Saturday, August 26, 2006

Unjust Racial Profiling

After the thwarted mid-air bombing earlier this month in Britain, suspicions toward Asian (brown-skinned, non-white people) are on the sharp increase. Consider these illustrations:

Immediately after the failed plot to blow airline mid-air, the British police arrested 24 British Asians for their suspected involvement in the failed plot. Two weeks later, only eight out of that 24 initially arrested were formally charged with conspiracy to murder and plotting acts of terrorism, and another three for lesser crime.

Last week, two male passengers in their twenties were offloaded from a Mornarch Airlines flight from Spain to Manchester, the U.K. because they looked like Middle Eastern and ‘may have been speaking Arabic.’ Their ‘suspicious behavior’ was the reason for this action.

The latest incident was the detainment of 12 passengers on board a Northwest Airlines plane from Amsterdam to Mumbai by the Dutch authority for 12 hours simply because they ‘looked’ and ‘behaved’ liked Islamic terrorists. According to Dutch authorities, US marshals on board of the flight got suspicious because the 12 passengers, later known to be Indian nationals, were using mobile phones, talking laudly and changing seats.

Isn’t there any racial issue involved? If not, why all these terrorist-suspicion related incidents involved Asians? Are Asian (non-white) terrorists? If it is so, can’t we consider this attitude as racism by the White, a racial stereotyping?

Many have thought that with globalization – increased migrations and more ethnicities living geographically together – racial hostilities and anxieties would diminish and become the thing of the past. After all, the old colonizing mindset of superiority was based on power and on general ignorance about ‘other’ peoples. Unfortunately, things have changed dramatically in the post-9/11 world.

Ever since the report on 9/11 tragedy in the US was released in which Arab Muslim terrorists under the banner of Al-Qaeda were allegedly conducted this inhuman attack on civilians, suspicion on non-whites, especially Asian, by the majority community (read: the white people) are on the increase. Terrorism became the popular word and non-whites are the targets. Whenever there is security alert on the possibility of terror attack, Muslims and Asians (brown-skinned people) are the first to be suspected and be held responsible. Illustrations above only support this argument.

True that being vigilant is necessary and natural in which we all have to be alert from any eventuality. But being constantly suspicious towards certain groups of community or ethnicity for their ‘distinct behavior’ is an overzealous suspicion at its worst. This vigilant attitude is amount to baseless fear and sheer paranoia. Adding to the worsening of the situation is the reactions from the security officials, whose job is to actually be able to not make dangerous generalizations, who seem to be as ignorant as the regular Joe racist. They would immediately jump to the conclusion of imminent threat of terror for any ‘suspicious behavior’ of non-white, brown-skinned people. Moreover, the ethnic profiling that has been in practice in Europe has so far mostly caused trouble to air travelers, especially to people with brown skin (non-whites) regardless of their faith. It was reported recently that Claude Moraes, a London Labour Member of European Parliament, has claimed that he has been repeatedly treated as a suspected terrorist while traveling because of his ‘distinct appearance.’

It seems the racial jump made to equate all Muslims or brown-skinned, non-white people regardless of their faith with a threat of terror has been too easy and immediate. This is very dangerous and if it is not checked and remedied immediately, we could possibly witness a clash of civilizations as the result of little else but sheer ignorance.

Rooting out this kind of knee-jerk behavior based along racial lines is hard but not impossible. Ignorance is, in my opinion, the root of this mess. Thus to root it out, we have to first eradicate this ignorance through dialogues and discussions between the different groups in the society in order to build up an understanding of their issues and differences. It would educate the members of the majority community about the ‘other’ people. This kind of inter-faith or inter-racial dialogues and cooperation can be used as an important opening to solve the problems.

At the same time, the government should be more pro-active and genuine in improving the situation. Government sponsored programs to integrate the minority communities into the mainstream can also be considered as important step towards rooting out this problem. Once this process is successful, insecurity feelings among minority communities and suspicions that prevalent in the minds of the majority community can be eradicated.

This is the homework that must immediately be cleared up by the authorities, especially the Western authorities. At the same time, in regard with terrorism, they have to re-think the way in identifying the potential of terror threat. There should not be any generalizations in this perspective and they should learn and care more about parts of the world and the peoples outside their vicinity. Ignorance is the very source of enmity and ignorance of ‘other’ people is a stop closer to terrible, civilizational tragedy.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Building Democracy in Myanmar

This week, in the sideline of the five-day meeting starting Monday between Southeast Asian ministers in Malaysia to put plans for a European-style single market, an Asean Economic Community, by 2015 on the fast track, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also plan to sign a pact to facilitate trade and investment with the United States -- a step closer to a free trade agreement that signals stronger linkages with ASEAN’s number 1 trading partner.

