Tuesday, August 7, 2007

National Idiosyncrasy in the Age of Globalization

Had Tolstoy been given to generalization, he might have asserted that every unhappy government is unhappy in its own way. However, having considered the proposition, he might then have taken a deep breath and realized that, while it was not particularly difficult to write about a happy family, finding a happy government to serve as the subject for a novel was a lot more difficult. On the other hand both the Levin family at the end of Anna Karenina and the Bezuhov family at the end of War and Peace are a bit far-fetched in their happiness; and neither novel would have amounted to much had it not devoted most of its attention to the instances of unhappiness.

If we invoke harmony as a metaphor for happiness, then, when we consider governments, we should view unhappiness in the light of social discord, either within the borders of the state or in relations with other states. In the period between the first inauguration of George W. Bush and 9/11/2001, such discord was in abundance on both fronts. Indeed, the very election of Bush was born of a discord that divided the nation when the votes were cast and spilled over into the process by which the results of the election were decided. Such divisiveness was not new to our history; but it was disconcerting to many of us that, for all of the unpleasant experiences it had invoked in the past, it was still with us.

More problematic, however, was the external discord that became so central to the neoconservative policy of the new Bush administration. At a time when social unrest was breaking out at every meeting of the World Bank and similar institutions, the administration chose to thumb its nose at two of the nobler efforts to invoke global thinking in the interest of the greater good. One was the rejection of the Kyoto Agreement on climate control; and the other was the refusal to accept the conventions of the newly-formed International Criminal Court. From the vantage point of those of us within the borders of the United States, it seemed as if, long before the divisiveness brought on by the ways we ultimately responded to 9/11, our country had set itself in opposition to the rest of the world. The "New World Order" was one of a single superpower with the authority to dictate which rules it would deign to honor and to reject the others out of hand without any need for discussion or debate.

Nevertheless, the United States is hardly the only government that has pushed back against global agreements and conventions that had been proposed in a sincere (if overly utopian) effort to make the entire world at better (or at least safer) place. Today we learned from a Reuters report filed from Kuala Lumpur by Jalil Hamid that Malaysia never ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. As a result, Malaysia views all refugees as illegal immigrants. Hamid's story summarized the penalties for illegal immigration as follows:

Illegal immigrants face a mandatory jail sentence of up to five years and up to six strokes of the cane. Males above 50 and women are exempted from caning.

The reason this is newsworthy is because the refugees currently in question are from Myanmar (Burma); and many of them are Muslim:

Of the total ["an estimated 46,000 refugees" currently in Malaysia], about 12,700 are members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority, another 12,000 are members of other Myanmar minority ethnic groups.

The Rohingyas came in the 1990s from Myanmar, but the government there disputes their origin and refuses to let them return.

Hamid's report asserts that "dozens" of these refugees have already been caned and that 300 Rohingyas arrested over the weekend are likely to receive the same sentence.

The sentencing for illegal immigration was originally designed to discourage foreign workers from entering the country illegally (which should sound familiar to anyone who has been following our own recent debating and wall-building); but, as is often the case, it was written to cover the broadest number of cases. However, if Malaysia, as a country, has decided not to acknowledge a global convention on the status of refugees, the rest of the world can do little more than think long and hard about applying statecraft (probably along the lines recommended by Dennis Ross) to convince that government to adopt a more humane policy. This is probably the way many nations in the world now view the United States in regard to its own defiance of similar efforts at global agreements.

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