Future of Asia

Asia Got Religion

Religion is proving an increasingly divisive factor in the politics of Asian nations.

Credit: Rainer Lesniewski Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Religion is proving an increasingly divisive factor in the politics of Asian nations.
  • Xi Jinping’s regime has not only returned the Communist Party to atheist orthodoxy. It also harnessed Han ethnocentricity against “foreign” religions.
  • In Thailand, the Muslim “problem” remains confined to the country’s Malay-speaking southern provinces. Elsewhere, Muslims and Christians are well integrated.
  • It remains to be seen whether India’s Modi will use his re-election mandate to push further down the road of Hindutva and the marginalization of Muslims.

Religion is proving an increasingly divisive factor in the politics of Asian nations. It threatens domestic harmony, regional cooperation as well as the concept of the nation state.

How the Chinese play the game

Much attention has been paid in this context to China’s assault on the religious freedoms of Muslims and Christians.

Attacks on Muslim symbols such as dress, fasting and eating habits is linked to the separatist movements in Xinjiang, though these are ethnic more than religious in origin.

The Xi Jinping regime has not only returned the Communist Party to atheist orthodoxy. It has also harnessed Han ethnocentricity against these “foreign” religions from the West.

Buddhists, other than Tibetan, have so far largely escaped official assault — the religion in China being seen as Sinicized by its 2,000 year presence.

However, its Indian origin and the difficulty of aligning it either with Communism or Confucianism could yet make it vulnerable to Han nativism.

Meanwhile, several other countries have a very different problem. They are trying to make their nation synonymous with a particular religion even though many of their citizens hold other beliefs.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban

One of the more shocking demonstrations of this phenomenon was on display in Budapest recently where Myanmar’s unofficial leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, was being feted by a fellow xenophobe, Viktor Orban.

The two issued a joint statement that “the greatest challenge for both countries and their respective regions is migration.” They then linked this to the issue of “co-existence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Focus on Myanmar

In the case of Myanmar, these were not only counter-factual but designed to spread fear of Islam. They represent an insult to the 40% of the total population of the nations who are members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar.

Far from being a source of migrants, Myanmar’s Muslim neighbor Bangladesh has been the recipient of some 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have been driven from their homes by the Myanmar military without a squeak of protest from the one-time Peace Prize winner.

Bangladesh also has a fertility rate lower than Myanmar, and at 2.1 is on track for population stabilization. As for migration, if anyone in ASEAN has an immigration problem, it is Thailand. It is now home to more than 1.5 million people hailing from Myanmar, plus 150,000 in border refugee camps.

The Burmans – who are the main and dominant ethnic group of Myanmar, accounting for about 65-70% of the total — have another problem with the Rohingya. The latter are of darker skin and south Asian appearance compared with the fairer skinned and east Asian appearance of most Myanmar people.

Thailand’s record

But prejudice against Muslims is clearly also fanned by some Buddhist monks and their related organizations. The same is also apparent in Sri Lanka. This sentiment has come to the fore in the aftermath of the recent suicide bomber attacks on churches.

In Thailand, the Muslim “problem” remains confined to the country’s Malay-speaking southern provinces. Elsewhere, Muslims and Christians are well integrated.

Nonetheless, the symbolic focus on religion and the monarchy, particularly evident under the current military-backed regime, makes Bangkok unable to accept the autonomy for those provinces which might end the long-running insurgency there.

Malaysia: A lot needs to be done

Nor does Malaysia offer any guidance. A year after the defeat of the Malay-led government which had been in power for 60 years, the country remains trapped in a system which defines all Malays as Muslims and provides them with huge advantages denied to other races.

The idea of “Malaysia” as one nation remains a dream as the majority cling to their preferences and religious divides become ever more entrenched.

Malaysia could learn a lot from more plural Indonesia, but even there the pressures of Muslim orthodoxy have eroded some assumptions of the equality of the main religions, and the primacy of Pancasila, the all-embracing “five principles” of the nation.

India: Cause for concern

As for India, it remains to be seen whether Narendra Modi will use his re-election mandate to push further down the road of Hindutva and the marginalization of Muslims in particular.

In an ideal world, he would realize that a more inclusive approach would benefit economic growth and the unity of a nation of disparate linguistic and religious communities.

Conclusion

Interestingly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s outrageous remarks were barely reported in Myanmar’s own region and elicited no response from the leaders of Muslim-majority nations.

That suggests an unwillingness to grasp a nettle which could poison regional relations as well as national cohesion.

The various religions, and atheism, need to be put back in their box if this region is to continue to progress.

Tags: , , , , ,

About Philip Bowring

Philip Bowring is an Asia-based journalist, formerly the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

Responses to “Asia Got Religion”

If you would like to comment, please visit our Facebook page.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary Cookies

The use of certain cookies is required for the site to function correctly.

Advertising

Analytics

Improve content and site performance.

Other