Friday, September 22, 2017

Asia’s progress marred by identity politics

How fitting it would be if the latest visit to Asia, including Myanmar, 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. This is critical if Asia is to move forward toward greater peace and prosperity.

President U Thein Sein is greeted by ASEAN officials in Nay Pyi Taw on August 9. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)President U Thein Sein is greeted by ASEAN officials in Nay Pyi Taw on August 9. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

Whether in China, with its large Uighur and Tibetan populations, or Myanmar, with more than 135 officially recognised ethnic groups, Asia is facing growing protests and unrest among minority communities who feel poorly served by national government policies and attitudes. 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 Narendra Modi or the smallest Pacific island nation.

Each of Mr Kerry’s scheduled destinations – as diverse as Myanmar, Australia and 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 then housing – some might say detaining – them at “processing facilities” on the remote 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 Kayin peoples, among others, who long for greater freedom and autonomy.

Strikingly, Mr 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 had

included a white woman (Hillary Clinton), two African-Americans (Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell) and a Jewish-American woman (Madeleine Albright), dating back to January 1997. One can only imagine an ethnic Tibetan serving as China’s minister for 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, Mr 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 call out and 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”. In essence the term means “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. (I should know – having served as the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage, and pressed for reforms at the Asian Development Bank, I have been called one too.) 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 a Western concept of “human rights” – despite their skin colour.

Apparently modelled after Mao Zedong’s 1949 piece, “Farewell, Leighton Stewart”, which was written to mark the departure of the last US ambassador to the rival Nationalist Chinese government then in Nanjing, the China News Service commentary about Locke noted that “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”.

Respect for culture and heritage, it seems, was not enough for the state-run Chinese News Service. With such an attitude, however, it would be understandable if some Tibetans, Uighurs or any of its other “recognized minorities” or members of “unrecognized religions” felt uncomfortable and never fully Chinese citizens.

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 proudly citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Brazil or elsewhere. To the contrary, it may well reinforce suspicions and a lack of trust of ethnic Chinese amid China’s rise.

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 and a continent. Should such narrow nationalism continue, Asia may well face a future that harks back to the wars and divisions of the last century – and to the contending kingdoms of the hit US television and novel series Game of Thrones – 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 economic progress and development.

The US secretary of state can help draw attention to this growing constraint to growth in Asia and the Pacific – but so can every citizen.

Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asia 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