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Military Coup In Myanmar: Getting Democratic Reforms Back On Track

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The recent military coup in Myanmar brought looming contradictions in the country’s transition into sharp focus. It has also revealed the international short-term approach to an ingrained politico-military conflict over decades. Western observers have had a romantic and limited perception of Myanmar, which means little to average Europeans aside from being an exotic new tourist destination. Democracy still needs to take root in Myanmar and requires long-term solid commitment. While civilian rule has been suspended, it is possible that the coup will turn out to be brief and might follow the Thailand paradigm of bloodless intervention under a more assertive and organized civil society. A new cycle of violence is not a foregone conclusion. Myanmar has reached its most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010 and the last coup in 1988.

Key partner actions should therefore include joining forces and diplomacy with Myanmar leaders to resuscitate political dialogue that had lost steam since 2019. ASEAN and EU have a meaningful role to play in inter-regional trilateral cooperation to avoid pushing Myanmar deeper into the arms of China which has significant economic and strategic interests in the country. B2B relations and knowledge sharing should also be scaled up through business and academic associations, instead of taking reflex action to impose wider sanctions. During the global COVID-19 response, additional entry points can be created to capitalize on local success in Myanmar’s resilience against the virus. Moving military assets in this direction can help promote reforms. This is urgently needed to put the country on a more solid democratic path to tackle global challenges, including migrations and climate change. 

Current Dynamics- Myanmar Actors and International Response

The 1 February military coup in Myanmar and subsequent arrests among senior civilian leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) including Aung San Suu Kyi did not come as a complete surprise. After the military- affiliated USDP Party voiced misgivings since November 2020, the military leadership warned of a possible coup in late January. Crisis talks with NLD and the military on 28 January were not successful. At the core were unsubstantiated election fraud allegations just before the newly elected parliament was convened. NLD increased its majority compared to the 2015 election results.

For the Myanmar military with guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament, three senior cabinet positions and one vice presidency under the constitutional arrangement since 2008, there was much at stake. Myanmar’s military- industrial and trading complex is vast and protecting their investments had become urgent, in view of a possible redrawing of the constitution. Abolishing privileges for the military might expose them to international prosecution after retirement. The military established a one-year state of emergency in preparation for a re-run of the last elections. Internet services were ordered to close Facebook and other online messaging up until last weekend. Yangon International Airport was closed for a day until regional flights resumed.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing became the facto national leader; he has a reputation for problem solving and experts assess he has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Most of the new cabinet members are in fact civil servants and not military leaders as in the 1980s (Myanmar Confronts New Uncertainties, China Daily, Global Weekly Edition 5-11 February 2021).Civil society in Myanmar was stunned by the coup which has remained bloodless. After early local discontent, mass demonstrations followed over the weekend and on Monday 5 February in Yangon, the capital of Naypyidaw and other urban centers. However, mostof the detained regional and state ministers were released by 5 February.

 International response was swift, and the EU as well as western capitals issued declarations against the coup. Despite internal wrangling and objections from China, the UN Security Council was relatively quick in pronouncing itself on Myanmar. China stressed that the international community should “create a sound external environment for Myanmar to properly resolve the differences.” The Council’s 4 February media statement called for respect of democratic principles and avoiding violence as well as releasing the detainees. so the constitutional order could be restored. Yet the Council avoided a condemnation of the coup and instead demanded that the constitutional order should be respected. Myanmar’s former colonial power (the UK) presided over the Security Council session. UN SG Guterres was frank in denouncing the coup as “absolutely unacceptable” and noting all firm intention to reverse the coup.

The US led international reactions threatening possible sanctions and blocking direct assistance to the government on 3 February, which was a notable policy departure from the Trump Administration. President Biden highlighted the Myanmar coup in his first major foreign policy speech at the U.S. State Department on 4 February, promising to hold the military accountable.

Democratic Pause or Rollback of Reforms?

Examining the country’s trajectory since the ground-breaking 2011 elections and opening from the military dictatorship holds clues for further evolution of the coup. International actors face a dilemma: strong opposition to the coup might drive the military and protestors into a spiral of violence which has potential for another repression like the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 where thousands of lives were lost. Analysts based in the region see Myanmar backsliding several decades and gains in democratic transition erased.

Despite economic engagement and foreign investments over the last decade, Myanmar has suffered from contradictions and incomplete democratization. Commentators see the coup as confirmation that the 2008 power sharing deal between civilians and the military was never very solid. The legacy of 50 years in political roles for the armed forces- beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi herself as daughter of the independence leader general who was assassinated in 1948- shows that civilian- military relations are complex and still evolving. Therefore dialogue among the political contenders is highly valuable, which requires significant investments and patience.

The two greatest recent challenges for reigning in military power were evident in the violent campaigns against ethnic minorities. First, military anti-terror sweeps in northern Rakhine State against Muslim stateless residents (described as “Rohingya” and anathema to the Myanmar Bamar ruling class) led to a huge population exodus in 2016/2017across the border into Bangladesh. Myanmar was facing international court action on allegations of genocide, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi standing in defense of the authorities at the International Court of Justice. While some steps were taken to try to enable returns and reintegration, those processes remained largely untested.

