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Rohingya plight feeds Muslim assertiveness

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The plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority is becoming the Muslim world’s latest rallying call emulating the emotional appeal of the Palestinians in the second half of the 20th century.

Like the cause of the Palestinians, the Rohingya, albeit with a twist, have also become a battlefield for the Muslim world’s multiple rivalries and power struggles. Calls for military intervention on behalf of the Rohingya reflect efforts by competing Muslim states and non-state forces to be seen as defenders of a community under attack.

They also echo a greater assertiveness of Muslim states amid perceptions of waning US power and global shifts in the balance of power as well as a jihadist effort to reposition themselves in the wake of the demise of the Islamic State’s territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

To be sure, Muslim states are unlikely to marshal an expeditionary force capable of intervening in Myanmar. Nonetheless, calls for action signal thinking especially among bitter Middle Eastern rivals, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, that favours Muslim states projecting independent military force.

That thinking is reinforced by concerns about expansion of jihadist groups beyond the Middle East into regions like Southeast Asia and worry that the militants will gain an upper hand in projecting themselves as the true defenders of the faith compared to Muslim governments who do little more than pay lip service and at best provide humanitarian relief.

Beyond Middle Eastern rivalries and competition with militants for hearts and minds, the plight of the Rohingya could complicate Pakistan’s rejection of US pressure to halt support for select extremist groups, put it at odds with China that has backed the Myanmar government, and potentially move Chinese suppression of its Uighur minority in the north-western province of Xinjiang into the Muslim firing line.

Iranian Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahar  this week raised the bar by calling on the Muslim world to raise a Muslim expeditionary force to come to the rescue of the Rohingya. “Why aren’t we Muslims thinking about forming a NATO-like joint military force that can intervene in such situations? The crimes of the government of Myanmar will not be halted without using military force,” Mr. Motahar was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Mr. Motahar’s call took on added significance by not only taking the 57-member, Riyadh-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to task for not convening an emergency meeting to discuss the plight of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Rohingya, but also criticizing his own government to prevent the issue from becoming mired in the Muslim world’s sectarian divide.

“Unfortunately, we think more about the Shiites than Islam, which constitutes both Shiites and Sunnis. Turkey’s response was better than ours. It told Bangladesh to accept Muslims driven out from Myanmar and Turkey would pay for their stay in Bangladesh,” Mr. Motahar said. Iran unlike other Muslim nations has yet to offer the Rohingya humanitarian aid.

Yet, the deputy speaker’s remarks were at the same time a stab at Iran’s arch rival, Saudi Arabia, which cemented the trend towards greater Muslim military assertiveness with the creation two years ago of a 37-nation military alliance commanded by a Riyadh-based retired Pakistani general. The alliance failed in its initial aim of marshalling Muslim support for Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated intervention in Yemen.

Mr. Motahar’s remarks also sought to reinforce the perception that the alliance was more about bolstering Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran than about confronting the scourge of political violence.

Mohsen Rezaee, the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council and former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards, sought to further put the Saudis on the spot by calling on Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq to establish an Army of the Prophet. Predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey would provide the alliance its non-sectarian credentials.

The Iranian call has little chance of being taken up. Iran is already involved in multiple conflicts; Syria and Iraq are battling demons of their own, and Turkey is likely to restrict itself to being the Muslim world’s improbable moral voice and ensuring that Kurds in neighbouring states do not carve out an independent existence of their own.

The Iranian call, nonetheless, competes with that of various militant Islamist and jihadist groups that have called on fighters to come to the aid of their Rohingya counterparts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The militants could prove to be truer to their word.

The calls by both Iran and the militants have prompted Saudi Arabia to counter Tehran’s criticism and brandish its credentials as a leading defender of Muslim rights. The kingdom asserted that it is the one country that has long stood up for the Rohingya.

“The Kingdom has exerted all possible efforts to help Myanmar’s Muslims in this human tragedy. The Kingdom is all about action, and not words. Nobody can claim that they have exerted more efforts for the Rohingya people than the Kingdom has during the past 70 years, as history stands witness that the Kingdom was one of the first states that supported their case at the international level and in the UN Human Rights Council,” said Waleed Al-Khereiji, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Turkey.

So far, competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems when it comes to the Rohingya a battle between paper tigers. The two countries are each other’s match in rhetoric and lack of deeds.

