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Prospects for 2017, Part 2

Sho Beppu

Jan. 5, 2017

Terrorist threats from the Islamic State militant group have become a reality in Asia, where various religions co-exist. What sort of path should people in the region take?

"It’s very dangerous, especially for policymakers. I think the whole international relations theories is a problem now. They really don’t know how to figure it out because they have never looked at the role of religion in statecraft, or the role of religion in international relations," says Imtiyaz Yusuf, director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at Mahidol University. "Even the United Nations neglected it for a long time, so there is a real crisis and we have to deal with it both at the level of theory and practice."

It's Day 2 of our special New Year interview series. Yesterday, we looked at the problems of xenophobia and political populism. Today, we'll focus on the issues of religious extremism and the spread of Islamophobia.

Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf is a Muslim who lectures at Mahidol University in Thailand, where Buddhism is the dominant religion.

Beppu: Let’s start to focus on the spread of extremism in the Middle East and the West first. There were some extremist elements among religions even in the past but what is so different now?

Yusuf: As you said, extremism was always there and it has been there in the background since the rise of the modern nation state. And after that, since 9/11, we get this becoming what I call it as religious nationalism. It transmutes or transforms into religious nationalism. And religious nationalism now takes a form of globalizing, so you see it happening in India, in Sri Lanka, and even in our neighborhood, in Malaysia, in Indonesia. So with Trump coming to power on the same agenda, of making America white, America Christian, it’s globalizing now so it’s extending or coming to a global stage.

Beppu: Well you mentioned the Trump factor, but even before the success of the president elect and the elections, there was the spread of extremism particularly in Europe, for example, what was behind this then?

Yusuf: Of course see, it’s the war. The war is in the Middle East and I think, in my view, the West and the Middle East have been engaged historically for a long time, theologically for a long time, economically for a long time. And the wars which have been taking place in the Middle East are since the famous statement of “line in the sand,” you know? Between the rich capitalist countries and the republican countries is what is behind all that. And those wars, of course beginning with the first Iraq war, the second Iraq war, and then coming further until now, you find that people have to migrate, people who are having comfortable lives are suddenly pushed out -- they have no future.

Beppu: But how can we understand this spread of Islamophobia in the West, a place that has been traditionally, or even now, very proud of their diversity, or their respect for human rights.

Yusuf: The West has always been mono-racial, mono-race, monoculture, mono-religious, or mono-secular. And it has a hard time to accept diversity, people of other races. We know what happened to the Jews in the West. In the US we know what happened to the African Americans in the West. And now is the time of the Arabs from the Middle East. I think the idea of human rights came especially, as I’m an academic I see if from the archeology of human rights. Human rights documents come into the United Nations after Hitler’s massacre of 7 million Jews. So yes these are documents, these are mechanisms, but I’ve never seen anybody been accused of abusing human rights so far in the West until all these issues of migration and refugees coming into Europe.

So all these documents are there and the West wants other countries like Thailand to implement it, others like India to implement it. But they have never had to face practical issues of human rights and, you know, even ecology for that matter. They are imposing it on other countries to do that.

Tensions in 'Land of Smiles'

People in Asia are not free from the problem of Islamophobia, either. I saw signs of it in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country.

Islam is a widely practiced religion in South East Asia, and Thailand is no exception. Although predominantly Buddhist, about 10% of the people here are Muslim.

At this district in the capital, Bangkok, a mosque and a Buddhist temple stand side by side. ''The land of smiles'' takes pride in the historical harmony among its religions.

"The basis of all religion is that people are fundamentally benevolent. We can exist together," says one man there.

But the Thai government is on a state of high alert, as it faces threats of extremism. Radical Muslims calling for independence have been active in the south.

Security personnel patrol the main tourist areas in Bangkok. The police have also been boosting security in other areas around the capital to prevent attacks by Muslim extremist groups.

"We work to detect and deal with suspicious objects in order to ensure the safety of tourists," says Nitipun Rohitopakara, an official with the Thai Royal Police.

But radicalism isn't limited by religion. Buddhist monk Phra Apichart doesn't hesitate to call for revenge for attacks by Muslim extremists. He showed me what he says is proof that Buddhist monks are being killed in the south by Muslim insurgents. He says 19 monks were killed between 2004 and 2015.

