In the article “The notion of the nation” (7Days, September 18) Joel Quenby quotes, seemingly with approval, AC Grayling’s comment that “Nationalism is an evil. It causes wars, its roots lie in xenophobia and racism.”
Over the last two centuries, the suppression of nationalism was one method by which many European governments sought to maintain their empires.
Consequently, when the conquered reasserted their right to self-determination and took up arms against the imperial powers, could it really be said they were tapping into the roots of racism and xenophobia? I don’t think so.
A more balanced and perceptive view of nationalism, particularly in the context of Southeast Asia, was offered by Burma’s Bogyoke Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, in January 1946. In his presidential address to the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League he said, “What then constitutes nationalism? The main factor is having to lead together one common life, sharing joys and sorrows, developing common interests and one or more common things like racial or linguistic communities, fostering common traditions of having been and being one which give us a consciousness of oneness and necessity of that oneness.”
An astute political observer, Aung San went on to warn that an opportunist political leadership might take advantage of nationalist sentiment for selfish individual or group interests.
This chimes in with Grayling’s view, but the Burmese leader also praised the anti-colonial struggles then taking place in Indonesia and Indochina.
Those conflicts were bloody but necessary, and the men and women who died asserting a right to national independence are, quite correctly, regarded as heroes.
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