Recent soundbites on Cambodia's emotive and potentially explosive issue of national
minorities and the country's move towards increasing integration with Asean caught
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
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.