The majority of countries in Asia and Europe are ethnically heterogeneous, in the sense that minorities constitute more than five per-cent of the total population. Even in countries with relative ethnic homogeneity, the last 20 years of rapid globalisation and immigration has dramatically diversified the ethnic landscape. For policymakers, the existence of distinct communities with different languages, cultures, or even basic ways of life poses one of the most difficult policy dilemmas of the modern nation state: the need to shape peaceful inter-community relations and the sustenance of social cohesion.
Even where ethnic minorities are small in demographic terms, their political and economic implications can be significant. In countries where ethno-linguistic groupings in society are politically active and riven by economic disparity, ethnic problems increase in complexity and volatility. Ethnic politics is most evident in the formation of political parties along ethno-linguistic lines, which can be polarising as the parties shape and strengthen latent ethnic differences over time. Economic or class divisions compound existing cultural or regional differences – differences that might have evened out if the different communities had experienced more balanced economic development. A critical threshold is reached when politically assertive ethnic groups with an endemic experience of economic disadvantage pursue self-government and regional autonomy arrangements, with potentially violent consequences. Most governments would see this as the first step towards secessionist movements and the disintegration of the state.
The recent resurgence of ethnic tensions in Belgium and Malaysia, two ASEM states with well-established ethnic and immigrant communities, demonstrates the constant and evolving policy demands of managing ethnic relations. In Belgium, cultural and institutional divisions between the country’s two major linguistic communities, Flemish and Francophone, have sparked fears of Belgium’s partition. In Malaysia, race-based politics has again risen to the forefront of national attention against the backdrop of growing tensions between the Malay majority and ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.
The 13th Talks on the Hill event focused on the challenges of ethnic relations and their manifestation in the political sphere, looking at the above and other relevant cases in Asia and Europe. The focus was on cases where ethnic tensions are latent in society—in the sense that the tipping point for violent conflict has not been reached—and where governments have the timeliest and broadest cause for effective manoeuvre.