As a result, accusations by Myanmar that Muslim countries are supporting Rohingya militants may be less targeted at Saudi Arabia and Iran and more at Turkey that has delivered aid to Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh and described the crackdown as a genocide, and Pakistan.

Myanmar press reports quoted Bangladesh and Indian intelligence as having intercepted two phone calls between Hafiz Tohar, a leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that sparked the crackdown with attacks in late August on Myanmar security forces, and an alleged operative of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, as well as a third call with an alleged representative of the Islamic State (IS), who was calling from Iraq.

Providing excerpts of the calls, the reports suggested that the ARSA attacks were timed to follow a report by a group headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan that warned that Myanmar risked fuelling “extremism” if it did not lift restrictions on the freedom of movement and right to citizenship of its Rohingya minority.

There was no independent confirmation of the press reports nor was it immediately clear what interest Pakistan would have in destabilizing Myanmar and causing Bangladesh heartburn. Similarly, Pakistan has been a target of IS attacks and there was no obvious reason why its intelligence would coordinate with the jihadist group.

That is not to say that there are no links between the Rohingya militants and Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia. ARSA leaders are believed to have roots in Saudi Arabia, to have been trained in Pakistan, and gained experience in Afghanistan. The group is moreover believed to be funded by unidentified wealthy donors in the kingdom. ARSA, nonetheless, insists that it has no ties to militants outside Rakhine state and that its aim is to protect the Rohingya rather than wage global jihad.

All of this suggests at best indirect links to Pakistani intelligence and does not explain why Pakistan would have been involved in the most recent events in Myanmar. It also does not prove any official Saudi backing of the group.

Allegations of a Pakistani link, nonetheless, come at a time that the United States has put Pakistani association with various militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, as well as proscribed proxies that it allegedly uses against India and in disputed Kashmir, high on its agenda.

It also comes at a time that China is discreetly debating its hands-off approach to Pakistani links to militancy. China has so far shielded Islamabad by vetoing UN Security Council designation as a terrorist of Masood Azhar, the fugitive leader of an anti-Indian group. China has also defended Pakistan against US criticism.

The Rohingya could swing the pendulum in the Chinese debate. China, like India, has invested in Myanmar infrastructure. The last thing China wants is to be on the receiving end of inflamed Muslim public opinion that embraces the plight of the Rohingya and targets supporters of the government. That is even truer given China’s Achilles heel: brutal suppression of basic rights of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang.

China’s massive energy imports and huge infrastructure investments in the Muslim world as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative have so spared it criticism of its crackdown in Xinjiang that targets the Uighur’s religious identity. That could change if the plight of the Rohingya becomes the Muslim world’s new rallying cry.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

The Anandamahidol Foundation and the Legacy of Rama the Ninth of Thailand

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Founded in 1955 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the Ninth of Thailand, the Ananda Mahidol Foundation has supported and sponsored exceptional young students of Thailand to pursue graduate studies abroad in eight fields of studies. These fields include Medicine, Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Agriculture, Dentistry and Veterinary – all quintessential to the sustainable development of Thailand. For nearly seven decades, the graduates of this Foundation have served various roles and positions in Thai society and altogether advanced the production of knowledge for Thailand.

Dr. Rattana Lao, a trained Educator and a recipient of the Foundation from Social Sciences, interviewed Dr. Jain Charnnarong, an experienced Mechanical Engineering and the president of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the Foundation, the late King’s Philosophy and what it means to Thailand’s future.

Inspiration of the Ananda Mahidol Foundation

The origin of the Foundation began as the late King wanted to honor the memory of His elder brother and His Majesty was advised to do something about education. Due to the dire need of the nation, the first scholarships were given to two medical students: Professor Charas Suwanwela and Professor Prawase Wasi. Since, nearly 400 students from eight fields have been awarded the scholarship. Each scholarship recipient excels in their own fields and dedicates their lives to the betterment of the society. Today, it is important for us as a Foundation to reflect on our role in the society and think critically about how we can work together in unity. We need to think what the country needs and focus on it.

Example of developmental issue in Thailand

Environmental issue is the main problem. Two years ago, I was asked by Professor Charan Mahatummaratana, the then Chairman of the Ananda Mahidol Alumni Club, about the PM2.5 issue in Thailand. There are two main reasons for the dust problem: burning of fossil fuel and open burning wildfire. As long as Bangkok still depends on personal transportation via cars, there is not much we can do about fossil fuel. We have to wait for the transformation of the society toward more public transportation and the use of alternative sources of energy.

