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Cultural traditions and identity politics: some implications for democratic governance in Asia and the Pacific

CollectionsANU Dept. of Pacific Affairs (DPA) formerly State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program
Title: Cultural traditions and identity politics: some implications for democratic governance in Asia and the Pacific
Author(s): Lawson, Stephanie
Keywords: autochthonous cultural traditions
cultural relativism
Date published: 1997
Publisher: Canberra, ACT: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program, The Australian National University
Series/Report no.: State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) discussion paper series: 1997/4
This discussion is principally concerned with the political aspects of one of the most interesting of postcolonial phenomena in Asia and the Pacific. Put briefly, this is to do with the rediscovery or reinvigoration of autochthonous cultural traditions—or at least selected elements of such traditions—in the contemporary period. Movements promoting such traditions are often part of a broader project of postcolonial rebuilding that is promoting renewed pride in a heritage that may have been suppressed or virtually destroyed by colonial powers. The phenomenon is hardly unique to Asia and the Pacific—it has been just as evident in Africa and the Middle East. A similar phenomenon is recognisable also in the heartlands of some former colonial powers. Across Europe, cultural identities are being asserted—at a sub-state level in explicit political forms from Scotland to Catalonia, at a suprastate level across northern Scandinavia by the Sami people, or at the level of the state itself in the case of Germany where the collapse of the Wall has raised perceived problems arising from the reintegration of a suitable, coherent national identity. And it is certainly recognisable in the current nation-building projects of many newly independent countries following the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. All these movements vary enormously in the actual content of their programs and the symbolic resources they use, as well as in the means that they deploy in achieving their political goals. But they do share much in common with respect to their general concerns about cultural identity. The close association of such movements with ideas of liberation and regeneration also means that they are generally seen to represent a positive manifestation of identity politics, and a cause for celebration in a world where cultural difference seems to have become a good in itself. They are also seen as inherently ‘democratic’ in some sense—as if the revival of traditions and cultural identities is in itself a manifestation of democracy. There are exceptions, of course, and few would endorse the way in which chauvinistic aspects of identity politics have been manifest in Bosnia-Herzegovina in recent times. This is an obvious case where it has assumed a violent, and ultimately destructive, form. There are other forms as well which, although not violent, nonetheless have a less attractive side. My own work on issues arising from identity politics in the South Pacific, and more recently on the so-called ‘Asian values’ debate in Southeast Asia, has concentrated on certain negative aspects that have been evident in some political expressions of traditionalism in the region as well as the implications that this has for democratic governance.
ISSN: 1328-7854


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