Activists post portraits of missing Thai activist Wanchalerm Satsakasit in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok. Image: Twitter/Bangkok Post

SINGAPORE – The video clip that captured the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May lasted eight minutes and forty-six seconds.

The popular movement against racism that exploded across the United States has already impacted this year’s US election campaign and many hope will result in genuine reform of the law and order system. Across the world, a global reaction against racial inequality and intolerance has erupted.

Here in Asia, this sudden surge of advocacy for social equality has highlighted the scourge of identity politics and offers opportunities to address the problem. But equally, it could fuel and aggravate already tense racial and religious boundaries in an increasingly fractured and divided world.    

In recent years, ethnic and religious identity have become marked drivers of conflict across Asia. The rise of communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus across India and similar assertions of religious primacy in diverse societies like Muslim-majority Indonesia and Buddhist majority Myanmar have generated unrest and violence. 

In some countries, long-established norms and institutions of pluralism have been undermined by the populist assertion of ethnic and religious primacy. Illiberal democracy and populist authoritarianism are in the ascendant and have fuelled identity-based conflict.

Till now there has been limited international pressure against the trend.

Tens of thousands of Philadelphians rallied to demand justice for George Floyd and other victims of systemic racist violence in America, June 6, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Cory Clark

On one level, the power and cogency of the US-based Black Lives Matter movement has, like other periods of upheaval in recent American history, empowered popular movements against intolerance of racial or religious privilege all over the world.

It has resonance across India, for example, where low-caste Hindus and increasingly Muslims are treated as second class citizens and are subject to violent abuse. 

In parts of Southeast Asia, where ethnic and religious divides are less stark but have been increasingly politicised, there have been more vocal calls to address the persecution of minorities. They include the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar, ethnically Melanesian Papuans in Indonesia, and the urban poor who are victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. 

George Floyd’s now famous almost last words: “I can’t breathe” have become a slogan for repression everywhere, it seems.

But while the global protest movement has generally helped advocacy for freedom and equality among civil society activist groups in Asia, it has also sharpened long festering divides with roots in the colonial past. For many former colonies it is a stark reminder of the racism and partioned societies that were a legacy of Western colonial rule.

From Singapore to India, old prejudices about the congruence of status and race have been revived, usually through the medium of social media. In societies where stark inequality has been highlighted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is acute sensitivity around issues of color and privilege, which could serve to fuel tensions as the post-pandemic recession takes hold.  

In Myanmar, Indians who were brought to the country as indentured labour and clerical staff by the British colonial administration, have launched a campaign on the back of Black Lives Matter protests to end use of the derogatory term ‘kalar.’ 

The fact that most of the 40,000 cases of Covid-19 infection in Singapore have been among the mostly South Asian migrant worker community has highlighted the cramped and crowded conditions in which these workers live in a city that boasts a first world standard of living.  

Migrant workers in a Covid-19 infected dormitory in Singapore, June 2020. Photo: AFP

Perhaps even more disturbing has been the way in which the protests in the US have been exploited to exacerbate emerging geo-political tensions in the Asian region.  George Floyd’s tragic death lit the touch paper of popular anger in America just as its government was gearing up to impose sanctions on China over the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong in the face of sustained popular protests.

“How come US politicians called rioters in Hong Kong heroes, but when it’s happening in America they are labelled thugs?” asked a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.

In response, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a particularly shrill statement two days after the June 4th anniversary of the violent crackdown against student protestors Tiananmen Square in 1989, spoke of China’s “callous exploitation of the tragic death of George Floyd to justify its authoritarian denial of basic human dignity…no lie is too obscene, so long as it serves the Party’s lust for power. This laughable propaganda should not fool anyone.”

Nonetheless, many US analysts agreed that the Trump administration’s confused and reactionary response to the protests at home had made it harder for Washington to preach values to China and other authoritarian regimes across Asia.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the government has pushed a new anti-terrorist law through Congress that erodes basic rights and allows extended periods of detention without trial.  Thai civil society is up in arms over the abduction and disappearance of a Thai dissident who was living in exile in Cambodia. 

Wanchalerm Satsakasit, 37, was taken outside his Phnom Penh apartment on June 4 whilst speaking with his sister. His last words allegedly were: “Argh, I can’t breathe.”  And Indonesia is proceeding with the treason trial of Papuan activists who protested the use of racial abuse by law enforcement officers against Papuan students at a university in East Java. 

Students from Papua demonstrate against racism in front of Jakarta Palace, August 22, 2019. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Donal Husni

The effectiveness of opposition to repression and the abuse of power in Asia has long depended on moral and material support from Western governments, in particular the US. 

The upheaval and political polarization that now afflicts American and some European societies now makes this support less certain and even irrelevant. The way that China and the US are exploiting each other’s internal issues makes countries in the middle liable to manipulation – one side’s ceiling becomes the other’s floor.

This should be a wake-up call for civil society in Asia to be more independent and develop its own set of standards.  Freedom and equality are universal values.  The challenge is less what the West can do to help, and more what Asians must for themselves do to stand up to repression and the abuse of power.  

George Floyd’s desperate words “I can’t breathe” have parallels in the long history of Asia’s struggle for freedom. The tyranny of some, wrote the great Philippine nationalist Jose Rizal, at the end of the nineteenth century, “is only possible through the cowardice of others.”