Unfriendly neighbors in Southeast Asia

Links: Rats invading the fields in west Myanmar. Thailand bans websites that insult the monarchy. Press freedom index in Malaysia. Indonesia’s anti-porn law.

There are numerous border disputes in Southeast Asia. The most well-known case today involves the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it, which are claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. Last month, Thai and Cambodian soldiers violently clashed near the controversial temple.

Fortunately the clash produced few deaths and injuries. But unfortunately, it generated ultranationalist and racist sentiments in both countries. Many Thais, including politicians, accused Cambodians of betraying Thailand in the past.

On the other hand, some Cambodians criticized their neighbor for being arrogant. Thailand and Cambodia do not only share borders, they also have a common political and economic history.

The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is just one of the many quiet conflicts in Southeast Asia, especially in the Indochina region. There are still unsettled border feuds between Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia today. Recently, a maritime dispute in the Bay of Bengal was reported between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

In other parts of the region, the Philippines has not renounced its claim over Sabah, which is part of Malaysia today. Some Filipino scholars believe Malaysia has been secretly supporting the Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines to protect its interests in Sabah.

This year Singapore was recognized by the World Court as the owner of a tiny but important island in the Singapore Strait, which is also claimed by Malaysia.

These border disputes are partly colonial legacies. Western powers created artificial boundaries in the past which inflamed ethnic rivalries.

It is also understandable why governments today are asserting their geopolitical interests. Each country has to protect its sovereignty and more importantly, it has to secure the territories with abundant resources. But the aggressive behavior of many leaders in the region may also be a tactic to gather domestic support for their unpopular administrations. Nationalism is being invoked for the wrong reasons.

The border disputes in the region signify the lack of camaraderie among Southeast Asians. Every country believes its people are superior over their neighbors. This form of racism seems to be endorsed by social and cultural institutions of many countries in the region. An editor of the Bangkok Post raised this point when he exposed what Thai schools are teaching his daughter:

“Like most Thais, she feels Burma is fierce and heartless, Cambodia cannot be trusted and Laos is inferior to Thailand – because the history textbooks teach her so.”

Many people in Thailand believe they once owned parts of their neighboring countries, making them feel they are the greatest in the region. In a similar way, almost all Filipinos think that other Southeast Asians have learned agriculture by studying in the Philippines.

Last month, homeowners in a village in Singapore protested the construction of a dormitory for migrant workers, citing security concerns, the migrants’ poor hygiene and the negative impact of the building on real estate prices in the area. They have forgotten that many of their ancestors were also migrants and that most of the migrant workers today in Singapore have come from neighboring countries in the region.

The unfriendliness of Southeast Asians to each other is really disappointing. But this condescending behavior toward fellow Southeast Asians is almost no different to what the people in the region are showing to their fellow citizens in their home countries.

The dominant Buddhist Thais are not on good terms with many ethnic Malay Muslims who are living in southern Thailand. The Catholic majority in the Philippines is denying Muslim Filipinos in the southern Philippines their right to self-determination. Many residents of West Papua are asserting their independence from Indonesia. Racism is again a very serious, if not the most important, political issue in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The unspoken hostility between Southeast Asians makes it difficult and almost impossible to implement region-wide initiatives. For example, there have been proposals for sending a unified team to the Olympics, the use of a single currency like the euro for Europe, and the issuance of a single visa for the whole region.

A divided Southeast Asia does not benefit the interests of each country in the region. It makes it easy for big countries like China, Japan and the United States to obtain advantageous deals from Southeast Asian countries.

The United States has clinched military basing agreements with several Southeast Asian countries; Japan has been successful in acquiring one-sided bilateral economic agreements in the region; and China is acting like the big brother of Southeast Asian nations.

Things could be different if Southeast Asia were united. Powerful countries would rethink their negotiating tactics if they were dealing with a united Southeast Asia, instead of a small country with little economic and political bargaining power.

But many Southeast Asians do not realize this need for unity. They have overlooked the advantages of creating a united regional bloc since they are distracted by trivial conflicts. It seems they prefer to convince themselves that their neighbors are inferior instead of reaching out to their fellow Southeast Asians.

China, Japan and India are among the big powers in Asia. A united Southeast Asia could alter the balance of power in this part of the world.

Related entries:

Solidarity in Southeast Asia
Human rights in Southeast Asia
2008 Olympics

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