I have a problem with nationalism

A note of caution – this is a very personal (and slightly incoherent) rant.

It was caused by a casual dinner I had last night with an acquaintance. There I was, absolutely knackered after a week of crazy work, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk about Burma, because well, almost everybody I meet wants to talk about Burma with me.

At the best of times, the discussions end in us agreeing to disagree on certain things (because everyone thinks they know what the hell is going on) and the worst? Well, friendships and meals ruined.

My dinner companion is a European who has been travelling to Burma since before I was born (which means a long time) and has connections within the military as well as the pro-democracy groups. He is very passionate about the issue and I think he sees himself quasi-Burmese.

So once again, there I was, not really wanting to talk about Burma and trying to skirt the issue by recounting my experience in Thailand’s Deep South from a recent trip I took there and the impunity with which both the security forces and the insurgents treat the civilians caught up in the violence.

Then he dropped this bombshell. He said the impunity in Burma is worse than most places in the world and is upset people (especially Western countries) are not making more of a fuss about it.

Excuse me?

What about Sudan? Darfur? Zimbabwe? Libya? Palestine? China? What about here in Thailand, where there is a veneer of respectability and democracy and yet there are serious abuses towards ethnic minorities, refugees and migrants? Isn’t it even worse when there is impunity in places that on the surface seems fine?

At least people know and EXPECT impunity in Burma.

I was born and raised in Burma. I have friends and relatives who were arrested and thrown in jail for almost two decades for protesting and calling for democracy, I know people who have died while fighting for this. So I’d like to think I know there is impunity in Burma. And it is bad.

Why the rest of the world are not making the same fuss is another post for another time (so is the question of whether has anything been done or can be done to stop that and whether there has been any fresh ideas by the pro-democracy groups on how to tackle it).

What I took issue with is his assertion (besides being slightly offended that he didn’t think I have heard of the word impunity) that it is so much worse than others and it requires special attention.

He also believes (and approves) of how things have improved leaps and bounds in China and Darfur is just an extreme case.

What is this whole Ally McBeal-complex of “my problems are bigger than yours because they’re mine”? That our country, our state and our situation are of primary importance compared to everything else because well, it is ours. That we need more attention than others. That we only identify with causes that we are directly involved in.

There is impunity and injustice in the whole world, EVERYWHERE, including the so-called democratic western countries.

Get passionate about human rights in general, not selective sympathy and cause based on these arbitrary borders some dudes (because they are always dudes) drawn centuries ago.

Get passionate about the way the Rohingyas are treated by the Burmese (yes, my race, the supposedly-peace-loving Buddhists) and how very few people – not even most of the exile pro-democracy forces – actually talk about it.

Get passionate about how the Uighurs are treated by the Chinese.

Get passionate about what Bradley Manning is going through.

Get passionate about what is going on in Gaza and West Bank.

I grew up listening to my sister responding to people who says, “of course we’ll have to help him/her/them because they’re Burmese” (and trust me, for many, that is by far the top-most reason for helping someone) with this line, “I’ll help someone who is in need whether or not they’re Burmese.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have a problem with nationalism.

So I’m gonna quote Howard Zinn here (this is his brilliant original piece). He was talking about the U.S. of A but I think it’s applicable everywhere.

“Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

These ways of thinking — cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on — have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.


We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.

We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”


  1. "We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation.”

    Well said!

    I also like the reference to Ally McBeal,,, one of the best shows ever! X)

  2. Absolutely right. We do need to "assert our allegiance to the human race…"

    There is impunity and injustice everywhere in the world. Some are tragically obvious, some are veiled with respectability, modernisation and liberty, even in democratic societies like Singapore, USA, UK for example, injustice lives. There are people around the world, Middle-East, Asia, Africa, Europe, Americas etc. who are being denied the most basic human rights and are enduring inhumanity.

    Injustice does not discriminate against race, religion or country. We should support the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every man, woman and child.

    "The dignity of the human person, irrespective of sex, race, religion, social or ethical origin or other distinction" should be celebrated and preserved.

    It is the small acts of courage and kindness that transform lives and allow changes to happen, and together, we can make a difference.

  3. Funny how some people get obsessed with patriotism, me somewhat included.

    One has very right to be a nationalist, but he must keep a rational mind with impartial judgment and perception on international issues, esp on other nations that undergo the same things, though with different degrees.

    Pardon me, but that acquaintance of yours make me wanna raise an eyebrow and say, "What the hell?"

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