Future of Asia, Global Pairings

Asia’s Dark Underbelly and Long-Term Development

Across Asia, governments not only refuse to recognize a quest for cultural, ethnic, national or political rights, but are often willing to suppress them with brutal force.

Credit: Judy Gallagher (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Across Asia, governments not only refuse to recognize a quest for cultural, ethnic, national or political rights, but are often willing to suppress them with brutal force.
  • From the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, the Asian landmass is gripped by a host of conflicts.
  • Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
  • If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development.

From the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, the Asian landmass is gripped by a host of conflicts. They are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

Conflicts galore

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia and widespread discontent in Iran.

And they also include iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, these conflicts promise to create festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: A quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression for everyone?

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances. They do so in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs, as well as for the brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and northwest China, not to forget military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize Pakistan and have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Autocrats vs. economic and social development

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost. Asia, for its part, gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

There is no denying that, despite Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions, the continent is at present flourishing economically. But that may be a very static view.

Are nationalist sentiments irrepressible?

After all, history also teaches us that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus. They also did not erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

As well, 47 years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations.

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The 2011 Arab popular revolts were followed by a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. That aftermath has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: A determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia.

Conclusion

Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

All of that is why long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are quite dim.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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