New terrain, old problems: identity conflict and extremism in Asia, 2021
In 2017, residents of Khon Kaen, Thailand, filed a petition to prevent a Muslim community from registering a newly built mosque, citing fears of violence. A Facebook page said the petitioners, who were Buddhists, opposed the construction because it undermined traditional values and peace. Some months later, a buddhist monk proclaimed Islam the enemy of its religion and urged Buddhists in conflict-affected southern provinces of Thailand to regroup and destroy mosques.
None of these efforts achieved their goals. The movement against the registration of the mosque made limited progress and received no significant government support, while the monk was arrested and then stripped naked.
Similar tensions manifested themselves differently in neighboring Myanmar, another predominantly Buddhist country in Southeast Asia. From 2012 to 2014, religious and nationalist extremists orchestrated a series of campaigns against Muslim minority communities. After garnering support by tapping into local networks and social media, and claiming to protect the Buddhist nation from an existential threat, they launched attacks against Muslim communities in several cities. They also supported a wave of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, in which gangs burned down entire neighborhoods and around 1,000 people were killed. In most of these cases, the police and military failed to intervene effectively.
Later, in 2016 and 2017, military campaigns in Rakhine State resulted in the flight of over 600,000 Muslim Rohingya to Bangladesh. The UN chief of human rights describe as a “prime example of ethnic cleansing”.
So why did the Thai authorities act quickly to ease tensions while their Myanmar counterparts did the opposite? Superficially, perhaps, one government seemed to be better than the other at maintaining law and order. However, a closer analysis of these events shows a much more insidious pattern, with some Myanmar leaders actively seeking to foster sectarian tensions by polarizing identity groups along religious fault lines.
Identity tensions rose across the region at a time when concerns about violent extremism made it easy for agitators to portray local Muslim communities as a threat. Myanmar has experienced intense violence, but activists have also been behind attacks on Muslim communities in Sri Lanka and in India. In both countries, security forces have been accused of reacting too late and nationalist politicians of inciting violence.
Seeking majority popularity and support by identifying and blaming a minority is one of the oldest political tricks and has taken on a new lease of life in recent years. Deep-rooted social and political divisions have flared up in many Asian countries, while growing expressions of ethnic nationalism are evident as majority political forces have both deepened divisions and eroded democratic institutions. Most Asian countries have diverse populations and their governments continually face the persistent challenge of maintaining stability across ethnic or religious divisions. The varied responses to community tensions generally indicate the willingness of at least some leaders in each case to build support by playing dangerous identity games.
In a recent post delivered, The Asia Foundation seeks to recognize and explain trends in violence in the region. The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021: Identity Conflict and Extremism presents a series of short essays written by expert contributors, followed by summaries of conflict patterns in 10 Asian countries.
In his trial, Polarization, power and pandemic: new drivers of conflict in Asia, Michael Vatikiotis observes that competitive domestic politics play repeatedly and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions, allowing the propagation of traditional ideas of nationalism and identity. Amid growing majority trends that feed on deep-rooted social divisions, Vatikiotis finds that the long-established checks, balances and norms of political pluralism have been undermined by the populist assertion of ethnic and religious primacy and by a authoritarian leadership. Religious fervor has increased among people of all faiths, resulting from greater inequality or social and economic insecurity, and aided by the retreat or defeat of secular ideologies other than nationalism. These trends coincide with a reduction in Western support for liberal activism and intervention abroad, while an increasingly wealthy and active China offers an alternative approach and a ready source of funding.
Sidney Jones, in her trial on identity conflicts in South-East Asia, points out three contemporary factors of rising tensions. First, the role of violent religious extremism, a term that no longer applies only to jihadist movements. ISIS has inspired a small but significant minority of Muslims in Southeast Asia to support movements towards Islamic forms of government, while its regional heritage has altered the dynamics of violent extremism, heightened anti-Muslim sentiments among some. non-Muslim communities, changed security policies and changed foreign aid priorities. Second, the rise of populist and majority movements in Southeast Asia. Deeply nationalist, they were animated by the fear that the privileged position of the majority might be threatened by religious, ethnic and sometimes sexual minorities. Feeding on the frustrations of uneven growth and access to opportunity, these movements have been particularly deadly when backed by influential governments or political parties. Third, Jones identifies long-term and growing tensions between migrants and “indigenous” peoples, particularly over land and resource issues. National migrants are often seen by host populations as a feature of central rule, especially in areas where the state is deeply angered. Variations of this pattern are seen across the region, where conflicts have been exacerbated by deepening divisions along identity lines.
In a final trial of The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021, three regional specialists in the impact of online technologies, Maria Ressa de Rappler, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Sarah Oh, discuss how social media has fueled both polarization and authoritarianism. Governments across Asia, meanwhile, regularly seek to manipulate information online, and Internet users receive information through a combination of algorithms that maximize ad revenue and push users to echo chambers that assert themselves. Regulations and legal frameworks are unable to manage the ways in which news and information is disseminated and consumed online. Dealing with this protracted crisis requires action at multiple levels to develop mass online literacy and foster local responses. Offline actions and online responses are needed, while better regulation of social media generally requires the action of many different stakeholders, from international organizations to grassroots.
As economies continue to grow and governments continue to build capacity across much of Asia, this diverse set of contemporary factors will continue to generate friction between identity groups. The ongoing task of maintaining tolerance and managing tensions in the region’s plural societies remains more critical than ever.
This article is part of a collaborative series with The Asia Foundation.
to listen Adam Burke discusses The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021.