The proposed pact will be called a “trade and investment facilitation arrangement”, a cooperation pact that is less formal than an agreement. Foreign ministers from ASEAN countries will sign the pact and the US Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, will represent the US government. Downplaying the significance of the wording, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said that it was a flexible arrangement to overcome any potential US congressional opposition.

Since Washington imposes sanctions on Myanmar, one of the members of ASEAN, an informal arrangement like this does not require congressional approval to be operative. The decision to call the pact as an arrangement is, according to Ong, a tactical move to expedite the process. The arrangement will enable deeper business dealings between the US and all the members of ASEAN, including Myanmar, without Washington having first to lift any sanction imposed on one of ASEAN’s member state.

This proposed trade pact should be a welcome relief for ASEAN as an organization. The pact should allow the opening up of new opportunities in business and economic engagement between the two sides as well as an opening tactic to engage Myanmar actively. It is an open secret that the main reason for the EU or the US reluctance to engage ASEAN actively is Myanmar’s human right record and its lack of democracy. At the same time, the stubbornness of the military junta in Myanmar to improve the local situation added the situation from bad to worse.

The recent meeting of ASEAN ministers in Bali, Indonesia, to discuss about Myanmar’s problem failed to yield into any meaningful results. Pressures to Yangon by prominent members of ASEAN like Indonesia and Malaysia to show concrete steps towards democracy seem to have entered deaf ears in which Yangon only gave empty promises and no realistic steps have been taken so far. It even extended the house arrest term of Myanmar’s democratic leader, Aung San Su Kyi that should have been released this year.

This situation is definitely frustrating for other ASEAN member states. ASEAN as an organization wants to move forward but one of its members is stubborn enough not to be a part of the democratic setup in which a new ASEAN is based upon. If the situation continues, it will only add to more struggles and difficulties for ASEAN to strengthen its economic prowess and counter the increasing competition from the rising giants China and India.

How to clear, or at least reduce, this hurdle? Should ASEAN isolate Myanmar? Or should ASEAN engage Myanmar more actively to create a genuine impression about ASEAN’s intention to build a better situation in the region?

It is a tricky situation as long as democracy and human right are concern. Stubbornness shown by Myanmar’s military ruler to show concrete steps towards democracy is understandable. Relinquishing status quo is just like giving up our own lives. No body wants to do that, nor Yangon wants to relinquish its strict control over Myanmar people. At the same time Yangon seems to also see in some members of ASEAN the lack of democratic practice but no body seems to bother about it or tend to be apologetic about it. Look at Singapore or Malaysia for example.

Pressurizing Myanmar to show concrete steps towards democracy and to improve its human right records is like pressurizing Singapore or Malaysia to abandon its strict control over people’s basic rights and transform itself wholeheartedly towards liberal democracy in which people are free to practice their basic rights such as freedom of speech and expression. The recent effort by Malaysian government to control the free flow of blog, or citizen media, is a clear example of state’s effort to restrict its citizens’ right of freedom of speech and expression.

In my opinion, the most realistic way to clear, or at least reduce the Myanmar problem in ASEAN is by engaging it more actively and show more genuine efforts towards working together to improve democratic practice in Myanmar and in all other ASEAN member countries. It is not only Myanmar that needs to practice democracy but all members of ASEAN should be a part of a real democracy in which people are free to exercise their basic rights. Isolating Myanmar should be avoided at all cost. Because an isolation approach will only result in the opposite: Myanmar will fall into the hands of those countries that oppose the concept of democracy and respect of human rights.

Thus the decision by ASEAN and the US to sign a trade pact “arrangement” so as to allow all members of ASEAN to be a part of it is surely a positive “tactical move to expedite the process” towards democracy and improving human right record in Myanmar. It will be an important step towards establishing greater understanding among ASEAN member states, and the US in this case, towards engaging Myanmar more actively. If India, the world largest democracy, is willing to engage Myanmar actively as an effort to introduce democracy there, why ASEAN can’t do the same? Politics of isolation is doomed to fail but politics of engagement will flourish into a better future.