I don’t read a lot of history, contemporary or otherwise, and when I do, it is usually in the area of political economy. In recent years, for instance, I have delighted at the scholarship and intellect of Eric Hobsbawm. But what always strikes me about history is how perfect our vision can be from the distance of time. Not so if you are closer, and so I can forgive J. D. Legge my single criticism of his book, Sukarno – A Political Biography, which is its lack of overview. Legge published the book in 1972 and so did not have the luxury of 35 years of clarifying hindsight that we have today.J. D. Legge’s biography charts the life and career of Sukarno in intricate detail. Particularly strong are the descriptions of the internal machinations and wheeler dealing amongst the Indonesian political elite. Sukarno is presented as one of the major political figures of the twentieth century. If anyone should doubt this, then recall that the terms “Third World” and “Non-Aligned”, terms that structured our thinking about the world for decades and perhaps still do, would probably not have existed if Sukarno had not promoted them. The former arose out of the 1955 Bandung conference, which Sukarno hosted, and the latter out of continued initiatives involving the Indonesian president. Furthermore Sukarno’s significance for the century is also underlined by the fact that the aftermath of the coup that ousted him led to the murder of 250,000 people, while the president himself was allowed to live out his last years and die a natural death. Legge stops short of laying the ultimate responsibility for these deaths at Sukarno’s door, and neither can he be certain about the president’s relation to the coup. True, he lost power as a result, but he did not lose his life. He lost most of his dignity, but remained such an esteemed figure after 50 years in politics that he retained at least a figurehead status up to his death.A point that Legge underplays, however, is the relationship between the nationalism that formed the basis of Sukarno’s politics and the pragmatism that sought inevitably loose alliances to both define and promote it. One such Sukarno initiative in particular, NASAKOM, may have been responsible ultimately for precipitating the coup and even causing the slaughter.Sukarno was almost as old as the century, being born in June 1901 in East Java. Legge makes an interesting point about his parents, who met in Singharaja, Bali, while his father was a teacher there. The father was Javanese, a member of the aristocratic priyayi class, but his mother was Balinese and not even a Muslim. I have visited Bali and Singharaja and East Java and can fully appreciate the fundamental differences, both cultural and religious, between these places. And yet, from this mixed parentage there was born a figure who consistently espoused nationalism as a defining ideology. But from the start, and perhaps because of his background, it was a syncretic nationalism that tried to create unity by bridging difference.Initially, of course, this nationalism was defined via opposition to Dutch colonial rule. It was a nationalism that brought the young Sukarno into conflict with the authorities, led to periods of imprisonment and exile. Nothing strange here. The twentieth century is full of such figures who struggled against externally-imposed colonial rule. In the Second World War, Sukarno, like Laurel in the Philippines, collaborated with the Japanese. But whereas to the north Laurel was eventually disgraced by the association, Sukarno found himself in 1945 the president of an independent Indonesia. And here, perhaps is where the nationalist ideology became, out of necessity, essentially pragmatic.As an ideology, nationalism claims it expresses a single identity or culture, often defined by language or religion. And this despite the fact that there are almost no nations that actually display the homogeneity that the ideology assumes. It thus has the capacity to become an exclusive force in direct contradiction to its stated aim. Thus nationalism inevitably is an ideology that is easiest to define and promulgate by opposing what it is not, rather than defining precisely what it is. We only have to think of the agendas of the so-called nationalist parties and movements in contemporary Europe, and how they crystallize around opposition. In Britain, we have the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which is nationalist because it opposes the European Union. And we have the National Front, nationalist because it opposes immigration. The list could be a long one. So nationalism often must be defined in relation to what we are not, rather than via what we are.If you live in a country subjected to colonial rule, it is surely easy to define nationalism around concepts of independence and self-government. One these things have been achieved, however, the focus that defined the nationalism is removed. If it is to continue as an ideology for an independent nation, it must change, one option is for it to be elevated to state-worship, almost to the status of a national religion. The North Korea of Kim Il Sung was this route in extremis. But in a country as vast as Indonesia, the social conformity this route requires could never have been achieved.So Sukarno took the other route that can sustain nationalism as a state ideology, which was expansionism, coupled with attempts to create coalitions across political ideology and religion. The expansionist tendency led to the incorporation of West Irian into Indonesia. It also led to Sukarno’s opposition to the establishment of a Malaysian Federation and thus to several years of war in Borneo. It might be argued