Here the divisions between the major religions in Southeast Asia – Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – have never been greater, a reflection of political pandering. Christian residents in a small Indonesian town recently discovered this in dramatic fashion when the city council ordered the razing of their church by bulldozers.
Muslims cheered as the walls of the Taman Sari Batak Christian Protestant Church were pulled down in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta, to the wailing of Koranic verses.
Islamic intolerance is not uncommon in the world’s largest Muslim nation, with the anger of hardliners often aimed at sects like the Ahmadiyya – seen as a blasphemous deviation of Islam. Last year Indonesian authorities arrested a man for being an atheist, while in Vietnam others were arrested at the same time for believing in God.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Violence has also flared between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma. Troops have been dispatched to Meiktila where about 20 people were reportedly killed amid heavy rioting and thousands more fled their homes. Horrific footage was shown across the Internet of charred bodies and people in fear.
Sources in Meiktila said that the religious violence is being fueled partly by a lack of access to education and economic opportunities, as well as xenophobic authorities. They added that investment was needed at the village level to help lessen economic disparities that are increasingly being defined by religious affiliation.
“This doesn’t need to breach ASEAN’s mandate of non-interference in a neighbor’s affairs, rather they are practical measures to help facilitate the local economy and small business,” one source, who declined to be named because her family has business interests in the town, told The Diplomat.
She added, “Considering Indonesia and Malaysia are a part of ASEAN, it would be unwise for Burma to fuel this xenophobia against the Muslim Rohingya and indeed, Muslims generally. Those countries have economic clout in the region and should be prepared to speak up for marginalized communities.”
Regional religious rivalry and politics also provided a spectacular and deadly show of force recently in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, where an insurgency was launched from the Southern Philippines in February.
The Philippines has never accepted Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah, which is traditionally Christian, and has refused to arrest Jamalul Kiram III, a Filipino resident and self-anointed Sultan of Sulu, whose insurrection has so far cost the lives of at least 71 people in Malaysia.
Welsh said religion could serve as fallback given the lack of basic rights afforded to workers under the proposed AEC. This would mean Muslims from Indonesia, the Southern Philippines or northern Burma would look for work in Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei.
Meanwhile, Christians would be attracted to The Philippines, while Buddhists would find cultural and religious affiliations in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and perhaps Laos where the Buddhist clergy remains strong, despite 38 years of communism.