Asia’s democracies are threatened by a growing source of strategic instability at the sub-state level, as increasing religiosity and extremist ideologies gain momentum in the national consciousness of several countries in the region, notes analyst Chietigj Bajpaee. There have been several changes in the nature of this threat in recent years, he writes for the Lowy Institute:
- The threat is increasingly emerging from seemingly non-militant civil society groups with radical agendas, rather than fully-fledged terrorist organisations. The rise of groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam in Bangladesh and the Islamic Defenders Front in Indonesia are evidence of this development.
- The geographic scope of instability has expanded. In the early 2000s, Indonesia and the southern Philippines were the primary sources of instability in Southeast Asia. Now Malaysia, southern Thailand and even Myanmar need to be considered.
- While repressive regimes remain a catalyst for radicalisation (as seen in Central Asia and Xinjiang), increasingly it is the democratic process itself that has encouraged radicalisation. This is evident from the growth of radical religious groups in states with nascent (Myanmar) or maturing (Indonesia) democracies. Imperfect democracies, such as Bangladesh under the current Awami League government and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, have further fueled extremism.
Where democracy has arrived — as it did in Cambodia under the auspices of the UN in 1993 — it has in several cases quickly been subverted or demolished, The FT’s Victor Mallet notes in a review of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, by Michael Vatikiotis:
Vatikiotis writes that many of his Southeast Asian friends regard the future with apprehension. “I notice a distinct contrast between Pollyanna-ish Westerners all agog over the glitz and growth in the region, predicting its glorious future, and anxious Southeast Asians, rich and poor, who harbour worries of lurking catastrophe.” Those are strong words. But the periodic waves of democratic optimism that followed first decolonisation and then the overthrow of dictators in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have undoubtedly given way to ripples of concern about the future.
Vatikiotis identifies three main reasons for his forebodings and those of his interlocutors, Mallet adds:
- First, inequality — and the selfishness of the business-political elites that have benefited disproportionately from economic growth both before and after Asia’s financial crisis. Just as populism has been fuelled by resentment over inequality in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain and in oligarchical Hong Kong, so the 40 per cent of Indonesians clustered around a poverty earnings line of $2 a day are easy prey for demagogues. It is true that prosperity has also swollen the ranks of Asia’s middle class, but this aspiring and increasingly educated bourgeoisie is governed by the same set of authoritarian leaders and their coterie of tycoons. “This is not a sustainable paradox,” the author writes. It sounds like a recipe for revolution.
- The second reason is the erosion of tolerance and the rise of identity politics, whether the issue is religion or ethnicity. Vatikiotis cites figures showing that 1.6m Asians have died in “sub-national” conflicts (in other words, in wars within states and not between them) since 1947; more died in such conflicts in Asia in the decade to 2008 than in all other conflicts elsewhere in the world combined. As for religion, the increasing influence of extremist Sunni interpretations of Islam over the past 30 years is startlingly visible in the dress codes and religiosity of the Muslims who make up 40 per cent of the region’s population — and in the vilification and recent jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the once-popular Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta better known as Ahok. Buddhist extremism and intolerance is on the rise, too. Like Christians in the Middle East, religious minorities are fleeing persecution in the countries of their birth and seeking refuge with co-religionists. Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingyas, for example, have been heading to Bangladesh and Malaysia.
- Third and last, there are those outside forces: not only the intolerant, well-financed Islamism of the Gulf but also the rise of China as the latest imperialist superpower insensitive to the needs or wishes of its putative client states. ….
In the end, though, the outlook is menacing, Mallet adds:
Indonesia risks “the kind of ethnic and religious sectarian strife we see in the Middle East today”. Malaysians are dismayed by “the slow disintegration of the multiracial compact”. In Thailand, there is “little prospect of the military willingly giving up power”. The Philippines remains “a prisoner of oligarchy”. Even Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar has disappointed her liberal supporters. We can hope that Vatikiotis is wrong, but I fear he is not.
But there is also hope, according to Vatikiotis, and it rests with Southeast Asia’s historically resilient civil societies, Bertil Lintner writes for The Irrawaddy*: “The slow response of government to grievances and use of divide-and-rule tactics to undermine opposition will force communities and groups to look after themselves and defy the powerful center.”
Democracy as catalyst for radicalization
“Repressive regimes have long been recognized as catalysts for extremism, as illustrated by the cases of the Central Asian republics and Xinjiang, where restrictions on religious practices have inadvertently encouraged the growth of more extremist brands of Islam,” Bajpaee adds.
“However, extremist ideologies are now also emerging in democratic states. In Indonesia, the process of democratization in the post-Suharto era has inadvertently fuelled growing religiosity among segments of the population,” he notes. “In many ways this echoes what happened in the former Soviet states in the aftermath of the Cold War, where new freedoms sparked a growth in religious fervor.” RTWT
*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.