Why Asia’s insurgencies are Europe’s shame

Pankaj Mishra writes: It wasn’t an incredible photo-op, and it’s unlikely to be included in this month’s valedictory roundup of 2012 highlights. In fact, it was barely reported.

One of this year’s most remarkable events, however, was the agreement between the Philippine government and the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

If successful, it may not only terminate decades of secessionist violence in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines; it may also inspire hope in a wide swath of Asian countries damaged, politically as well as economically, by internecine conflicts.

Divide-and-rule European imperialists, favoring one ethnic group and persecuting or neglecting another, or drawing arbitrary lines in the sand or the grass, originally transformed social and religious differences into political antagonisms within Asian societies. Their local opponents — mostly educated natives — hardened religious and ethnic identities by turning them into a basis of anti-imperialist solidarity.

In the end, the principle of self-determination was widely exported from relatively homogenous Europe to multicultural Asia, where it was embraced by rising native elites. The result was the proliferation of hastily and poorly imagined national communities — unwieldy nation-states where patchworks of relatively autonomous groups and individuals with multiple, overlapping identities had existed.

Since then, postcolonial rulers eager to hold on to their inheritance — centralized states, administrations and large, resource-rich territories — have made the map of Asia bleed red. [Continue reading…]

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