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Malaysian Muslim activists display flags and banners during a peaceful protest against Myanmar’s alleged persecution of the Rohingya people
Malaysian Muslim activists display flags and banners during a peaceful protest against Myanmar’s alleged persecution of the Rohingya people, outside the Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur in February. AFP

Asia and identity politics

How fitting it would be if the latest return visit to Southeast 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 to move beyond stereotypes and towards reconciliation. This is critical if Asia, including Cambodia, is to progress towards greater peace and prosperity.

Whether China, with its large Uighur and Tibetan populations, or Myanmar, with more than 130 distinct ethnic groups, Asia is facing growing protests and unrest among minority communities who feel poorly served by national governments. 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 Kerry’s scheduled destinations – whether Myanmar, Australia or 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 housing – some might say detaining – them at “processing facilities” on the island of Nauru or on Papua New Guinea. The Solomon Islands remains plagued by tensions stemming in part from polarised “Malaitan” and “Guadalcanal” identities.

And, of course, in Myanmar, international organisations still report that in Rakhine state, the persecution of the 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 also is 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 nearly two decades prior, America’s secretaries of state included a white woman (Hillary Clinton), two African Americans (Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell) and a Jewish-American woman (Madeline Albright), dating back to January 1997. One can only imagine an ethnic Tibetan serving as China’s minister of Foreign Affairs or a Muslim from Rakhine becoming Myanmar’s next top diplomat.

Whether speaking of religious minorities being attacked in Myanmar or 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 end government actions in Asia and the 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 the 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 apparently modelled after Mao Zedong’s 1949 piece, Farewell, Leighton Stewart, written of the departure of the last US Ambassador to the rival Nationalist Chinese government then in Nanjing.

Respect for culture, it seems, was not a priority for the state-run China News Service. And as such, it is understandable should some Tibetans, Uighurs or others among China’s 55 recognised ethnic groups be uncomfortable and feel as if they are viewed by authorities and fellow citizens as targets of suspicion.

The sentiments voiced in the anti-Locke editorial also do little to help the tens of millions of ethnic Chinese around the world who are proud citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Brazil or elsewhere. To the contrary, it may well reinforce suspicions and a lack of trust of ethnic Chinese.

It remains time for Asia to move beyond a nationalism narrowly defined by ethnicity, religion or any of the many other ways to divide a people. Should such nationalism continue, Asia may well face a future that harkens more back to the wars and divisions of the last century 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” – bureaucracy, regulation, interventionism and corruption – that too often holds back progress and development.

The US secretary of state can do his part to bring attention to this growing constraint on growth in Asia, and 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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