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Religion, Race and Politics: ASEAN’s Gordian Knot

It’s time for ASEAN to play a constructive role in tackling religious and racial tensions across the region.

Luke Hunt

Delivering an integrated economic community by 2015 is a long-cherished ASEAN dream. But events in recent weeks have shown just how difficult the task will be, driving home the complex realities facing the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly on issues of race and creed.

Hardline Islamic militancy has surfaced again in Indonesia, while in the Southern Philippines ongoing tensions between Christians, Muslims and ethnic Moros in search of a homeland have spilled over into Sabah in East Malaysia. In Burma, anti-Muslim attacks have spread, while in Vietnam and Laos all religions must follow the lead of an atheist central government.

ASEAN has already witnessed unprecedented political divisions, which were well documented last year when Cambodia as the annual chair of ASEAN ignored regional responsibilities and sided with China over its stand on negotiations involving territorial claims in the South China Sea.

However, religious and ethnic animosities are more deeply rooted and pose the biggest obstacles to lowering the barriers for a 500-million strong population who will begin moving across borders in search of work and mingling like never before, once the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) becomes a reality.

Authorities have been coy about the launch date for the AEC, offering little and avoiding reporters’ questions on the subject. They usually respond by saying the community will become a reality by 2015, but the date has been pushed back to the end of that year.

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During a recent meeting in Brunei, this year’s ASEAN chair, the Bruneian Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Pehin Hazair Abdullah emphasized time was running out and a review of the AEC was needed to assure all of its objectives were being met.

“We are two years away from 2015, when the ASEAN Community begins,” he said at the meeting. “The time is short and we need to act fast on this.”

His sense of urgency was refreshing.

From a fiscal and monetary policy perspective, the legislation is in place and the infrastructure – particularly for cross-border trade – has been built. The desire to make money and prosper has never been greater.

But critics argue that ASEAN – which uses the European Union as its role model for financial unity and stability – lacks the basic safeguards needed to ensure a fair and even approach to a workforce that is about to witness a massive upheaval in its traditions of organized labor.

Dave Welsh, from the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, said those safeguards should include a social security net, a process for collective bargaining and an independent labor tribunal to handle complaints.

“Nobody has told us the specifics, nor are they talking in terms of how to avoid the utter chaos that could arise. We don’t know which workers are going to which country,” he told The Diplomat, adding that worker choices, particularly among lower working classes, could be driven by religion.

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.

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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.

In short, religion will also emerge as a backstop or guardian for communities seeking protection from the middle-men and peddlers of dirt-cheap labor in a region where forced child labor, press gangs and human trafficking on behalf of industries ranging from garments to fishing have flourished.

On the other hand, there is also a risk that religious problems will travel with the mass migration of workers. The violence of today could consequently be taken into parts of Southeast Asia previously untouched by militancy.

“There won’t be too many problems for skilled people at the higher end,” Welsh said, referring to professionals like doctors or engineers. “But at the lowest end the AEC could just be legitimizing modern day slave labor practices.”

He added, “You will see Burmese Buddhists going to Cambodia to work in the garment industries while young uneducated Cambodians will probably have to forgo their Buddhist background and work in Malaysia as domestic helpers where they work 24 hours, seven days a week.”

ASEAN and its policy of non-interference in a neighbor’s affairs have also ensured that the bloc played no constructive role from the outset in the latest Sabah insurgency, or in Burma where even Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent on the atrocious plight of Muslim Rohingyas.

“I feel like ASEAN is turning a blind eye to the economic situation in Burma,” said the source from Meiktila. “They need to take care to make concrete recommendations for development at a localized level rather than one big super South East Asian economy,” she said.

None of this bodes well for a united ASEAN, a trading bloc with aspirations of becoming a political entity with real international clout. The AEC review called for by Pehin Hazair Abdullah in Brunei is long overdue, but could help and is due for completion by September.

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Unless ASEAN begins to tackle its racial and religious disharmony – much of it brought about by government attitudes towards their own minorities – then the grouping and its much vaunted AEC plans will look more like a rubber stamp for cheap labor, while strengthening the religious divides, as opposed to delivering on a regional model of laissez-faire economics.