Second, the fragile peace talks with armed ethnic militias in several states of Myanmar started to fizzle out in 2018/2019.Rebels adopted more mobile tactics to confront the military in known hotspots but also in Rakhine, causing frustrated in the armed forces. The Myanmar Peace Center, established in 2013 with support from the Norway-led Peace Support Donor Group, closed after three years. Its secretariat services were formally incorporated into a National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) while innovative dialogues received less attention. Official claims from the military that most rebel groups were pacified and cooperating rang increasingly hollow. These were ominous signs that the military was asserting itself as in previous decades. After the coup,return to open warfare with ethnic rebel movements is seen as one of the greatest possible aftershocks of the coup. In both developments, the military was not pushed to undergo deeper reforms and civilian oversight, or use military justice effectively against human rights violators, with few exceptions. This illustrated the pervasive challenges in maintaining inclusive political dialogue. Western actors mistakenly believed that professional military training and capacity building could align the military more with civilian rule. 

Thailand Paradigm and Geopolitical Weight of China

In neighboring Thailand, which hosts many refugees from neighboring Myanmar in camps, military intervention has a long tradition in supporting the monarchy against civilian rule. Demands for constitutional monarchy from a grass-roots movement led by young activists are a new phenomenon. Regional reactions to the coup in  Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore and Malaysia as well as Indonesia. The combination of conservative political rule with relative economic liberalism and unified national trends seen in Thailand is an appealing model for the transition in Myanmar. It could help moderate the military behavior after Myanmar’s coup.It is assessed that Myanmar’s main economic partners will most likely adopt a “wait and see” approach before they start to reach out again and deal with the junta-led government.

China’s Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin State has been one of the more recent flashpoints in rebel activity. The area is critically important for China’s designs in bringing Myanmar into the ambit of the transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). This plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas projects/pipeline installations in coastal areas of Rakhine State.  China has also pursued

a mega-hydro project (Myitsone north of Myitkyina) which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped up a lot of land and real estate in the Yangon area, despite a prohibition on sales to foreign buyers.

China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements and MoUs. The strategic value of Myanmar in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021- the highest ranking foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China has taken a low-key approach with Myanmar. Some observers believe that the opening in 2011 provided just enough breathing space for Myanmar’s military to avoid over-dependency on China in the defense sector. India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor hosts refugees from the Christian Chin minority and a crackdown might prompt a larger influx of arrivals from Myanmar.

Role of ASEAN and EU: Joining Forces and Preparing for Global Challenges

Myanmar chaired the ASEAN regional group of states in Southeast Asia as a founding member in 2013, after having to abandon this role in 2007, due to peer pressure from ASEAN. Yet ASEAN had avoided a confrontational approach over the forced displacement from Rakhine State; the consensus principle in ASEAN prevents strong common positioning, putting regional cohesion as a top priority. There is no punitive, sanctions-based mechanism as in ECOWAS for West African States, despite an obligation to respect the ASEAN Charter. Accordingly, the current ASEAN chair Brunei appealed to respect ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. ASEAN encouraged “the pursuance of dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar” (ASEAN Statement of 1 February 2020).

What has been missing is the joint thematic dialogue and support to Myanmar through ASEAN and the EU. Lady Catherine Ashton, the first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had a significant role as EU Envoy for Myanmar. A well-resourced European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) was opened in Yangon in 2014 to serve as a voice of European businesses in Myanmar. The EU was in fact one of the first actors to respond to the country’s political opening, suspending in April 2012 its restrictive measures except for the arms embargo.

Since Myanmar is vulnerable to climate change, especially in the coastal regions and the large Irrawaddy Delta, collective expertise for humanitarian disaster preparedness, relief and prevention of natural hazards is an entry point for dialogue. The experience of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 has left deep scars in the country and productive areas. Therefore making Myanmar fit for withstanding even greater climatic change and extreme weather events in the future is a shared interest for the country’s leadership. Expertise in navigating politically complex situations exists in ASEAN where non-traditional security threats are systematically studied at a dedicated institute in the RSIS School of Singapore.

Greater connectivity and access to innovation is possible with business partners from Europe where the “Green Deal” has heralded a re-tooling of many industries to exit faster from the economic slump caused by the Pandemic to realize ambitious emissions targets by 2030. Myanmar has already shown initiative in flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections from late 2020 into early 2021, due to concerted local sensitization campaigns, e.g. in the “Paung Sie” Facility joint partnership with 50 civil society partners (see: Paung Sie Facility Leaflet, October 2020), and through immigration controls. Similar resourcefulness can promote larger modernization, digitalization and green infrastructure schemes. The NLD already had a response and recovery plan to deal with medium and long-term challenges of the Pandemic, providing some common ground in conciliation with the military.

Myanmar’s Geopolitical and Global Pivot

While the global US- China relations are undergoing a rebalancing, Myanmar offers a convenient middle ground for the global powers to work with the middle powers and regional alliances such as EU and ASEAN. It should not be forgotten that an open, fully fledged democratic Myanmar next door to China will remain a thorn in the side for China, even though the emerging superpower is projecting itself elsewhere into the ASEAN and global arena.

