What does the revival of nationalism mean

"Nationalism that violates dignity should be condemned"

An interview with Bonn Juego by Ella Soesanto and Fabian Heppe.

Donald Trump or Rodrigo Duterte, Victor Orban or Hun Sen - as in the western world, populist politicians with a nationalist agenda are on the rise in Asia too. How do you explain their popularity?

The popularity of populist politicians and nationalist movements results from the protracted global crisis of liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism. We are at a historic point because the hegemony of American-European liberalism is being challenged at the same time by forces on the political left and the political right. Asia's present and future will be determined by this change. The emerging nationalist ideology in parts of Asia can be understood both as a symptom and as a response to this crisis.

What exactly do the Asian answers look like and do they have something in common?

It is important to be aware of Asia's diversity and development in order not to generalize social processes in a leaner manner. The return of nationalism in different parts of Asia can only be understood in terms of their respective historical contexts. In China, the idea of ​​nationalism is expressed in the economic strategy and international relations of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping's Chinese dream, above all the “Belt and Road Initiative”, is a foreign policy that targets China's domestic economy. It should ensure a revitalization of the nation. In the case of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist bloc in India, the nationalist discourse is determined by political, ethnic and caste-specific interests.

Nationalist movements appear in Asia with different narratives - from ethno-religious ideologies in India and Myanmar to historical revisionism in Japan to the idea of ​​racial purity in Korea. So far, however, the activities of these reactionary social forces have not contributed to the improvement of the living conditions for the people or of international relations.

The history of Asia shows that nationalism can also lead to positive change. For example, the uprising against the colonial rulers in India in the 1940s was largely based on the idea of ​​national sovereignty. What's different this time?

The idea of ​​nationalism can be understood positively if it is used only as an ideological instrument to achieve a larger, liberating goal and is not a political end in itself. The nationalism of Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement is not the same as the extreme nationalist, racist and nativist agenda of far-right groups.

Historically, nationalism in some developing countries in Asia has been progressive because it has been a resistance movement in the spirit of anti-imperialism. He was more inspired by a national, anti-colonial consciousness than by the malevolent idea of ​​wanting to enlarge a particular race.

In this respect, nationalism was necessary to a certain extent in the struggle against foreign occupiers. How did this period of decolonization lead to nationalism in Asia today?

Decolonization in Asia is far from over. Europe and the US remain convinced that they bring modernity, progress and enlightenment as role models for the world. More importantly, the process of decolonization has led to a “new kind of colonialism” in which Asian countries are integrated into global production chains and the international division of labor. As nation-states in the periphery, they serve the capitalist centers. It is precisely these inequalities that contribute significantly to the popularity of nationalist parties and their rhetoric.

Only right-wing populist politicians seem to benefit from the current crisis. Why do they manage, in contrast to the liberal left, to mobilize the masses in Asia?

So far, no ideological camp has emerged as the clear winner from this crisis. The liberal elites are stubbornly fighting to maintain their position of power in society and sections of the political left are trying to present their own program as an alternative. However, right-wing populists in Asia have so far been able to capture the zeitgeist best. They manage to take everyday problems such as inefficient public transport or street crime seriously and at the same time to address major social problems such as the colonial past, corruption or class inequality.

The messages of the populists are in line with people's experiences and address their legitimate fears, resentments, hopes and worries. You construct a language - and accompany it with corresponding images in social media - that unfolds a high emotional impact. Ironically, the political right has used left-wing discourse in its anti-establishment slogans.

In addition, the historical contradictions within the liberal democracies have become visible, especially in countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, which have been through social uprisings. The processes of democratization in Asia have focused too much on the implementation of liberal ideals without achieving socio-economic equality or promoting solidarity among people.

Many of the current leaders in Asia are men who have attracted public attention for misogynistic behavior. Pakistan's President Imran Khan said, for example. For example, feminists degrade the role of the mother, while President Duterte received applause for his rape jokes. What does this mean?

Some right-wing nationalist groups pursue conservative policies. The conservative notion of nation building involves restoring cultural traditions - including a patriarchal system that upholds male privileges and oppresses women and sexual minorities. Populist leaders and their supporters normalize macho behavior, misogyny and homophobic language, creating a climate that legitimizes physical violence against girls, women and sexual minorities.

So far, Duterte's misogynistic and homophobic comments have had no substantial negative effect on his popularity ratings. Even parts of the women's and LGBTQI movement are among his supporters.

