Spreading a creed of hate thy neighbour

Michael Vatikiotis warns of the risks identity politics poses to Southeast Asia

The World Today Published 24 May 2019 Updated 30 July 2019 5 minute READ

A Muslim man walks among the ruins of his home after a wave of Buddhist violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya community

A Muslim man walks among the ruins of his home after a wave of Buddhist violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya community

It is not yet 10am and the sun is already scorching an open playing field on the side of the small Indonesian town of Ciamis in West Java. A crowd of several thousand people, most of them women wearing the hijab, waits under limp flags and bunting for presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to arrive. Meanwhile, a group of young men have taken to the stage. One of them cries: ‘Under our command, God willing, we will pursue our goal of the caliphate.’

Indonesia’s presidential election held on April 17, 2019, resulted in a decisive victory for the incumbent President Joko Widodo. But the campaign was bruising and divisive, and fought mainly on the issue of religious identity. Prabowo, a former army general, built his campaign on promises to support a conservative Islamic agenda that reaches back to the birth of the Indonesian republic in 1945 and arguments over whether the Muslim-majority nation should become an Islamic state.

Interim results declared by the end of polling day on April 17 showed that Joko Widodo won about 55 per cent of the votes and Prabowo about 45 per cent. But more concerning was the new electoral map, which showed Prabowo winning majorities in conservative Muslim regions of the country, from West Java, most of Sumatra, Sulawesi and parts of Kalimantan. These were the same regions that supported a violent uprising in the 1950s led by the Darul Islam movement that was eventually suppressed, and its leader executed in 1965.

This leaves the winner with the task of uniting the country and shoring up defences against religious dogma.

Indonesia’s economic fortunes will depend on how successfully it can continue to project itself as a moderate Muslim nation. Already highly decentralized, local autonomy could allow parts of the country to effectively implement conservative Islamic law, as is already the case in Aceh, in northern Sumatra. As Jamie Davidson argues in his new study Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy, ‘pitched contestation of identity politics in the electoral sphere is the new normal’.

The return of identity politics to the mainstream political arena in Indonesia is troubling but hardly surprising. It is part of a broader trend in Southeast Asia, in part related to the consolidation of democratic transitions that have opened the space for competitive politics over the past two decades, compelling politicians to look for easy issues to secure votes.

Diversity and democracy

The ten countries of Southeast Asia are among the most diverse in the world in terms of ethnic and religious identity. Broadly speaking half the region’s population of 640 million profess the Islamic faith, and the other half is mainly Buddhist. There is a sizable Christian minority spread across the region.

The move to democracy has taken place in societies which were long accustomed to managed forms of pluralism, either under absolute monarchies or powerful colonial regimes. As a result, most modern bodies of law, including constitutions, ensure equality of citizenship and tolerance of religious freedom in plural contexts, such as in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Even in Malaysia, where the majority Malay and Muslim population enjoys economic and political privileges, there is no law curtailing the freedom of non-Muslims.

However, competitive politics has started to erode these institutional safeguards for ethnic and religious harmony. Indeed, the more politicians have to compete for votes, the more they tug at fragile communal boundaries. Indonesia’s 20 years of democratic transition have been accompanied by a palpable rise of religious conflict, as measured by the Setara Institute in Jakarta.

In Indonesia, there have been calls for the implementation of Sharia law, and the denial of high office for non-Muslims. In Thailand, for the first time the Buddhist hierarchy has sounded the alarm about the threat from the Muslim minority in the deep south of the country after Buddhist monks were killed in retaliation for the murder of Muslim preachers.

In Malaysia, the decline and eventual defeat in 2018 of the ruling United Malays National Organization, which had a monopoly on power for six decades, has been accompanied by efforts to salvage support in the Muslim Malay community using racial and religious attacks on the opposition. And in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the move away from military rule towards elected government has seen a sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiment.

This is not to say that the majority of people in these countries necessarily subscribes to messages of hate, or notions of majoritarianism. Often these views are not even shaped around specific party platforms or political movements. Thus, in Indonesia, support for enshrining Sharia law and other legislative moves to appease conservative Muslim sentiment emanates from parties that don’t ostensibly have Islamic identities. Islamic parties in both Indonesia and Malaysia remain small and relatively powerless.

Towards religious orthodoxy

There is evidence of social change, but it needs to be carefully examined. There is no doubt that Muslim society in Indonesia and Malaysia has become increasingly orthodox and intolerant over the past three decades. Funding for conservative Islamic education, mostly from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in support of Salafist and Wahabi teaching, has undoubtedly fuelled the trend. There is also, in a broader sense, a general rise in religiosity across the region stemming from greater social and economic inequality and insecurity, and aided by the retreat or defeat of secular salvation ideology in the form of revolutionary Marxist-Leninist thought. Interestingly, in the Philippines, the avenue for channelling peasant grievances is a 50 year old Maoist insurgency, the New People’s Army.

