In Southeast Asia, the debate on the rights of ethnocultural groups within multicultural societies has changed dramatically, both in its scope and its basic terminology. Before mid-1990s there were very few researchers working on the subject and the issue of minority has been seen as marginal. Following the monetary crisis of 1997, after years of relative neglect, the question of minority rights has moved to the forefront of political debates.
One of the most obvious reasons is the political restructuration occurred after the monetary crisis has changed the power landscape in Southeast Asian countries and affected their democratisation processes. Optimistic assumptions that transitions to democracy would emerge smoothly from the ashes of authoritarianism in some countries were derailed by the politics of ethnicity or indigeneity. The nativists backlash against majority concerning the distribution of benefits, the resurgence and political mobilisation of indigenous peoples to secure access to natural resources, and the ongoing, even growing, threat of secession within several Southeast Asian countries, for instances Indonesia (West Papua), Myanmar (Rohingya), Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), and the Philippines (Moro), demonstrate the salience of minority issues.
At the same time, these movements have also gained their momentum and significance in international and regional politics. In 2007, resulting from relentless and organised global activisms, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations. Recently the question of Rohingya refugees is shaking the politics in Southeast Asian countries, especially Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, as well in ASEAN.
Two things are made clear here. First is that the transitional process to democracy needs not only to concern with liberal questions such as individual freedom, autonomy as well as socio-economic equality, but also to overcome the tensions raised by ethnocultural diversity and collective interests. Second is that there are powerful contesting external and internal forces resulting from globalised networks, free movements of actors and norms, which tend to blur and merge universal liberal principles with particularistic sentiments, identities and aspirations.
Inquiries on minority rights that relate them to the underlying principles of liberal democracy, such as individual freedom, autonomy and socio-economic equality, are thus needed. Such research might aim at investigating how minority rights are imagined and represented in normative considerations and political strategies. In the context of Southeast Asia, these studies could possibly examine and test the following hypothesis:
- Minority rights exist because individuals find it worthwhile to maintain existing cultural practices in life.
- Minority rights would support, rather than undermine, individual autonomy.
- To protect minority rights, states should be neutral with respect to ethno-cultural identities of their citizens.
- Recognising minority rights promotes solidarity and secures political stability.
Scholarly reportings on minority groups in Southeast Asia often focus on the raise of ethnic/indigenous politics and the political economy of ethnicity/indigeneity. Studies that specifically scrutinise minority rights within the interfaces of universal liberal principles and particular collective interests are scanty. Furthermore, studying minority rights in Southeast Asia this way would shed a new light on contemporary interfaces of contesting normative and political forces, which occupy the area between individualism and collectivism as well as universalism and particularism. A region that is experiencing a transitional process towards democracy might present wider socio-political spaces that could create opportunities for fresh dialectical dynamics. Compared to established democracies, where norms pertaining to freedoms and entitlements are already delineated and institutionalised, case studies from Southeast Asia would offer valuable comprehensions with regard to norms interpretations and their practices.