Authorities ordered him to shut down his Facebook page. He had sent out a message calling for a mosque to be burned down each time a Buddhist monk was killed.

"Priests where I come from were killed. I had a difficult time controlling my emotions because the killings occurred in my hometown. That is why I said we should take revenge on the Muslims," Apichart says.

I asked him whether he worries that such acts could lead to a cycle of violence that would endanger peace in his country.

"I think peace will return if we get rid of them. There are an estimated 5 million Muslims in Thailand. The idea is to expel them all. Do you think there's any other way? How many years would a different solution take?" Apichart says.

At a historical Muslim area in Bangkok, almost half of the residents are Muslim. On Fridays, they gather at the mosque to pray together. The leader of the mosque naturally is concerned about negative views voiced by some radical Buddhists.

"This is something that is already happening," says Kritsada Omar, the imam of Bantukdin Mosque. "People who have bad intentions in mind will do whatever it takes. It is my responsibility and also that my fellow Muslims to make an effort to show how we can achieve peace. In other words, we must renounce those acts, and we must show that they do not follow the teachings of Islam."

Some fear that the tensions between the 2 religious communities might rise to a higher level. Others say that the concern should not be exaggerated, especially in Bangkok.

What is certain is that Thailand cannot remain isolated from the impact of extremism and Islamophobia that's growing in other parts of the region and beyond.

Asia's Problems

Beppu: How about us, how about in this part of the world, how about in Asia? We are no longer immune to these problems anymore.

Yusuf: Asia is facing what I call Islamophobia from the backdoor. Why do I say that? I live in Thailand, I live in Southeast Asia, there’s great peace. When I see the culture of a Thai Buddhist and a Thai Muslim it’s culturally the same... their language is the same, their behavior certain patterns are the same, except for their religions. So that has not been there. But because of that they are not engaged with each other.

And now suddenly you have these influences coming, because of course, you said right, because we are no more immune. So there are these fillers coming in and the other factor is that in Southeast Asia, or in Asia, religions have been ethnocized. What do I mean by that? It’s very unfortunate. The three religions, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are world religions. They talk about humanity but if you come to Southeast Asia, Islam is identified with the Malay race, with the Malay ethnicity. Buddhism is identified with the Siamese ethnicity.

Religious has become a factor which can mobilize people on the street pretty easily. Because many of the people the elites, the social elites, the political elites, they are kind of handing over management of the religion to the clerics, and the clerics are not statesmen. That’s what I’m trying to say. Clerics are not statesmen, so they only think of their own particular group.

Beppu: How come in a place that has been proud of harmony, of co-existence, is suddenly now seems to be facing tension?

Yusuf: If you come to Myanmar, again Buddhism is exploited by the Burmans. Against all minorities Burma is a hard country, I call it. It has a perennial problem with ethnicities and the Rohingya factor is there. They have been living there but they are denied citizenship. And I don’t think they’ll ever get their citizenship right.

Plight of Muslims in Myanmar
Daisuke Iijima

One of the most pressing issues in South East Asia is the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's western Rakhine State.

The Rohingya are a minority group in the predominantly-Buddhist country. International criticism has been growing over the country's mistreatment of Rohingyas. The Myanmar government continues to deny reports of abuse.

But on Saturday, a video appeared on the Internet showing police beating and kicking a group of Rohingyas. The Myanmar government confirmed that the footage was recorded in November, and has launched an investigation.

The latest round of violence started in October, when a Rohingya insurgent group launched a series of armed attacks. The national government says 17 soldiers have been killed, while the militant group has lost 69 fighters.

Rohingya activists blame the killing of many civilians on a military operation launched by government forces. More than 20,000 people have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The conflict has also spread over the border.

"We somehow managed to escape alive," says one Rohingya refugee.

An international think-tank says that leaders of the Rohingya insurgent group have links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The think-tank says the group is using explosives in surprise nighttime attacks that are well-planned.

"We urge all Rohyinga brothers and sisters around the world to stand up for jihad -- the holy war," the alleged leader of the insurgent group leader says in a video that has been circulating online.

