In the last years of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, critics accused the government of stoking “ethnic tensions” by drawing an imaginary line between ethnic Taiwanese — those who had inhabited this land for generations — and the Chinese who arrived in Taiwan after 1945, especially after the defeat of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces at the hands of the Communists.
Aside from the conscious decision by some DPP members to use the Hoklo language (commonly known as Taiwanese) in public rather than Mandarin, there were precious few incidents that could substantiate accusations that Chen and the DPP were seeking to score political points by creating an “ethnic” divide or an “us” versus “them” environment based on biology. Tensions did arise now and then, but they rarely boiled over and seldom transcended differences in political views.
Ironically, the election of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as president in March, followed by his subservient peace initiative with Beijing, threatens to turn the political differences that characterized the DPP era into a clash of “ethnicities” — albeit one more grounded in the “narcissism of small differences,” as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud put it, than in genetic baggage.
History has shown that one should be extremely careful when using the terms “racial” and “ethnic” to describe or rationalize conflict. The concepts have time and again been exploited by groups whose real motivations have more to do with greed than “ethnic” grievances.
Despite the common reflex by specialists and journalists to paint the conflicts that devastated the Balkans in the 1990s and the numerous wars that rage across Africa in terms of “clans,” “race” and “ethnicity,” the underlying causes of most of those conflicts have either been land grabs and/or the capture of precious natural resources.
Even the Rwandan genocide of 1994, often seen as the epitome of “ethnic” conflict, had at its core elements of political maneuvering, competition over resources and thirst for power.
In fact, the Interahamwe, the perpetrators of the genocide, had to go to great lengths to depict their actions as stemming from “ethnic” conflict, using pseudoscientific criteria to distinguish Hutu from Tutsi.
Still, only through an effective and carefully planned propaganda campaign fueling “ethnic” tensions could the Interahamwe have managed to turn a large swath of the Rwandan population into cold-blooded murderers.
After the war, the Tutsi government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame would in turn use the “ethnic” card to justify its military incursions, this time into its resource-rich neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), purportedly to defend ethnic Tutsi from Hutu groups, including genocidaires who had fled there after their defeat in 1994.
The real reason for the presence of Rwandan soldiers in the DRC — though Kigali will deny this — is the natural resources that are found there, with “ethnicity” providing convenient cover.
More recently, Moscow rationalized its invasion of Georgia in similar fashion, arguing that it was protecting ethnic Russians in South Ossetia from “ethnic” Georgians.
There, too, natural resources (an oil pipeline route) played a predominant role in Moscow’s decision-making, as did geopolitics in the face of NATO encroachment on its perceived circle of influence and the deployment by the US of missile systems in its backyard.