Confessional Tentions in Asean

Golbal Politics

Dr Kenneth Houston

Rohingya Muslims are persecuted in Buddhist majority Myanmar. Buddhists have been attacked in Malaysia and Indonesia, possibly in direct reprisal. The conflict between the Majority Catholic Philippine state and Muslims in Mindanao has perhaps lurched into an uneasy peace – for now. Not least, there is a nasty insurgency in the southern tip of Buddhist majority Thailand with ethnic Malay Muslims.
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Such divisions potentially threaten the viability of ASEAN’s cooperative ambitions and may ignite an inter-confessional conflict that would pull at the fabric of several member states. In our age, the combination of population mobility and salient identities provide the seedbed for some lethal possible futures. Sub-national and transnational tensions like Myanmar, southern Thailand and Mindanao place security equilibriums and regional integration at risk.

The issue of culture – and specifically, religion – is not a new consideration in the calculus of efforts towards realizing political stability. However, ever since John Rawls went on the defensive in the face of the onslaught of communitarian philosophy several decades ago, a critical element in the arsenal of normative politics is regrettably less explicitly defended in modern political discourse. Surprisingly, the idea of a civic, secular, liberal and universal basis for political organisation has run up against the rocks of particularism, primordialism, relativism and ‘identity politics’.

If the recent events in the Middle East have taught us anything it is that the desire among non-Western publics for greater individual freedom, equality and justice has been gravely underestimated. And ‘freedom’ goes much further than throwing off the tyrannies of the Mubaraks and the Assads. Replacing these autocracies with versions of political Islam has been deeply contested. The theocratic ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood have now been openly rejected by significant swathes of the Egyptian people. Even the poster child of political Islam, Turkey’s Erdogan, was recently forced on the defensive.

It is fashionable in academic circles, and among prominent public commentators on the left, to deride the language of liberalism, individual rights and secular government as a form of western cultural imperialism. The logic, so it goes, is that humans are communal creatures and our sense of self is shaped by our relationship with tradition. People don’t need ‘freedom’. They need the comfort and order provided by the security blanket of cosy words like ‘community’. In the current circumstances, Asian publics would do well to treat these spurious opinions with scepticism. Liberalism never really denied culture. It certainly never intended to eliminate culture in favour of hyper individualism. In fact, liberal philosophy was indifferent to culture. What liberalism did concern itself with was the mal-distribution of power on the basis of cultural or religious differences.

The simple truth of the matter is that nations which entrenched a robust civic-based public value system and a strong separation of religion and politics fare better in dealing with what is often termed ‘cultural diversity’. Regrettably, this is not the norm within the ASEAN region. We have the deeply flawed caveat in article seven of the recent ASEAN Human Rights Declaration to prove it. The mantra that ‘diversity’ is a desirable end in itself should be jettisoned in favour of a realistic recognition that ‘diversity’ is actually difference and ‘division’. Differences harbour the risk of being bloody affairs and they need to be managed and negotiated through established and widely legitimised institutional mechanisms underpinned by agreed public values. There are over one hundred and thirty ‘ethnic identities’ in Myanmar alone. What should the basis of citizen loyalty be in such a state? How should Myanmar structure its affective dimension? Should they grant autonomy to subnational ‘regions’ on the basis of majority make up? Such a solution is not a solution but a blueprint for fragmentation. It’s what might be colloquially referred to as a ‘cop out’. It’s a solution that avoids dealing with a central constitutional question. It exchanges the urgent questions about the relationship between the citizen and the state for a spurious emphasis on the relationship between ‘groups’ and the state. The individual is relegated to instrumentation for group interests.

Political systems that are too explicitly associated with a particular worldview, and particular ethno-religious worldviews – invariably alienate some part of their population. There will always be a minority within the bounds of any state. Cultural purity is a myth and cultural hegemony realised through the state’s political apparatus is a source of injustice, inequality and conflict.

‘Primordial’ identities are not illegitimate, but they are inevitably sustained through exclusion. Danger presents itself when that exclusionary process is fostered through the framework of the nation state. The identitarian framework of any state should strive to be a system of civic patriotism that is inclusive, without being chauvinistic or triumphalist. The tried and tested path to greater civic peace within divided societies can conceivably be reached through elaborate forms of political compromise. There are numerous examples of this such as Northern Ireland and Lebanon. However, in such contexts ‘peace’ is a special status which is usually fragile, sometimes superficial and invariably underpinned by special arrangements such as power-sharing and heightened securitization. These might end overt violence, but they are not examples of real peace. Such societies remain deeply divided and such arrangements are the result of a failure to realise a fully articulated liberal democratic political culture.

A better approach is to structure the political apparatus of states around an idea of clearly articulated equal membership of society on the basis of individual rights. State citizenship should not be mediated through group membership. Some citizens should not be privileged above others. Calls for regional autonomy, secession or irredentism reflect the presence of failure, not historically-based aspirations. Differences of religion or ethnicity should not be misguidedly ‘promoted’ through special arrangements – they should be ignored. The citizen should be shielded from the arbitrary power of not just the state, but also religious, economic and neo-corporate interests.

Where these ideals of civic, secular and liberal democracy are flouted or ignored, oppression is not far behind. No apologies should be made, not even by ‘western’ scholars, for the promotion of the least worst system of political rule yet devised. Questions of which religion, ethnic group, sub-state or provincial regions are – ultimately – irrelevant. The problem, in large part, emanates from the lingering presence of cultural-religious dominance embodied within the state apparatus. This should be the target of collective reform within ASEAN, something precluded at the outset by the principal of non-interference.

Civic, secular and liberal democratic government does not reflect the reality among most of the ASEAN states. If conflict between sectarian or confessional divisions among and within ASEAN’s community of nations is to be avoided in the future such principles are a necessary precondition. They need to be excavated once more. No apologies need to be made for such important basic political standards. It is a sad indictment of the west’s intellectual class, but too many, buoyed by post-colonial ideologies, have willingly echoed the derogation of these hard won values by apologists for obscurantism and tyranny. Unless these principals are taken more seriously by the region’s political class the road ahead will likely be a troubled and tragic one.


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