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Nationalism, Athoritarianism, Democracy in Asia

One of the most salient challenges in modern Pacific Asian history has been to balance three often contradictory political principles:

Nationalism was the pride of one’s nation and the call to move forward politically, economically, and socially with that in mind. In Indonesia, leaders such as Sukamo and Mohammad Hatta rose up to lead the large number of Indonesians who had been educated by the West and learned Western philosophy of politics. (1) Japan faced many waves of nationalism, but in the modern era, it surged forward in the 80s under Nakasone Yasuhito as Japan moved onto the world stage and had to find the balance between the shameful past and a hopeful future. (2) In Korea, the sense of nationalism has been stifled in comparison due to such a heavy amount of interference from foreign powers. (3) Over the rest of Asia, countries found nationalism rising at different times as their situations changed.

Authoritarianism movements have arisen under the guise of democracy and the support of the people. Malaysia has achieved their version of democracy while suppressing public opinions especially that of the local press. Under Mahathir in the sixties, Malaysia found many freedoms suppressed so that one party could retain control. It could also be found in Indonesia under Suharto and Sukarno as rights and freedoms were pulled away from the people in order for the powers to keep control. (4) Many of the authoritarianism governments were also those imposed by Western powers during the height of Asian colonialism by the West.
Democratization developed as a mix of all the other movements. In Japan, signs of democracy were found as early as the 1920s. South Korea’s move toward democracy resulted in the Korean War with the North pulling the Koreans toward communism and the South pulling them toward democracy. Vietnam began to mimic Korean as the tides of communism and democracy threatened to pull it apart. The unique thing about democratization was how it developed hand in hand with the other two movements.
Indonesia’s move toward democracy was catapulted by the wave of nationalism that formed during the Japanese occupation. The story began during Dutch colonialism when the European power educated the people of Indonesia with Western values and recognized for the “depth, and especially the breadth of the transformations it engendered among the peoples of the Indies.” (5) This unique education did a lot for the mindset of the colonized people. Instead of getting lost as a subjugated people, Indonesians found a “new route for upward social mobility into urban positions as civil servants, teachers” as well as providing a new “criterion of social status” within the country. (6) It was when the Dutch pulled out during World War II and the Japanese moved in that a sense of nationalism surged forth. Japan looked to strip the Indies of all resources including people. The authoritarianism style of government imposed on them by the Japanese did not set well with the Indonesians. Though they did not fight back, they used the Japanese occupation to gather their own resources to put their nationalism into use and bring democratic politics to the nation. Authoritarianism government fed the nationalist spirit which called for democratization.
It appears that democracy will prevail in Asia, but will come about in many different ways and over a long period of time. Asia was jerked into the modern world and torn between losing their identity and losing their lives. Some obtained a democratic government due to nationalism was gave most of Asia back its identity. In some cases authoritarianism helps to push that wave of nationalism forward while at other times it hindered the advances and developments of the other nations. Asia is still trying to find itself in a new world and obtain the right identity.


(1) Mark Borthwick, Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia, Third Edition, (Westview: New York, 2007), 159.
(2) Ibid, 242-243.
(3) Ibid, 278.
(4) Ibid, 328-340.
(5) Ibid, 160.
(6) Ibid, 161.





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