Monday, July 21, 2008

Historical Memory and Nationalism

Thailand and Cambodia are presently near war over control of an obscure temple on their border. The temple, Preah Vihear, was just named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Neither nation seems to have cared that much about the site until last week, when UNESCO made this annoucement. But ever since, both nations are ready to fight it out over its control. There are a lot of factors in this weird situation. First, although it really is in Cambodia, it is almost inaccessible from the Cambodian side while Thais can basically drive up to it. So issues of development are central here. Plus, the Thai opposition, which engineered the military coup last summer but which failed to stay in power, is using the situation to embarrass the government. They are playing on militarism and nationalism to press the need for an agressive Thailand that is the dominant power in the region.

But the only way this is possible is to use historical memory for present political advantage. This is something Americans do not understand well, which I will get to in a minute. Southeast Asia has always been an area of shifting political power, with the Thais, Khmers, Laotians, and Vietnamese at various times being the strongest people, and with China always in the background. Right now, Thailand is clearly the strongest nation. Cambodia, though they had their time 700 years ago, has traditionally been pretty weak and certainly is today. But both nations can bring up issues that happened hundreds of years ago to rally support for today. For the Cambodians, the temples remind them of when they were actually important. The Thais have long claimed the area, but the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of the Cambodians in 1962. Ever since then, Thai nationalists have used this issue to rally support. Today, they bring the region to the point of what would be an incredibly absurd war. I don't think it will happen, but the danger is there for shooting to begin, especially given that both sides have pointed weapons at each other. If the present Thai government really begins to fear that the military could take the situation over, I am afraid that they actually could resort to violence as an act of self-preservation.

What is important here is the power that historical memory has for nationalism in today's world. I am seeing the same thing in Bolivia. Today, I saw members of the Bolivian navy (the world's greatest fighting force). Why does Bolivia even have a navy, given it is landlocked? Because they claim they will soon regain the ports they lost to Chile in the 1880s. 125 years ago they lost the few ports they had. Rather then move on, they cling to this as a point of national humilation. Ever since 1978, Bolivia and Chile have not even had formal diplomatic relations, though things have improved with Evo Morales and Michelle Bachelet in power. Frankly, Bolivia has a lot more important things to be worrying about. And I don't think Chile is too scared. But again, it shows the power of historical memory. Events long past can dominate current relations. We have seen this most powerfully perhaps in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

I think this is important for Americans to understand because we essentially don't have a historical memory. Maybe a few people still gripe about the Japanese over what happened at Pearl Harbor, but most young people couldn't care less. This is a good thing, but because we don't have a very good understanding of how our nation's actions affect countries that do have a long historical memory, we don't understand why these nations don't like us. Take Iran for example. If you ask most Americans why Iran seemingly hates us, they don't know. They say it's because they are terrorists or are just crazy or (and this is the worst) because they are Muslim. Yet at the heart of this is the CIA-sponsored coup in 1952 that placed the Shah on the throne, undermined any chance for legitimate political opposition, and turned people toward more radical religion as a way to deal with the regime. Iranians remember this. Americans have never heard of it. For other nations, the past is extremely meaningful. For Americans, it is something boring we have to take at school. Because of this, we suffer from nearsighted vision over our place in the world. The sooner we understand why Thailand, Cambodia, Bolivia, and Iran act in the ways they do, the sooner we can understand our own place in the world and the problems it sometimes causes.