I have a friend who feels very shaky about the idea of Nationalism. She feels uncomfortable during football tournaments, for example, because of all the flag waving.
And I really understand that, particularly within the European context. A lot of nationalism is very much defined by comparing your national idea against another. A lot of national identities were created through conflict with another. Humanity in general has a tendency to define itself by what it is not, and what it is not is typically a nearby neighbour they don’t like.
Modern Nationalism in Europe also tends to manifest in extremely horrible ways these days, as typified by nuts like Anders Breivik and so on. Nationalism has become a right wing philosophy in Europe, and particularly bastardized into neo-Nazism by skinheads all over the continent.
Nationalism is called Patriotism in America, and it suffers much the same problem.
I think differently though, and I think this because of my experience growing up in Indonesia, but also in South East Asia in general.
As a recap, quite a few countries in Asia have only relatively modern national identities, and some are very recent indeed. Indonesia only exists as a nationstate because it was a former Dutch colony. Otherwise the country is full of vastly different peoples populating a huge archipelago which has kept them different for a long time.
Despite that the Dutch ruled over this vast area, the people within it didn’t really develop a national consciousness until the Second World War. And this was entirely because Sukarno, who would be its first president, pushed that identity upon them. He (along with his colleague Hatta) developed the Indonesian language, developed its flag, its songs, and so on.
And that’s really what makes Indonesia today. It’s still a fantastically diverse country, but it sticks together because there is, somehow, a sense of being Indonesian over being Javanese or Papuan or Balinese.
This was a real challenge after the last dictator, Suharto, resigned. With a somewhat more liberal political system many provinces saw their chance to push for at least autonomy if not greater independence. They did this because the central government tended to be more exploitative of such resource rich provinces and not all that generous when it came to investing in the people of said provinces.
But altogether the Indonesian polity is a stronger one together than separate. Aceh, which fought some 25 years for independence, was the most badly hit province in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. After that their resistance movement signed a peace treaty because they both couldn’t fight anymore and also needed all the aid that only a large national government from Jakarta could provide. They are now an autonomous province, which is a fair compromise.
The point is that former colonies, which often inherited some form of political structure from their former colonizers, need nationalism as a tool to keep people invested in that infrastructure. They need something for the people living there to identify by and have faith in their new national governments.
And they do this by flag waving, by national anthems, and sometimes by the kind of repression only dictators can implement.
So would Indonesia be better off as an assortment of states? Java, Sumatra, Flores, Sunda? Personally, I don’t think so.
East Timor, or Timor L’Este, is independent today because it too fought a 25 year war against Indonesia. It had more legitimacy than Aceh because it was still a Portuguese colony until 1975, and within days after it was granted independence it was annexed by Indonesia. So in a sense they were only trying to win back their independence, while Aceh was fighting for an idea which predated Dutch colonization.
But Timor l’Este is a wildly poor state now. It has some trade resources and it’s not doing as badly as it could be… but it suffers from the trade barriers and tariffs of being a small country trading with larger richer countries. Whereas the various Indonesian provinces trade without tariffs within the large nationstate, which then provides a preferential export rate to other countries. I would argue that all of these provinces are richer being part of Indonesia than they would be if they were independent. Unfortunately I don’t have supporting figures for that.
Indonesia itself got up to some conflict shenanigans during its history. Aside from the wars in Aceh and East Timor, they also had a Confrontation (with the capital C) with Malaysia and occasionally suppressed independence movements in Papua (then Irian Jaya) and other regions.
Would there have been more or less conflict without the overarching Indonesian government? I would argue more. While the various provinces didn’t always like being ruled from Java, and some conflicts came from migration of say, Madurese people to traditionally Dayak areas, different regions had sometimes very local conflicts. The best example is Maluku.
Maluku is a much more mixed religious region, in that it has comparable numbers of Christians to Muslims. Most of the time they get along, but things got violent particularly after 9-11. I personally figure that it’s possible these two peoples would have fought anyway. Or possibly different local nationalisms would have further defined themselves in conflict with their neighbours.
But the way things happened is that there was the umbrella identity of Indonesia. When people struggled against the government it wasn’t so much against the national identity and the desire to assert themselves as different (except Aceh and East Timor) but much more often because they saw their economic resources taken from them with little payment. And so their reasons are more economic, less political or cultural.
My point is that all over Asia, nationalism became a binding and stabilizing force, and much less of a destructive one, often the lesser of two evils. That’s why I think nationalism still can have a positive role to play in providing legitimacy and stability to post-colonial nationstates.