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Problems still faced

The Editor,

Recent soundbites on Cambodia's emotive and potentially explosive issue of national

minorities and the country's move towards increasing integration with Asean caught

my attention.

Without pretending to be a specialist on either of these subjects I wish to focus

on their dimensions and possible implications briefly.

A nation is never just simply a political unit, physically forged and sustained through,

say, the mechanism of the State. Otherwise such notions as 'state religion' would

bear no official purpose. Nor has it always to base its cohesiveness and hence survival

on the rigidity of its preferred cultural homogeneity.

The United States offers an interesting example of the modern nation-state. Her immense

geographical span is matched only by the diversity of her ethnic or nationality composition.

Yet despite this the US is immediately recognizable, in the main, as an off-shoot

of the Anglo-Saxon civilization which still pervades and structures her social conventions

and institutions.

Japan, on the other hand, despite having assimilated Western liberal democracy and

enjoying a high standard of education as well as an enviable degree of economic success,

continues to remain among the world's most traditional and homogeneous societies.

These two countries present us with features which if not unique are certainly contradictory

and complex. The former was founded by refugees and immigrants fleeing poverty and

persecution in Europe in previous centuries. Successive United States' governments,

however, proceeded to stem the flow of migrants into the country from non-European

countries of the South. Is this an indication of manifest racism? Does democracy

necessarily equate or facilitate ever greater racial integration? Should it?

The influential French thinker, Montesquieu, once observed that a country's law inevitably

reflected the shades and nuances of its tradition and customs and he noted that India's

law was characterized by the warmth of her people and climate.

As for tiny Cambodia, geographically sandwiched between two populous nations, itself

recently lifted from the precipice of cultural and physical oblivion, and struggling

to regain any semblance of an identity, should have every reason to exercise caution

and clear-headed thinking. To throw open her borders via devices such as 'visa-free

Asean' - like the recent attempt to reinstitute the death penalty - is in my view

bound to prove suicidal at least in the long run precisely because it is at odds

with the concrete social and historical realities existent. Let me cite just two

of these realities.

1. Vietnam, with whom Cambodia shares a long border, had in 1989 an estimated

population of 67 million. Roughly every square kilometer of Vietnam is tilled by

203 Vietnamese. By comparison the figures for Cambodia in the same year were 7 million

and 38 Cambodians respectively.

2. King Rama of Thailand once defined the Chinese as 'the Jews of the East'.

But despite his misgivings about this commercially-minded minority, Thailand's penchant

for aping foreign models of progress in which the Sino-Thais played a major part,

coupled with Thailand's relative freedom from colonial interference, and Theravada

Buddhism, had greatly affected peaceful Chinese-Thai assimilation. However, if Buddhism

is generally all-embracing, Islamic culture is empirically less so and for this reason

the Chinese tend to stand out more in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

Their economic success and ethnic visibility has earned them much envy and resentment

from the so-called 'sons of the soil' majority who registered their anger in a series

of violent clashes. One significant outcome of this communal tension was the formation

of an independent Chinese enclave which still stands today: Singapore.

However, 'the Chinese problem' is far from being settled and as with 'the Jewish

question' is likely to be transferred from place to place and country to country.

Fraternity between all peoples that cuts across ethnographic differences is a worthy

and noble aspiration. But this may be an ideal which can only be gradually realized

with the passage of time and in the spirit of mutual benevolence and trust. More

practicably such friendship is frequently formed between citizens of different countries

and under the shadow of an often cynical state.

Society, said one philosopher, even at its worst is still a blessing. The state,

however, is at its best oppressive and at its worst intolerant.

- Marith Pen, London.



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