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Rakhine conflict could ignite regional religious tensions

Myanmar's harsh crackdown on Rohingya population draws extreme international responses

| Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

The resurgence of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state has opened a dangerous fissure in Southeast Asia that threatens to divide the two most important religious faiths in the region: Buddhism and Islam. Never in modern times have tensions been so high between faiths that have coexisted peacefully in this region for centuries. If the trend continues, it could become a more dangerous threat to social stability than that posed by Islamic State fighters returning from the Middle East.

"There is the prospect of an alarming divide that could derail ASEAN," commented Surin Pitsuwan, the former Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Incredible though it may seem, that violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya populations in remote western Myanmar could stoke tensions in other countries, consider the following incidents just days after the Aug. 25 upsurge of violence in northern Rakhine state, which left more than 400 dead and displaced at least 40,000 within a few days.

On Aug. 30, close to 1,000 Rohingya protested in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. More than 40 of them were arrested and one protestor who doused himself with gasoline was prevented from setting himself on fire. The protest was allegedly organized by a Malaysian non-governmental organization, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islam Organizations (Mapim), which has called for Myanmar citizens to be expelled from the country. "State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, you are to be blamed," said Mohammed Azmi Abdul Hamid, the Mapim president, about Myanmar's de facto leader after handing a memorandum to the Myanmar embassy. "You are supposed to be a democratic leader, you are supposed to protect human rights. Why are you siding with the military?"

In mosques and in newspaper columns, Malaysian Muslims have grown increasingly angry. Much of the emotional reaction has been stoked by what has proven to be mostly fake pictures of alleged atrocities committed by both sides. The BBC reported that one widely circulated tweet posted by Turkey's deputy prime minister actually consisted of pictures taken during the Rwandan civil war and Indonesia's Aceh conflict rather than from Rakhine state.

In Indonesia, the government has come under intense pressure to act. A statement issued by the country's second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiya, called for, among other things, an investigation by the international criminal court into the Rakhine fighting, Myanmar's expulsion from the ASEAN, and the withdrawal of Suu Kyi's Nobel peace prize.

These are tough words and threats in a region that has long managed to contain emotions and restrict actions concerning the internal affairs of neighboring countries. Almost two decades of armed conflict between Muslim Malays and Buddhist Thais in southern Thailand has hardly generated any popular protest in Malaysia. Non-interference is the the bedrock principle that holds ASEAN together.

There are domestic considerations for some regional governments that go beyond sympathizing with the plight of Muslims. While criticizing the Myanmar government for practicing double standards based on religion, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said he "didn't want Malaysians to face the burden of political and social problems due to the flooding of refugees here." Currently at least 60,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Malaysia. Many of them were trafficked into the country after disembarking from boats on the Thai coast.

In Indonesia, the government is vulnerable to hardline Islamic sentiment, which has been harnessed by opponents of President Joko Widodo to weaken him ahead of elections in 2019. There are worries that the situation in Rakhine state could be used a pretext to whip up further Islamic anger toward the government. Social media is alive with calls for a mass protest outside the Myanmar embassy and an even more alarming plan for fundamentalist Islamic groups to surround the ancient Buddhist monument of Borobodur in central Java.

Regional reverberations

ASEAN is woefully ill-equipped to deal with a double-headed sectarian and humanitarian crisis. There will be pressure on the security forces in Indonesia to clamp down on protests to prevent Myanmar citizens from being harmed, or Buddhists temples attacked. There are fears that with the end of the monsoon rains, more Rohingya will try to escape the conflict by boat and land in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, triggering  a new boat people crisis.   

What  started  as communal violence leading to humanitarian neglect in Rakhine State has morphed into a full-blown  conflict with the emergence of an organized insurgency led by a charismatic figure backed by a well-organized diaspora network able to disseminate positions and statements to the media.  Experts fear that if there is no move toward dialogue, the group, which calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, could fall under the influence of radical extremists looking for opportunities to conquer territory in the name of the Islamic State.  

So what can the region do to help address the situation before it gets worse? Last year after Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi visited Myanmar, Suu Kyi was persuaded to host an ASEAN ministerial meeting to provide a briefing on Rakhine state. But with emotions running high, there needs to be more than a cozy parlay about the situation. Action is required.

Regional religious tensions might be eased if the Myanmar government allowed joint humanitarian teams to directly provide relief. This recalls the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force and Tripartite Core Group that was mobilized to channel and deliver relief after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar's densely populated Irrawaddy delta region in May 2008.

But there is also clearly the need for a longer-term mechanism for ensuring that communal tensions are better managed and, in the words of an ASEAN senior diplomat, the needs of both communities are addressed. This requires carefully balancing the concerns expressed by regional neighbors for the religious communities in Rakhine state - which includes Hindus as well as Buddhists and Muslims - with the task of developing the state, which is the poorest in Myanmar.

Indonesia so far has played a constructive role in the eyes of the Myanmar government because its aid program in Rakhine state has scrupulously targeted both the Rakhine and Muslim communities. To this end, Indonesia has deployed both Muslim and Buddhist NGOs and built a lot of trust with local and central government officials because of its low-key approach and the efficient, albeit modest, delivery of aid. Indonesia's foreign minister has also prodded Myanmar and Bangladesh to cooperate more closely to alleviate the humanitarian crisis along their common border.

The priority after these latest attacks is to persuade the Myanmar government to keep channels of communication open and not retreat behind a wall of defensive nationalism and recrimination. The fiercely nationalistic, often anti-Muslim, rhetoric appearing on Myanmar social media is throwing fuel on the angry fires smouldering in neighboring countries, where in turn the rise of identity politics has created a conducive environment for sectarian strife. If these flames continue to be fanned, then the security of Buddhists and Muslims across the region will be jeopardized.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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