Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Self-Determination and Sovereignty

Written by johnleemk on 2:01:55 am Mar 17, 2007.
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One of the more controversial political doctrines at the turn of the 20th century was that of self-determination. Its main proponent was US President Woodrow Wilson, whose idealistic views of foreign policy failed to coincide with the political climate at the time.

Although Wilson's ideas met with frosty reception, many of them later became cornerstones of liberal political thought. The League of Nations was Wilson's idea, and although it failed, its successor, the United Nations, has lasted much longer. (Though I suspect it is in dreadful need of reform.)

Likewise, the self-determination philosophy espoused by Wilson, though once rejected by the colonial powers that dominated geopolitics at the turn of the 20th century, is now apparently the dominant force in modern geopolitics. New states are being born on a rather frequent basis; Montenegro separated from Serbia not too long ago, and it seems that other states in the Balkans are on a similar path.

In the wake of the First World War, Wilson's ideas were tried in Europe. Many states with separate national identities became sovereign polities in their own right. However, several of them were swallowed up in the last throes of imperialism by Nazi Germany just before or at the beginning of World War II.

It seems patently obvious to us all nowadays that self-determination is a fundamentally sound idea. It conforms with our ideals of democracy and liberty. But when we come down to the actual concrete reality of things, people are frequently relucant to let go of territories with their own separatist identity.

Look at China, after all. After all these years, it refuses to let go of Taiwan and Tibet, despite the fact that owning these territories would probably be a net loss. There are few resources to be gained in Tibet, and it is doubtful that much could be gained from controlling a resentful population in Taiwan.

Similarly, a major problem for Thailand is the separatist Malay south. There is little to be gained from continuing to hold on to this territory, which carries few natural resources but a lot of problems for the government. Yet the Thais resolutely refuse to deal with the insurgents diplomatically, and attempt to crack down on the insurgency through violent means.

From a rational point of view, there is not much point in holding on to a people who refuse to be joined to you. They only create problems, and the country is unable to exploit the resources of the separatist territory. Instead, it is forced to devote resources from other territories to quelling the separatists, and as a result cannot focus on development.

Yet, there remain huge psychological barriers to letting go. I have a Russian-American friend who, I think, still refuses to accept that self-determination is a reasonable philosophy. His sense of national pride is far too strong for him to accept that Russia would be better off if it let go of Chechnya than if it wastes its time and resources attempting to subjugate it.

He does have a point, though, in that the peoples of all territories would be far better off if they could put aside their separatist ways and work together to reinforce each other's strengths. But the question is, is it practical for this to happen?

It simply isn't. You can't disabuse people of a separate national identity without making compromises that people are often unwilling to make. And as a result, this isn't a relevant justification for opposing self-determination, unless you believe it is practical to make a whole group of people change their minds about a fundamental part of their identity.

It can sometimes be hard to understand the motivations people have for oppressing and suppressing others. But if you place yourself in their shoes, it is often a very easy task.

Malaysians don't even have to carry out such a complex thought experiment. We can simply ask ourselves how we feel about the Singaporean decision to separate from Malaysia, or how we would feel if East Malaysia separated from us. There is a certain innate revulsion at the idea of your country being torn apart, even though it is at the behest of the people.

Nevertheless, self-determination is the right way to go. When you put an end to the destructives strife that cripples the economy of both territories, and bring about peaceful trade and cooperation between the two separated jurisdictions, you find that a more prosperous and just outcome is reached — albeit at the loss of some pride.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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