National Unity in Southeast Asia

National unity can be defined as achieving a sense of cohesion and identity in society, which can transcend ethnic or religious differences. In Southeast Asia, it might not be wrong to claim that trying to achieve national unity was a challenge, due to the vast ethnic groups and insurgencies that fractured society in Burma and Indonesia. Furthermore, the failure to implement a national language that was used by all its citizens regardless of ethnicity in Malaysia and Philippines can also be regarded as a failure to achieve national unity. However, it is simply too dismissive to claim that national unity was ‘impossible’. There were success stories of national unity, such as achieving a common language in Singapore and Indonesia, or overcoming religious differences to achieve a national common identity in Singapore and Thailand. Thus, national unity was certainly a possible and realistic goal for Southeast Asia, despite certain significant obstacles that prevented it from fully developing.

The violence and disorder as a result of ethnic insurgencies and calls for separation were certainly a large roadblock to achieving national unity, making it almost impossible to introduce any sense of common identity. Burma has been plagued with ethnic insurgencies since its independence was granted. Ethnic groups such as the Karens and Shans were so potent that it resulted in the introduction of military governance under Ne Win in 1958 and 1962. Since then, the military has been in power and able to quell ethnic violence. However, the large number of ethnicities and their calls for autonomy and separation made achieving national unity almost impossible, as they were alienated and forced to assimilate by the majority Burmese. Furthermore, violence in Timor Leste between Javanese Muslims and the Timorese also prevented any sense of national unity from forming. In fact, Timor Leste managed to gain its sovereignty from Indonesia, which was an outright failure in maintaining territorial integrity. From Timor Leste’s succession from Indonesia, this suggests that national unity was simply not achievable in the region. However, these cases are likely to be caused by the geography and sheer size of the nations. Burma and Indonesia are the most ethnically diverse nations; they were more susceptible to having pushback from ethnic minorities in the government’s attempts to form a common national identity. Furthermore, ethnic insurgencies in Burma fell in the 1990s as ceasefires were signed with many ethnic armed forces. Since then, violence has significantly dwindled.

Achieving national unity by introducing a common language in Malaysia and Philippines was met with failure and resistance, proving that national unity was a challenge to inculcate. The Malaysian government attempted to impose Bahasa Malaysia as a national language in order to ensure a common tongue, which would help in fostering national unity. However, this was met by pushback from the Chinese community, and their continuation of Chinese- medium schools. Eventually, universities also began teaching in English instead of exclusively Malay. In Philippines, Tagalog was only spoken by 70% of the population, with minorities continuing to speak in their traditional tongues. The failure of Tagalog can be attributed to it being the native language of the ethnic group in Luzon; similarly, Bahasa Malaysia was based on the majority Malay language. The decision to implement a main ethnic group’s language, instead of a more ‘neutral’ language was perhaps the main failure in the government’s policy to ensure a common language. However, this policy was still successful in the long run, as the ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia accepted the language policies and were successfully assimilated, with no ethnic violence occurring since 1969.

Language policies designed to promote national unity were successful in multiethnic nationsif the government implement a ‘neutral’, non-majority group language. In Singapore, English became widespread after its introduction as a primary language. Bilingualism was also promoted, allowing each ethnic group to maintain its mother tongue and unique identity. Inline with the state’s model of multiculturalism, Singapore achieved national unity successfullywhen compared to the region. Similarly, Bahasa Indonesia was chosen as a national language as it was not associated with the majority Javanese. This allowed majority of its citizens, including the Chinese community, to adopt the language as a main mode of communication. In an ethnically diverse region such as Indonesia, the success of a common tongue helped to foster national unity. However, the examples of Singapore and Indonesia may simply be an exception to the rule; most of Southeast Asia did not enjoy a similar level of success.

Accommodation in religious policies in multi-religious countries were successful in ensuring national unity in Singapore and Thailand. In Singapore, the national ideology of multiculturalism meant that each religion was granted freedom and was able to be practised. Singapore has a mix of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and many other faiths, none of which constitute an overwhelmingly large percentage of the population. Since the 1964 racial riots, there has been stability and a sense of harmony in the country, proving the success of the accommodative religious policies in ensuring national unity. In Thailand, Muslims were granted political freedom and the King was made a patron of Islam in the country. This was followed by Muslim representation in politics and the inclusion of Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation’s identity. Indeed, achieving national unity as a result of accommodative religious policies proved to be a success in Thailand. However, the successes of Singapore and Thailand may again prove to be exceptions to the norm, and very few countries have succeeded in achieving the same level of national unity due to their religious differences.

It is incorrect to claim that national unity was not possible to achieve at all. Some nations such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have been relatively successful in creating a sense of national identity despite their racial and religious differences, or their geography in the case of Indonesia. However, much of Southeast Asia has had significant obstacles to national unity, cause by their natural composition, demographics, or forceful assimilative approaches.

Chang Aik Chuan (18-U1)

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