A distinctive quality of populism is its ability to formulate broad policies that appeal to people across class boundaries and at the same time have a divide-and-rule effect on possible oppositional groups. Populist politicians - as well as right-wing nationalist movements - are able to use identity politics to their advantage. They prefer an unconventional approach to norms of political correctness, which enables them to represent publicly popular attitudes and express sexist opinions that are deeply anchored in the psyche of many people. Playing with identity politics is, at best, a diversion from fundamental social conflicts and, at worst, a strategy to break the solidarity of the oppressed with one another.

In addition to gender policy, refugee policy is also polarizing. In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis is fueling the nationalist debate and strengthening anti-liberal forces. How do you see this discourse?

In Europe, the recent popularity of right-wing populist and anti-migration parties is closely related to the refugee and migration crisis. Yet the nationalist right, liberals and even the political left in the West overlook the fact that the refugee crises in Africa and the Middle East are a consequence of American and European foreign policy and its invasion of these countries.

This should be emphasized much more in public discourse. Instead of debating open or closed borders, the political campaigns of the left in Europe should aim to end imperialist wars, seek reparations for crimes against humanity, and boost the productive forces in developing countries. These could be powerful alternatives to the right-wing populist discourse of the extreme nationalists.

Does the question of refugees also play a role in the nationalist developments in Asia?

In Asia, the problems caused by displacement and migration often stem from internal displacement due to conflict, poverty, environmental disasters and political persecution. Others can be traced back to colonial heritage and ethnic resettlement. A prominent example of this are the Rohingya refugees. The experiences with flight and migration cannot therefore be reduced to the concept of nationalism, either in Europe or in Asia.

The nationalist ideology feeds on other experiences. In it, political, ethnic, religious, business and economic interests overlap. If one looks at the behavior of the political right towards refugees and migrants, one should pay more attention to the common diseases of Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism and discrimination than simply summarize it with nationalism.

Nonetheless, the ongoing humanitarian crisis of nearly a million Muslim Rohingya refugees in Myanmar has exacerbated nationalist responses.

Since the 1960s, the ruling elites of Myanmar have pursued their project of "Burmanization," a policy - and a violent strategy - of assimilating ethnic minorities into majority culture (Burmese), religion (Buddhism) and language (Burmese). Burmanization formed the basis for the formation of the nation state of Myanmar for a long time and is also deeply rooted in the supposed democratization of the country under state advisor Aung San Suu Kyi. The population supports the actions of the Burmese government and the military against the stateless Rohingyas.

Buddhist nationalists oppose the citizenship of the Muslim Rohingya because they have an interest in Burmanization - religiously and culturally. At the same time, nationalism often comes to an end where concrete political, economic or social interests arise. Aung San Suu Kyi and other state officials are obviously not nationalists when it comes to the neoliberalization of the economy and the environment of Myanmar.

While Asian nationalism emphasizes state sovereignty and ethnicity, the current international order is based on the conviction that all people are equal and that human rights are universal. Do nationalist beliefs undermine the idea of ​​human rights?

Nationalist ideas do not necessarily contradict the ideals of state sovereignty and human rights. The morality of a nationalist ideology depends on its intentions and consequences. Ho Chi Minh's nationalist struggle for independence and the liberation of Vietnam was completely different from Pol Pot's genocidal nationalism in Cambodia.

Nationalism is morally legitimate if it defends state sovereignty and the right of peoples to self-determination. But if it is used as an excuse to violate human rights and dignity, it must be condemned. History is full of tragic examples of imperial powers abusing human rights to destroy sovereign states on their behalf.

In 1999/2000 the UN-led, multinational protection force INTERFET (International Armed Forces East Timor) intervened to stop the genocide of the Indonesian government militias against the East Timorese. This was a positive example of how the universal principle of human rights was protected in Southeast Asia. How binding are human rights in Asia today?

Interestingly, the “Asian values” debate has emerged as one of the main criticisms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Its loudest supporters have been Asia's authoritarian rulers - from the late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines today.

With their argument that rights must be implemented on a country-specific basis, they attack the fundamental characteristics of the UDHR - that human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent. While their criticism of the double standards of the United States and Europe in human rights practice is justified, it does not justify breaking their human rights obligations. Various Asian countries have actively participated in the formulation of the UDHR. The declaration was even a first frame of reference for Asian states in their decolonization, state and nation building processes.


Bonn Juego researches and teaches political economy, development studies and international relations at Jyväskyala University in Finland. His recent publications and research efforts relate to East and Southeast Asia, the Global South, and Nordic-Asian relations. In autumn 2018 he was a visiting fellow at the Southeast Asia Research Center of the University of Hong Kong.