It is also important to distinguish between mainstream religious orthodoxy that breeds exclusivity and communal friction and the fringe phenomenon of Islamic extremism. Since the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, the world has fixated on the spread of Islamic militancy as a source of global terrorism. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan gave birth to Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and more recently the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This group established a franchise in the Southern Philippines, whose representatives seized and held the sizeable city of Marawi, in Western Mindanao, for five months. In an important part of the global economy, and home to the largest Muslim population outside the Middle East, the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia has been the focus of considerable worldwide concern.

Radical Islamic movements supporting violent extremism remain a threat in the region, as governments fear the defeat of Islamic State in northern Syria may send foreign fighters scurrying back to Asia. Indeed, there were deadly attacks in Indonesia only last year and arrests in Malaysia and the Philippines continue to be made.

Arguably violent extremism linked to radical Islamic movements can be contained and may be on the wane. A more pressing threat to stability is the much broader spread of religious orthodoxy that upsets social harmony, generates religious conflict and affects tolerant and relatively open societies that have helped foster rapid economic growth and development over the past half century. The problem is that as long as politicians rely on identity politics for popular support, the more these social trends will be fanned and religious prejudice or conflict condoned. The case of Myanmar is worth highlighting.

The Rohingya crisis

The Myanmar military’s decision to proceed with an orderly move to elected government saw a mild-mannered general named Thein Sein lead a hybrid government of civilian and military officials after flawed elections in 2010.

This political opening lent impetus to the emergence of local parties based on ethnic identity and forced army-backed parties to look for issues to animate the popular base. This in turn made Muslims a target in areas such as Rakhine State and Mandalay.

The problem escalated when politicians tapped into Buddhist preachers who started using hate speech across social media networks to ram home the message about the Muslim threat. U Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay, used the 969 Movement to spread hate speech that prompted the initial violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in 2012. Some observers consider that Buddhist extremism was harnessed as an instrument to deter support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy in the run-up to the 2015 elections. Politically inspired hate speech had a serious impact in Rakhine State, where traditionally more than a million and a half Rohingya Muslims had lived in uneasy coexistence with Buddhist Rakhine. By the end 2012, Rohingya in southern Rakhine were corralled into dingy camps with little or no freedom of movement. By 2015, many of these unfortunate people started to clamber on to boats and seek resettlement elsewhere in the region, and thousands were trafficked under harsh conditions, which led to many deaths. International NGOs started to see evidence of ‘ghettoization, sporadic massacres and restrictions on movement’.

Then, after an attack on police posts by Rohingya insurgents, an army-led clearance operation in 2016 forced almost 800,000 Rohingya to flee for their lives across the border from northern Rakhine State. Large-scale acts of rape and killings are suspected to have taken place and are the subject of a United Nations-led inquiry.

Interestingly, some Buddhist Rakhine activists now blame the Myanmar military and political elements from outside the state for what happened. While there is little doubt about animosity between the two communities, the narrative put forward by the Rakhine nationalist Arakan Army is that violence and unrest on this scale would never have occurred without external instigation for political purposes.

Curbing identity politics

Identity politics has the potential to destabilize Southeast Asia more than the threat of radical extremism. And unlike the
extremist threat, for which security countermeasures if used with surgical precision are mostly effective, it is hard to imagine
effectively curtailing the use of identity politics without seriously infringing on democratic rights and freedoms.

Some have proposed reforms that address political campaign rules and the responsible shaping of party platforms. But it is hard for politicians responsible for implementing reforms to willingly make their task of re-election harder. Longer term solutions include measures to ensure that voters become less susceptible to the deployment of identity politics, using school curriculums and social programmes.

Sadly, governments in the region will most likely turn to the tools of hard security to address rising communal tensions. This is already happening in Indonesia, where the government banned the pan-Islamic conservative group Hizb ut Tahir in 2017.

Western governments face a dilemma, fearful of the spread of violent extremism yet protective of democratic pluralism. In the long term this security approach will infringe on human rights and hamper democratic life, which could lead to a cycle of repression and democratic regression.

In many ways, the situation today in Indonesia mirrors the country’s experience in the 1950s. The 1955 parliamentary election was generally considered free and fair. It produced a result that disappointed the powerholders as the main Islamic party Masyumi won almost a quarter of the vote. Disappointed with not coming to power, some of its leaders declared a rebellion, which led to an army crackdown and forced President Sukarno to dilute parliamentary democracy, setting the country on the path to decades of authoritarian rule.

The solution to the rise of identity politics is for all countries in the region to support prolonged processes of political reform that address the mundane mechanisms of competitive politics and don’t simply address issues of leadership and rights. This is hard because in most democratic transitions, initial bursts of enthusiastic reform soon give way to complacency.

There is also an urgent need for international social media companies to work with governments to address the spread of hate speech that gives politicians the currency with which to play identity politics.

Indonesia’s presidential election, though remarkably peaceful and effective as an exercise in democratic pluralism, is a wake-up call for the country’s leaders to start addressing the spread of identity politics in earnest. For while no lives were lost and there was no election-related violence, the results have etched more clearly a religious divide in the country – between those favouring tolerance and pluralism and those who want to pursue an Islamist majoritarian agenda.

The lesson of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is that if left unattended political manipulation of the religious divide can be catastrophic both in terms of stability and human suffering.