current discrimination issues in Tibet are minor, Barnett notes, compared to those in conflict-zones worldwide. These are the marks of a dispute that is within reach of a political solution.

In its regular Asian Review, EAFQ also contains analyses of other developments in the region: Alok Sheel on Modi’s economic policy, Ilon Alon and Tom Lairson on Sino-Russian relations, Jacqui Baker on Jokowi’s problems in Indonesia and a new voice, Ben Ascione, on the influence of Japan’s right-wing on security policy.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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