Sectarianism rears its head as Asean launches community

This year will see the formal unveiling of Asean as a community. Sadly, this momentous step is being taken amid alarming signs of widening fissure and friction among South-east Asia’s half a billion people. The principle reason for this is the weakening of traditional forms of religious tolerance.

Published on Jan 15, 2015 6:27 AM By Michael Vatikiotis For The Straits Times S.e.a. View

This year will see the formal unveiling of Asean as a community. Sadly, this momentous step is being taken amid alarming signs of widening fissure and friction among South-east Asia’s half a billion people. The principle reason for this is the weakening of traditional forms of religious tolerance.

Across much of South-east Asia, people have for centuries managed to sustain deep adherence to their faiths without religious identity disrupting communal harmony. In the towns and cities of populous Java in Indonesia, Muslims, Christians and Hindu-Buddhists have traditionally coexisted peacefully. Churches sit next to mosques, and the traces of ancient Hindu practices suffuse the rituals of both religions.

In predominantly Buddhist Thailand, Muslims have enjoyed protection for centuries, and the laws of most countries in South-east Asia provide for freedom of worship and the protection of religious traditions and faiths.

This may be changing, with the alarming emergence of sectarian conflict across the region. In Indonesia, where religious tolerance and pluralism are enshrined in the Constitution, violent conflicts involving attacks on Muslim minority sects like the Ahmadiyya, and Christian churches have been increasing steadily over the past five years. Muslim pressure groups like the Front to Protect Islam have forced city and district administrations to shut down Christian churches, curb the sale of alcohol and enforce strict observance of Islamic law.

In Malaysia, where the Islamic faith lies at the heart of the Malay-majority identity, there has been a steady drift towards intolerance of the cultures and traditions of the still sizeable Indian and Chinese communities. Hindu temples and Christian churches find it harder to get official operating permits. In tiny Brunei, where syariah law has been in place since last year, Christmas decorations were banned.

Protecting the faith

Even more alarming has been the relatively recent emergence of acute intolerance in the Buddhist-majority communities of Myanmar towards long-established Muslim minorities. The Theravada Buddhism that predominates in South-east Asia is perceived as a benign, peaceful faith based on the teachings of the Buddha. But like other religious faiths, the ideals of human kindness mask a strong protective instinct. “It is also our duty to protect the faith,” said a mild-mannered abbot from the central city of Mandalay, who is trying to teach his followers the basics of mediation because he sees conflicts within the community over land and identity growing more serious as the country becomes more open.

Communal violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012. The state’s Buddhist majority have lived in awkward but mainly peaceful coexistence with a Muslim minority who have called themselves Rohingya for generations. The violence has not only forced the two communities apart and created a humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya, who live in terrible conditions in poorly equipped camps, but more than a 100,000 of them have left in boats to end up being smuggled or trafficked as cheap labour in Thailand and Malaysia.

What began as localised anti-Muslim sentiment has since spread to other parts of Myanmar, fuelled by Buddhist nationalist sentiment spread via social media. These networks have been used to spread hate speech and, in at least one incident of violence against Muslims in Mandalay last year, rumours of a rape spread via social media turned out to be false. Sadly, manipulation by political actors is largely responsible as the country struggles to manage a hesitant democratic transition.

Identity and politics

Why has religious sectarianism reared its ugly head in a region long proud of its traditions of tolerance? First, reflecting a global trend, people of all faiths have become more religiously observant. Prosperity and development have subjected traditional societies to stress and loosened the moorings of cultural identity. Religion is a refuge and becomes a stronger marker of identity.

At the same time, more openly contested politics in the age of democratic transition has, for better or worse, created the need for platforms to mobilise voters. But poorly developed political parties, especially in emerging democratic contexts, means there is a dearth of sophisticated programmes with which to woo voters. Faith and religious identity present themselves as useful surrogates for aspiration and affiliation based on secular ideals.

More pronounced stress on faith has helped sharpen differences of identity. This in turn highlights differences between communities that were less evident in past generations. Islamic piety in particular has a transformative effect on mixed communities – mosques grow bigger, the call to prayer louder, clothing and the appearance of people become more distinctive. Communities that once considered themselves Indonesian or Malaysian, Thai or Burmese, now seem more starkly differentiated.

In conversations with Buddhist leaders, one hears concerns about this greater differentiation. Why do Muslims look and act so differently today when they did not yesterday? This fear of difference leads to moves to govern interaction, such as the Bill that would prevent intermarriage between Muslims and Buddhists being debated in Myanmar’s Parliament. Also, Malaysian Muslims have objected to the use of the word “Allah” as a generic term for God by Malaysian Christians.

The problem with this widening religious divide is that it is hard for moderate voices to prevail. When a group of prominent Malays in Malaysia raised their voice to express concern about the threat to pluralism posed by disputes over the application of Islamic laws, conservative Muslim scholars insisted that, since Muslims were the majority in Malaysia, they had a right to be governed by Islamic law.

In Myanmar, those who question the harsh rhetoric against Muslims are deemed to be unpatriotic. In Indonesia, a newspaper that published a cartoon critical of the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria saw its editor being officially accused of blasphemy, even though ISIS is a banned organisation in Indonesia.

All this points to a worrying fissure between South-east Asia’s two great religions that could divide the region just as it moves closer towards greater social and economic integration. The majority of Buddhists live in the mainland states, while Muslims dominate the island states. Movements on a micro-scale are already detectable.

Muslims from Myanmar’s mainly Buddhist Rakhine state are finding their way to Muslim-majority Malaysia; Buddhists from Thailand’s three southern-most provinces, where Malay Muslims are a majority, are leaving after a decade of ethnic conflict that has left more than 6,000 dead.

Without a doubt, South-east Asia’s traditional models of pluralism and tolerance are under stress. Before Asean can really become a community, its leaders must move fast to shore up and protect long-established traditions of tolerance and coexistence.

The writer, who lives in Singapore, is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based peacemaking organisation.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.