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Keith Rankin: Jolo And Jaffna

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Jolo and Jaffna
18 May 2000

Two of the biggest international news events at the moment are the hostage crisis in Jolo (Philippines) and the siege of Jaffna (Sri Lanka). Not that you would know it from the New Zealand media, which has just discovered there's a war cum humanitarian crisis in Sierra Leone. The very uncivil war in Sri Lanka only penetrated our consciousness when it affected our cricket team and when Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated. The events in the southern Philippines don't involve any New Zealand nationals, so we don't care. Anyway, it's just too complicated.

All of these events (including Sierra Leone) either took place or are taking place in Commonwealth countries (hello Don?) but even that fails to arouse our interest. (While the Philippines is not a Commonwealth country, the hostages in Jolo were tourists abducted from Malaysia; indeed half are Malaysian nationals but our media only seem to show an interest in the ethnic European ones.)

The events in Jolo and Jaffna are about the re-creation of pre-colonial maritime nations. These issues drive at the heart of what nationhood means. Thinking about how these conflicts might eventually be resolved gives us some insights into the likely futures of all of today's nation states.

We find it easier to understand the problems in the Balkans - where communities live in valleys that defy neat territorial lines - than those of balkanised island nations. We accept that some kinds of political boundaries must be drawn through continents. But it seems anathema to draw territorial lines through islands.

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Before the aeroplane, the motor vehicle and the railway, it was the sea rather than the land that defined the territories of many nations and empires. The Greek nation of classical antiquity was defined by the Aegean Sea. The Roman Empire was defined by the Mediterranean Sea. From the 17th century, the coastal regions of North-East Ireland were unified rather than divided from Scotland by the Irish Sea. Cook Strait unified Te Rauparaha's New Zealand empire of the 1830s and 1840s.

The Tamil nation is connected by the Palk Strait, between Sri Lanka and the Coromandel Coast of India. For another example, Aceh's identity derives from its position on the Strait's of Malacca, and not its from its position on the island of Sumatra.

The Philippines is an interesting mixture of three pre-Hispanic nations. Luzon was an island nation like Taiwan. The modern Philippines is an uneasy Luzonese empire. The Visayan nation, centred on Cebu, is defined by the Visayan Sea in centre of the Philippines, and includes bits of many islands, including the northern coastal regions of Mindanao. Jolo is at the centre of an Islamic nation that linked the larger islands of Borneo, Palawan and Mindanao, and was defined by the Sulu Sea. The Sulu nation has never identified with Luzon, but shares the Philippines' second largest island. Mindanao, like Sri Lanka, is a tinder box. An island that belongs to three nations, it was also riven by a Latin American style ideological conflict. In the 1980s the Islamic "Moro Liberation Front" dominated western Mindanao, while Marxist rebels held sway in the east of the island.

If the nationalist conflicts of Mindanao and Sri Lanka can be resolved, bringing peace to the rest of the world should be easy.

If we cling to a 20th century concept of sovereign nations defined by territorial borders, then these problems of frustrated nationhood can never be resolved. Many international relations specialists believe that the sovereign nation-state as we know it has a limited future. Indeed the European Union already lays a path towards a world of regional economic mega-nations. The real question is whether (i) the world will evolve into a handful of economic nations (eg Eurafrica? America-Pacific?) which trade as equals, and which change the North-South nexus into an interprovincial rather than an international problem, or (ii) national boundaries will simply disappear.

Certainly if nations become more like provinces (we can still call them nations), then the boundaries between nations would no longer require sharp definition. They could be different for different purposes.

The prototype for flexible nationhood is actually the British Isles. Before the counties were redesignated around 1970, hardly anybody knew what was the real boundary between England and Wales. When the All Blacks were beaten by Newport in 1963, hardly anyone appreciated that, technically, Newport (Monmouthshire) was in England, not Wales. (It is now formally in Gwent, Wales.)

Monmouthshire may be no more, but Berwick-on-Tweed, on the English side of the Scottish border, behaves as a Scottish town, plays in the Scottish sports leagues and so on. There is no Berwick liberation front. The fuzzy boundary works, because, despite the fact that England and Scotland are "nations", they are also provinces, so do not require sharp territorial definition.

Northern Ireland is like Monmouthshire was and Berwick is. It is a fuzzy border zone between a lowland Scottish nation and an Irish nation. A united Ireland, formed along the lines of 20th century territorial nationhood is not the long-term answer to Britain's civil war. With hindsight, it never was. Northern Ireland can be Irish for some purposes (eg rugby) and Scottish whenever its Scottish Presbyterian descendants wish it to be. It's all in the European Union, so the exact borders within the British Isles no longer matter, if they ever did.

The problems of nationality that affect the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia - connected through their proximity to the Sulu Sea - can be resolved by the emergence of an East Asian economic mega-nation. That greater whole would enable us to think of Asian nations as overlapping national parts rather than mutually exclusive sovereign territories.

Such a solution in Asia could help us to reconsider Aotearoa as a territory of overlapping iwi 'nations' (including "Ngati Pakeha"), within the Polynesian triangle and the wider America-Pacific economic zone.

Sri Lanka may prove to be the most intractable of the world's current conflicts. Jaffna is really a part of the Tamil nation within the Indian economic nation. India, with a sixth of the world's population, is too big to be only a part of an economic nation. In a world comprising five or six economic mega-nations, the boundary between an Indian economic nation and an East Asian economic nation is likely to pass through Sri Lanka, formalising existing divisions between the Tamil and the Sinhalese people. The mountains of the island of Ceylon are (and always were) more of a physical barrier than are the straits that presently divide the Tamil nation.

I hope we never create a borderless world. That would be either anarchic or totalitarian. Instead I look forward to a 21st century world of borderless nations. Asia's island nations may show the way. We should watch them.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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