Racial prejudice and discrimination has been an integral part of the history of multicultural societies.
With increasing globalisation and rapid expansion of the Internet and social networks the news about economic, social and political crises reaches every corner of the world within seconds. How integrated and united has Asean been, based on what is happening to minorities in the region.
Today every member of Asean claims to be a free and just society, but where do these countries stand vis-a-vis the rights of ethnic minorities? Although there is lot of discussion about rights within the region, there is no coherent legal framework or strong laws to fight against systemic prejudice, blatant discrimination and the undermining of the rights of minorities. Caste, religion, language, ethnicity and gender – all these are divisive forces. Asean diversity, instead of becoming an asset and enriching factor, has become a weakness. It is unfortunate that politicians in the region lose no opportunity to divide people for their votes. The irony is, every political party accuses its opponents of creating vote banks. Each political party is doing whatever it can for the sake of its vote bank.
Hundreds of innocent people have been killed in the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar right under the nose of governments. There are reports of job discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in the whole region. The plight of maids from the Philippines and Indonesia working in Malaysia and Singapore is well known. Religious minorities persecuted in Malaysia and Indonesia are not just Hindus, Sikhs or Christians but also aboriginals.
In the last few months thousands of people have came out to protest against the ill treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In 2011, similar protests were squashed by the Malaysian government when issues of discrimination against Hindus, Christians and other minorities were raised.
In the deep South of Thailand thousands of people have been killed because of the Maly-Muslim insurgency there. Although there have been deaths on all sides, the Muslim majority continues to suffer from prejudice and discrimination. In other words, the southern region is going through a severe crisis of confidence in pluralistic Thai society.
In addition, dual pricing and discrimination against foreigners is on the increase. In Thailand, foreigners are either seen as cash cows or an unnecessary burden, not as a valuable asset in an increasingly globalised economy. Foreign talent is lost in the whirlpool of cronyism, nepotism and corruption.
Where do we find ourselves nearly three years after politicians and civil servants committed themselves to rights and secular principles in Asean? The Asean Charter says that in each member nation, people are free to go to their mosque, temple, church or other place of worship, as it is a personal matter. Still, the logic of communalism is built-in and is gripping the whole region.
Politicians in the region make speeches on human rights but the social base remains feudal in nature. Large sections of society in Asean are victims of religious intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, and this is clearly reflected in their social and economic status.
There are two major handicaps to reducing prejudice and discrimination in Asean. First, while constitutions in most countries are secular in nature, the society is in the grip of religious intolerance, which is a big obstacle to full implementation of secular policies. The second handicap concerns political parties, which are now infiltrated by extreme communal elements. In this new century, many politicians and priests are indistinguishable from communal elements forcing some countries in the direction of ethnic and religious nationalism.
The health of democracy in any country has to be gauged by security, equity and status of minorities. The influence of communal elements has risen exponentially during the last two decades and the trajectory of violence in the region has been very different for each nation. While in Thailand, there was always the possibility of communalism creeping in, the nature of communal politics in Malaysia and Indonesia became more prominent after the events of 9/11 in the US.
In Thailand, the opportunism and fallacy of colour-coded political division, rising anxiety about economic fragmentation, the successful efforts of the elite and military to project fear of a mass uprising by red shirts, the politics around emotive issues like reconciliation and possible return of Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ongoing border spat with Cambodia provide a picture of an unstable society.
Asean has a despicable record on the rights of women, who continue to remain disfranchised, oppressed and exploited. Mere talk of rights in the region is not enough. The value of a legal framework and affirmative action policies for weaker sections of society, going the extra mile to protect them and lift them socially and economically, are needed.
Forty-five years after its inception, it is time that Asean fostered the values of liberty, equality and justice – principles that can lead to the better integration of minorities. In most countries in the region there is an urgent need to reform the electoral system to reflect new social, economic and political realities. Communal violence and discrimination against minorities and women is an immense loss to the regional ethos and humanism. As 2015 approaches, it is time to check and reaffirm in practice all those values that became the foundation of Asean. A harmonious integration of the region requires the creation of a strong legal framework to protect and support all minorities and women.
Where will all this lead us? Despite setbacks, secular democratic values remain the foundation of Asean, though they have been much compromised in recent decades. In Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, democracy has been of marginal value; there are efforts to root it in but the obstacles are immense.
If the education systems in Asean can mould themselves to stress the diversity of people and a shared destiny, it will result in wonders. Until the new generations cultivate a greater appreciation for a secular society, the problems of communalism, racial prejudice and discrimination will remain.
Dr Kuldeep Nagi is a Fulbright fellow from Seattle, working at the Graduate School of eLearning (GSeL) at Assumption University, Bangkok. DrKuldeep@Live.com –The Nation
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