The insurgent organization was apparently formed in 2012. In that year, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State left more than 80 people dead.

Myanmar considers the Rohingya Muslims illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are denied the right to a nationality or citizenship. Since 2012, many of them have been forced to live in camps. Anger over the ruling powers' oppression and discrimination has lent strength to the militant group.

"We can't go to work. We've become refugees. Our homes and property were all burned. We have nothing left," says one young Rohingya.

Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a committee to look into ways to end the bloodshed.

Annan arrived in Myanmar after the latest violence. He held several rounds of meetings with Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who pleaded with him to help find a solution.

"We told Annan that granting the Rohingya the right to citizenship is important," said one Rohingya woman.

Annan made an unexpected visit while he was in Rakhine State. He went to Mrauk U, which used to be the capital of the historic Kingdom of Arakan. Arakan was founded over 5 centuries ago, and prospered as a maritime kingdom. It was a Buddhist kingdom, but Muslims were offered protection, as were Portuguese merchants and mercenaries.

Annan hopes to reinvigorate the area’s diverse, multicultural tradition, which was the pillar of its prosperity.

The Kaman Muslims of today are the descendants of Muslim mercenaries in the former Kingdom. Unlike the Rohingya, they are officially recognized as an ethnic minority, and are granted the right to citizenship.

The Kaman Muslims can be seen as living proof of the history of reconciliation, but they are also facing hardships. After riots 4 years ago, the government stopped sending teachers to their schools. The recent Rohingya insurgency is also having repercussions.

"The government began restricting freedom of movement. We are very concerned about our children's education and their future," says the Kaman Muslim village leader.

Clashes between Muslims and Buddhists are worsening in Myanmar, as some extremists attempt to add fuel to the flames. The Islamic State militant group declared jihad -- or holy war -- in Myanmar. The group posted an interview on the internet with an extremist leader in neighboring Bangladesh.

Abzal Bumi is the Rohingya leader with an extremist group. He is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. He blames the government of Aung San Suu Kyi for the series of attacks. He's reportedly stirring up hatred between the Rohingya and Buddhists.

"Several months have passed since the Suu Kyi government came to power. All kinds of wrongful acts are being committed. Nothing has changed," Bumi says in a video.

Last month, Aung San Suu Kyi called for an urgent meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon. With anger mounting among Muslims in ASEAN nations, she apparently wanted to avoid a rift.

Myanmar agreed to accept humanitarian aid from ASEAN countries, but continues to refuse NGOs and the media free access. This has failed to dispel allegations that the country is still cracking down on Rohingya Muslims.

Islamic extremists have always said that their jihad is a battle against Christian crusaders. But now Asian nations are on the brink of a fresh war -- this time, one that pits Islamic extremists against Buddhists.

Beppu: How do you foresee the situation in 2017? Do you think the problem of extremism and also the problem of Islamophobia could grow, could spread?

Yusuf: Unfortunately in my view it would grow. And it will grow and it will disturb peace. People really talk about peace, people really talk about dialogue, but this is what I call, not profound peace, not profound dialogue. Because people in modern life live very disruptive life and they are looking for peace but they don’t know where it is. So I see that there will be more problems coming, this is a real challenge.

Beppu: But do you feel any hope at the same time, how about the younger generation and in this context, what is the role that education can and should play?

Yusuf: I have a hope because I teach young people, you know. The younger generation is well-informed, but it doesn’t have knowledge. I call, tell my students, information is not knowledge. So if we combine information and teach our students, the young generation, and even the older generation, there is a difference or combining, there is a need to interlock information and knowledge, we can overcome this challenge or the threat of extremism. And many countries are doing it, but they are doing it only for those, once people are radicalized, but how do you pre-empt radicalization and that is the challenge.

Beppu: During my coverage of the issue of religious tensions in Bangkok, many people told me that, in Asia, the situation differs from the West and that Asia will maintain its harmony.

Naturally, everyone hopes so. That is why the year 2017 will be crucial to prevent this problem from spreading further. For this, as Dr. Imitiyaz has pointed out, the role of political leaders is important.

Each of us should be aware of the danger as well. With that, we wrap up our 2-day special interview series for the New Year.