Wildfire is another problem. It is caused by ignorance and carelessness of the people. Sometimes, farmers wanted to burn post-harvest materials in their lands for a rai or two, but it spread into the forest escalating to 100,000 rai of wildfire. Some wildfires last continually for months and the villagers suffer from air pollution. 

Ananda Mahidol Foundation’s involvement in addressing development issue

It began at Bann Kor, in Li, Lumphun – in the north of Thailand, where our Foundation’s work as a sandbox. A few of us went to the village to research in order to understand the plight of Kor. There were engineers, scientists and botanists. The botanists helped enlightened the team about the intricate relationship between different species in the forest, especially between plants and mycorrhiza. The main question is how we can live in harmony with the forest, how can human mitigate the intrusion to the forest and limit environmental degradation.

Bann Kor Sandbox and the late King’s Philosophy

The root cause of forest invasion is poverty. Villagers need to eat. They need to survive. During the summertime, most villagers are unemployed and they depended on the forest for their living. They might want to burn a rai or two but the fire escalated to 100,000 rai due to carelessness. This is the cause of the wildfire.

Going into Bann Kor reminded all of us about the late King’s Philosophy on sustainable development. There needs to be better water management, soil and access to the market.

Our study on Bann Kor shows that there is sufficient water in the forest: both on the surface and underground but there lacks water management system. The state needs to invest for the villagers to have sustainable water infrastructure. His Majesty the late King of Thailand talked a lot about sustainable water management. Throughout His Majesty’s life, he did many projects related to water – more than 1,000 projects altogether. Water is the first step of life, for plants and for human. Without water, there is no food security nor life.

Soil is also important. It is about agriculture. Then comes access to the market. If any village can maintain the balance between water, soil and access to market, while preserving the nature, there is hope for sustainable development.

Youth is important

Knowledge production and learning matter significantly to the development equation. We must educate the new cadre of youth in the village to know how to live with the forest in harmony. In the beginning of the project, we asked the youth what kind of plants grow in their forest, they couldn’t answer it. It is a fallacy that people who live with the forest do not understand the forest.

They could not see the relationship between different living things in the forest. They lack basic knowledge and understanding about the forest. We have to change that. We have to reeducate them. We have to show them the intersectionality between wildfire, environmental degradation and poverty. It’s essential to integrate these knowledge into the school system so students are made aware of the impact of their action. If we can do that, we can hope to begin a journey to address the issue of climate change.

It all begins with young people.

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Indonesian G20 presidency promises to put a ‘battle for the soul of Islam’ on the front burner

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Indonesian religious affairs minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas set the bar high for President Joko Widodo as well as Nahdlatul Ulama, the religious backbone of Mr. Widodo’s government when he laid out the agenda for his country’s presidency of the Group of 20. The G20 groups the world’s largest economies.

Speaking to the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna as Italy prepared to handover its presidency to Indonesia, Mr. Qoumas also threw down a gauntlet for Indonesia’s Middle Eastern competitors in a battle to define the degree to which Islam incorporates principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The battle, which is likely to likewise determine which Muslim-majority country or countries will be recognized as leaders of the Islamic world, takes on added significance with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and concerns about Taliban policy towards militants on Afghan soil.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about US reliability as a security guarantor in the Gulf is prompting regional foes to contain their differences to ensure that they don’t spin out of control, increasing their emphasis on the projection of soft power.

Turkey’s 2022 budget appears to signal the shift and the importance President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes to this particular challenge.

The budget of the powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet is expected to increase by 20 per cent for fiscal 2022, giving it greater financial flexibility than the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, trade, industry and technology, environment and urbanization, energy and natural resources and culture and tourism.

These ministries are key for enabling Turkey to resolve its economic problems, compensate for the fallout of the pandemic and enhance its appeal as a potential leader of the Muslim world.

The Diyanet, in another sign of Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on religious rather than national identity, recently urged Turks to use the religiously framed greeting Peace Be Upon (Selamün aleyküm) You rather than phrases like Good Morning (Gunaydin), prevalent in Turkey since its founding as a republic almost a century ago.

Diyanet president Ali Erbas argued in a recently published Turkish-language book, Human Religion and Religion in the Information Age, that the greeting ‘Good Morning’ traced its origins to the pre-Islamic era.