the same need for expansion to bolster nationalism led, under Suharto, to the invasion of East Timor. The point here is that the external positions are adopted in order to define internal political identity.As well as promoting an external focus, alliances and coalitions must be erected internally to create at least a semblance of unity. Sukarno’s NASAKOM was such an attempt, an initiative to unite Nasionalisme, Agama and Komunisme, Nationalism, Religion and Communism. And so the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was part of an equation whose result was always going to be a problem, given the ubiquity of the cold War and the proximity of China. When we consider the difficulty of creating unity out of such an admixture, we then appreciate the need for nationalism to retain its external focus. No nationalist agenda can cut across ideological differences that are global. In Sukarno’s case, effectively the Cold War won. The internal tensions had to be resolved and, in Indonesia’s case, it led to military action, the slaughter of 250,000 communist sympathisers and anyone else who got in the way, and the emergence of an initially pro-Western government under Suharto.But despite this unsatisfactory end for Sukarno’s nationalism, J. D. Legge reminds us of his achievements. Modern Indonesia came into being under Sukarno’s leadership and vision. The politics of the region and of the century were influenced by him. And he was leader of one of the world’s most populous countries for over two decades. Certainly he was a great figure, but, because of his use of syncretic nationalism, he was not a contributor to political thought and so, perhaps, his influence died with him. J. D. Legge’s Sukarno – A Political Biography is a superb, scholarly and measured account of this life and career.
Officially, the People’s Republic of China has 55 distinct ethnic minority groups, which total to about 100 million in number or 8.5 percent of the country’s population. Most of these minorities live on the margins of China-proper, and do not have greater issues with the national government than the Han majority who live in similar situations. Some groups, such as the ethnic Koreans (Chaoxian) and Manchu (ManZu), are highly integrated into the Chinese mainstream. However, the best known Chinese minority internationally, especially in the West, are the Tibetans (Xizang). They are widely understood to be an oppressed culturally distinct minority who wants independent or, at the very least, greater autonomy from Beijing.This level of international awareness is astonishing; considering, the Tibet Autonomous Region (Xizang Zizhiqu) is roughly 12% of China’s total land area, but Tibetans make up less than half of one percent of China’s population. This makes them only the ninth largest minority group. The Tibetan Issue is well known, primarily due to a superior global marketing campaign, which includes the venerable Dalai Lama and a host of celebrity Western activists, such as Richard Gere and Sting. However, the Uighurs (also Uyghurs, Weiwuer) are a more numerous minority who have struggled just as long against the Han Chinese, whose homeland also makes up a larger territory, have never enjoyed the same international regard. Perhaps, Turkic Muslims are not as appealing to the hearts and minds of the West as monks in flowing robes, despite the latter’s harsh feudalistic history. Besides cultural bias, the Uighurs have likely failed at marketing, because unlike the Tibetans, they have no central leadership that is universally recognized by all the disparate factions.Out of the nine to ten million Uighurs worldwide, it is arguable that 22 of them have brought more media attention to the plight of their 8 million brothers in China than any advocacy campaign has in at least a decade. These 22 men were not activists seeking a platform; they were just unfortunate enough to get swept up in the American War on Terror. The Guantanamo Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and initially labeled “enemy combatants” by the Bush Administration, but were latter downgraded to the more ambiguous, “non-enemy combatant”. By the fall of 2008, all the remaining Uighur detainees were cleared of wrong doing by the U.S. Justice Department, but after nearly seven years, many still remained imprisoned in Guantanamo.The Justice Department found that these men had no intentions to commit hostile acts against the United States and its allies. In fact, it was determined that most of them were political and economic refugees who left China for a better life, and were captured by bounty-hunters for profit. Many detainees found their way to Guantanamo by this route. Nonetheless, some of the Uighurs were intending to engage in “terrorist” activities, but against the Chinese government, not the United States. While imprisoned some confessed to training at an ETIM (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement) affiliated group in Tora Bora. The ETIM is regarded by the United States and United Nations as a terrorist organization that seeks to turn the Uighur homeland, Xinjiang Provence (known to Uighurs as East Turkestan) into an Islamic republic.The Bush Administration had some obvious qualms about freeing admitted terrorist trainees, even if they were not anti-American. The other issue is, if they were to be freed, where would they go? The Justice Department decided that they should not be allowed to enter the U.S. because they “sought to wage terror” on China, which put the Uighurs right back into legal limbo.In 2006, the Bush Administration released five Uighurs to Albania, after other nations refused to take them. Being suspected