Another Asia is possible!


Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions,
Chennai, India.


Asia has half of the world’s population. Apart from some countries like Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, it belongs to the third world. There are many poor people and the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. In their anxiety to catch up with the richer economies, the Asian countries engage in unplanned technological development that lead to ecological destruction. The Multi-nationals are allowed to exploit their human and material resources. The poorly-paid labour of women and even children is used to bring down the production costs. Brain drain and migrant labour are depleting their human resources. Sex tourism involving women and children are encouraged or tolerated as income earners. The process of globalization is concentrating economic and political power, supported by military might, in North America and Europe, making of Asia a big open market for their goods and a source of cheap labour. The population in most countries is growing. Competition for the limited resources available is creating a lot of tensions between various groups of people, knit together in the name of religion, ethnicity, nationality or language. There are ongoing low-intensity conflicts in many countries. The picture looks dark indeed and the future seems bleak.
But there are a lot of positive signs of an awakening among people which counter-balance this negative picture. That is why we can affirm confidently that a different Asia is possible. What are the factors that encourage us to envisage a better future?
The most important factor is the human resource in which Asia is very rich. In terms of the age of the population, Asia is a very young continent, compared to the ageing populations of Europe and America. It has a vast army of young people. These people are rooted in and sustained by millennia-old Asian cultures, led by China and India. These cultures have been able to withstand the impact of European cultures during the colonial period and grow through creative interaction. They have also been able to integrate modern science and technology without any damage to their basic values. Secularization is not a problem in Asia.
It is often said that knowledge is power. Today knowledge is making use of the electronic media. People speak of it as information technology. The Asian youth are globally recognized as having an affinity to these forms of technology and knowledge. They will certainly have an important role in developing the future world. Information technology will transform the lives of people in Asia. It may help them to jump a few stages of the industrial development that Europe has gone through.
The people are also becoming politically aware. In every country, subaltern groups are becoming conscious of their rights and asserting them through all kinds of socio-political movements. Though there are still some strong governments in some countries, military dictatorships are ruling only a very few countries like Burma and Tibet. Democracy is taking a slow, but sure, hold in many countries. Peoples’ power is everywhere evident. In the last ten years the Philippino people have overthrown by a popular movement two of their presidents. The Indonesians eased out their president in a bloodless revolution. East Timor gained its independence. Similar reaffirmation of democracy has happened in Taiwan and South Korea. India remains the largest functioning democracy in the world with more than a billion people.
What is amazing is that most of the Asian countries are multi-cultural and multi-religious. In spite of occasional tensions they have succeeded in living together and creating community. In the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Burma, and Indonesia negotiations for peace have replaced active and even violent conflict. These negotiations represent the recognition of the separate identity of groups and their autonomy within a federal political set-up. In this way groups of people are enabled to participate in decision making and determine their own future.
There has been an awakening also in the field of ecology. People are more sensitive to the place of the Earth in human and cosmic life. The poor and the tribal groups in forest areas have become conscientized to the increasing destruction of the environment and have actively resisted the inroad of technology. They have also been protesting against the displacement of the people and destroying their cultural habitat. There was a famous case in the north of India where women hugged trees in a forest to prevent them from being cut down, even though some of the workers employed to cut the trees were their own husbands. In the south of India people have evolved alternate ways of damming the rivers and using them for balanced irrigation. Fisher people have organized themselves to struggle against mechanized trawlers that destroy fish culture in the sea and deprive ordinary fisher-folk of their livelihood. The people in the Philippines have been able to stop the destruction of forests to replace them with farm lands producing agricultural goods for the export market. These peoples’ movements have been able to bend the government to protect their interests in the ecological balance of the universe. What is also significant is that many of these movements are non-violent, following the example of Mahatma Gandhi.
The core values of people are rooted in religion. Asia is the cradle of all the world religions: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. All these religions are resurgent and have acquired a new purpose in the context of the impact of modernity. Secularism is the consequence of a struggle between the Church and the State in Europe. Similar conflicts do not exist in Asia and therefore it is not secularised as Europe is. Though the Asian religions may seem otherworldly, as a matter of fact they are very much focused on a good life here and now. Systems of meditation like theYoga and Zen seek to promote inner peace and harmony in the midst of a busy world. These systems are becoming increasingly popular. Alternative healing methods promote holistic health. The traditional systems of medicine in India and China are based on herbs and the energies of the body itself. Practices like acupressure and acupuncture stimulate the body to heal itself. Similarly, the energy flow of the body has been experientially studied. This energy is channelized for healing purposes by systems like Reiki and Pranic healing. Mental concentration, psycho-physical energy and the herbs from nature form a powerful combination for promoting holistic health.
Though there are certain currents of religious fundamentalism and movements that use religions as political forces, the Asian religions are broadly peace-loving. Even religious fundamentalism is a reaction to economic, political and cultural oppression by globally dominant groups.
In the Asia of the future the women will come into their own. It is true that Asian cultures have oppressed women in various ways in the past. But in recent years economic necessity has brought women into the public place looking for jobs. This has given them a new independence and self-confidence and a growing representation in politics. In India, for instance, there is a move to grant 33% representation for women in Parliament. New avenues like Information Technology are accessible to women as they do not need brute physical strength, but intelligence. As a matter of fact it is in Asia that we have had women prime ministers in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There are women presidents in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
One of the reasons for Asia’s backwardness today is colonial domination in the recent centuries. Their new independence certainly gives them an opportunity. An alternate Asia is certainly possible because Asia has cultures that offer an alternative world view and value system to the dominant Euro-American culture that is consumer and competition oriented, detrimental to the body and to the earth. Asian cultures are positive to and integrative of the body and nature. While Euro-American cultures are individualistic, the Asian cultures are communitarian. They are sensitive to the ‘other’. Emotional intelligence is built into their system while they are equally strong in rationality too. Harmony has been their goal. They are rooted in religion. The Asians are slowly becoming aware of the riches they have. If they can develop their resources they can meet the needs of all equitably. The youth of their population assures that the future of the world is theirs.
As the recent war on Iraq has shown, colonialism, political and economic, is not over. But the arrogance of the colonial powers will be their destruction. This is the opportunity for the Asians to show the world that they have a real alternative way of life.



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