These latest moves suggest that Mr. Erdogan is taking his country, also a member of the G20, down a path diametrically opposed to what Mr. Qoumas was arguing in Bologna.

The minister contended in contrast to Mr. Erdogan’s policies that religion “has the potential to help block the political weaponization of identity; curtail the spread of communal hatred; promote solidarity and respect among the diverse people, cultures and nations of the world; and foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being. Yet to realize this potential, we must wisely manage the inevitable struggle between competing values, as globalization brings highly diverse peoples, cultures, and traditions into ever closer contact.”

Mr. Qoumas made his remarks as an Islamist journalist called on Mr. Erdogan to avoid the weaponization of religion.

Writing in Karar, a Turkish publication believed to be close to Mr. Erdogan’s erstwhile prime and foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who left the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to found a party of his own, journalist Ahmet Tasgetiren, warned that the president appeared to be politicizing the Diyanet.

Drawing a comparison to Mr. Erdogan’ politicization of Turkey’s judiciary, Mr. Tasgetiren noted that it “weakens people’s confidence in it.” Pleading with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Tasgetiren cautioned that “the politicization of the religion and the Diyanet ruins people’s relationship with religion… I think you would never want this for the religion. For the religion’s sake, please.”

Mr. Qoumas, the scion of an influential Nahdlatul Ulama family and the former head of the group’s powerful youth wing, GP Ansor, went on to say in his speech that “one major task that lies before us is to identify, and conscientiously observe, those universal values that a majority of the world’s inhabitants already acknowledge, such as the virtues of honesty, truth-seeking, compassion and justice. Another parallel task is to develop a global consensus regarding shared values that the world’s diverse cultures will need to embrace if we are to co-exist peacefully.”

Implicitly, the minister noted that in contrast to its competitors – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran – in the battle to reshape mainstream Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, has put its money where its mouth is.

Mr. Qoumas noted that a gathering in 2019 of more than 20,000 Muslim religious scholars associated with Nahdlatul Ulama ruled that the legal category of infidel was “neither relevant to nor applicable within, the context of a modern nation-state.” In doing so, Nahdlatul Ulama became the world’s first major contemporary Sunni Muslim religious entity to seek to update and modernize Islamic jurisprudence.

Mr. Qoumas stopped short of laying out an agenda for dealing with other concepts in Islamic law that Nahdlatul Ulama clerics have identified as either problematic or obsolete such as blasphemy.  Nahdlatul Ulama has argued that concepts like the dhimmi or people of the book who are recognized in classical Islamic jurisprudence but not granted equal status before the law, and apostasy, had been invalidated by the ruling on infidels.

To be sure, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where Islamic law is at the least recognized constitutionally as a main source of legislation if it does not constitute the main fountain of legislation, have significantly liberalized social rights.

Saudi Arabia has significantly enhanced women’s rights in recent years by lifting a ban on women’s driving, liberalizing gender segregation, reducing men’s control over women’s lives, and expanding professional opportunities.

Similarly, the UAE announced last November a major overhaul of the country’s Islamic personal laws, allowing unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosening alcohol restrictions and criminalizing “honour killings,” a widely criticized religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring a family.

Liberalization of social mores in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were anchored in civilian law, rules, and regulations but neither country, in contrast to the process initiated by Nahdlatul Ulama, adopted Islamic jurisprudence accordingly.

That way, the two Gulf states, in contrast to Indonesia, seek to keep tight state control of their interpretation of Islam with no input by civil society.

The dichotomy raises fundamental questions, including whether what Nahdlatul Ulama calls the “recontextualization” of Islam can be achieved by autocratic or authoritarian regimes that are seeking to ensure their survival and project themselves internationally in a positive light or whether religious reform needs to be popularly anchored and driven by civil society.

Despite being in government, Mr. Qoumas implicitly provided his answer to the question by quoting a poem by Kyai Haji Mustofa Bisri, a prominent Nahdlatul Ulama spiritual leader. The poem, titled ‘Religion’ focuses on the behaviour of the individual rather than the role of the state.

“Religion is a golden carriage prepared by God to convey you along the path to His Divine Presence.

Don’t become mesmerized by its beauty, much less enchanted to the point that you come to blows with your own brothers and sisters over who occupies the front seat.

Depart!” the poem reads.

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Southeast Asia

Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.

In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.

The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.

The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base.  The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.

The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.

In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.

The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.

This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.

Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.

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