terrorists was not the only problem the Uighurs had in finding a new home. As a courtesy to China, the U.S. government did allow Chinese interrogators to question the Uighurs at Guantanamo, and China also asked for their repatriation. The Bush Administration refused. Based on past examples of Uighur terror suspects being returned to China from various Central Asian nations, the Guantanamo Uighurs would undoubtedly be imprisoned and tortured, possibly even executed. Incensed, China applied political and economic pressure to dissuade nations from accepting the detainees. In the case of Albania, it appears China was somewhat successful, at least in discouraging them from taking in more Guantanamo Uighurs.The Obama administration inherited this “Uighur Issue”, but unlike the previous administration, President Obama, signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facilities by 2010. The Uighurs were just a small portion of the 245 prisoners that needed to be relocated. Letting them stew in indefinite confinement was not an option.Although there was talk of resettling the Uighurs in the Washington D.C. area, due to the existing Uighur community there, these ideas were rebuffed on Capital Hill. Despite being unlawfully incarcerated, and having been judged not to be a threat to the U.S., bipartisan Congressional Islamophobia and appeasement to a largely uniformed apprehensive political base led them to resist and politicize any suggestion that Guantanamo detainees should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. mainland. Meanwhile, innocent men continued to sit in jail.It does seem that the Bush Administration did feel some genuine sympathy for the Uighur cause. In 2007 and again in 2008, President Bush met with the closest person the Uighurs have to a Dalai Lama, Nobel Nominee Rebiya Kadeer, a former Uighur businesswoman turned activist. She served six years in a Chinese prison for “leaking state secrets”; her children are currently in prison on similar charges. It is unknown if any of this affected White House policy toward the Uighurs still held captive.It does appears that both the Bush and Obama administrations made prodigious efforts when it came to Uighur resettlement, offering monetary and diplomatic “concessions” to all the nations that eventually took the remaining Uighurs, on top of paying all the basic transportation and housing costs. This was no small feet, because over 100 countries still refused to take them. In the end, 4 went to Bermuda and 13 are scheduled to go to Palau. In the case of Bermuda, the Uighurs will eventually be eligible to apply for citizenship. Palau is aberrant, being one of the few countries that still recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China. Since they have no formal relations with China they have no favor to gain or lose.So far, there have been no reports that any of the men have taken up terrorist activities or been involved in any form of criminal behavior. There have been problems though. The resettlement in Bermuda did not come without controversy. Bermuda is still a British overseas territory, making the United Kingdom responsible for its security. London protested the settlement agreement, due to the diplomatic faux pas of not consulting them beforehand. Also, there are conflicting reports that the remaining 13 Uighurs in Guantanamo are reportedly unhappy to go to Palau due to its remote location and the lack of a Muslim or Uighur community on the islands. For China’s part, their Foreign Ministry declared the Uighurs terror suspects and demanded they be returned to China immediately, then accused the U.S. of being hypocritical for allowing such men to go free.So why is China so concerned about a handful of Turkic Muslims that it would be willing to use such political capital? Granted, the Uighur detainees apparently made the U.S. Congress tremble in fear, with the only evidence of their awe inspiring ferocity given by the Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who stated that one of them had kicked over a television in Guantanamo. Reportedly, the prisoner did not appreciate the scantly clad women being shown to them by interrogators (Lee 2009). One would think such a strong display of “family values” would be welcomed in the Republican Party, guess not.As the late former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said in reference to the Nicaraguan Contras, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”. After 9-11, China was one of the first nations to join America in denouncing “terrorism”, especially radical Islamic terror; however, China’s primary concern was successionist movements emanating from Xinjiang (and Tibet), as well as Uighur splinter cells in Central and South Asia.There are an estimated 8.3 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, and another one million are estimated to live throughout Central Asia. China views the Uighurs in Central Asia as a potential fifth column that could destabilize Xinjiang, create a cascade effect, not just in other ethnic minority areas, such as Tibet, but also in the poorer interior Han majority provinces. This fear strikes at the heart of Chinese internal security concerns, which focus on the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism.The next installment of this series will explore the history of Xinjiang and how the Uighurs and the Chinese government came to be at odds. Further, Beijing’s response will be assessed. There will also be attention paid to how this conflict is affecting China’s Central Asia neighbors and role the United States should play, if any.Notes:Lee, Peter. 2009. “Uyghurs sold out in the US” Asia Times Online.