In this wider perspective, the reactions to the military coup in Myanmar will be decisive for shaping the future diplomatic and geo-economic playing field. With foresight and a dose of realism, the recent events can still be turned into an advantage, requiring a substantial increase in inter-regional joint dialogue as well as support to domestic peace and reconciliation efforts in Myanmar. EU and ASEAN but also the UN should scale up the information flow on situational awareness and wield sanctions tools judiciously. There is a risk that more punitive approaches could drive Myanmar deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence once again.  

Matthias E Leitner, Senior Adviser/ International Coordinator with ICSVE Center Washington, DC (USA), Berlin-based Matthias Ernst LEITNER has over 20 years’ experience in international peace and security, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in the Middle East. His professional focus is on governance/ accountability, national dialogues and coalition building as well as on project development for preventing violent extremism and radicalization. Mr. Leitner has held senior management positions with UN Special Envoy Offices. His ongoing interest is in UN reforms, peacebuilding and innovative approaches for resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages and history.

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Towards an Integrated Southeast Asia: Timor-Leste’s Challenges and Opportunities in Joining ASEAN

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Authors: Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia and Silvia Jultikasari Febrian*

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short, is an organization originally formed to respond to the Cold War in the region by five founding member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Thailand. Timor-Leste itself had been attempting to join ASEAN since 2011, considering that Timor-Leste is geographically and culturally a country in Southeast Asia. Despite this condition, the country experienced difficulties in its efforts. These happened due to the unstable situation of the country, particularly in terms of political, economic, and security.

As a regional institution, ASEAN’s role is increasingly developing into a multidimensional organization. In order to strengthen its integration efforts, the ASEAN Community was formed to reinforce the centrality and role of ASEAN as a regional power which plays a major part in designing the territorial framework, accompanied by the signing of ASEAN Charter–marking the commitment of its member states in building the community through cooperation expansion and regional integration. The ASEAN Community itself consists of three main pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

Why did Timor-Leste join the regional organization?

Indonesia has been one of the parties which pushed the acceptance of Timor-Leste as a member state since long ago. Nevertheless, it should be noted that every policy issued by ASEAN requires unanimous votes from all member states. The new membership intention itself faced a number of challenges, such as Singapore’s refusal and questioning Timor-Leste’s steadiness and ability. Such a view is based on an assessment on Timor-Leste that it will only be a burden for ASEAN, which is currently on the way for economic integration.

The rationale underlying the appliance refusal is Timor-Leste’s condition to meet the eligibility prerequisites for membership. Timor-Leste itself is a small country with social conditions living in high poverty ($1.90/day in 2022); it is feared that it will only creating hardships on other member states as they are–ethically speaking, obliged to help, bearing in mind that full membership demand payment for around US$2.5 million per year. In fact, locally, President Ramos-Horta faced hesitation due to a lack of human and economic resources in light of ASEAN which conducts hundreds of various-level meetings each year. Other than that, the country’s reluctance to address the opposing stance towards Myanmar junta in the United Nations also caused delay in the joining process.

Even though historically, ASEAN has always welcomed new members regardless of rich-and-poor considerations on countries capabilities or resources. This is what made Laos and Myanmar join in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. In short, as long as the precondition of geographic location is met, any country is eligible to apply, which is also stated in the ASEAN Charter. Other than that, the candidate must be recognized by all member states, abide the charter, and have the willingness and ability to carry out the membership obligations. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the current ASEAN system can not be completely generalized to that of the 1990s.

In the meantime, ASEAN agreed in principle to acknowledge Timor-Leste. Along with being sent a fact-finding mission from the three ASEAN communities, Timor-Leste was given the status of observer state which allows itself to participate in numerous ASEAN meetings, though could not contribute directly to the process of conveying views to making decisions. Hopefully in the near future, the mission will release a report outlining a roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN.

As it holds the ASEAN stewardship in 2023, Indonesia–a country that has been the traditional first visit for new leaders of Timor-Leste, is expected to accelerate the new member acceptance process. The outlook is that Timor-Leste can obtain full membership when Indonesia, as the chairman, hosts the ASEAN Summit in 2023.

The presence of new challenges

Economically-speaking, Timor-Leste’s economic growth is highly dependent on income from the oil business through the Petroleum Fund. Sooner or later, these funds will slowly run out and will only bring downturn effects on public finances, putting risk of economic instability, and eventually reduce the country’s capacity to fulfill the ASEAN membership necessity. At the moment, Timor-Leste is setting out to manipulate its overdependence on oil by shifting on other alternatives, such as industry of tourism and manufacturing. Another potential step is to galvanize the private sector which can attract foreign investments. Institutions, meaning government, become the initial determinant of effective and efficient development achievements. One which needs to be considered is that development mostly requires process to create better life for the society, including in Timor-Leste.

In the context of administrative aspects, Timor-Leste can adjust local policies–as alterable as possible–in line with ASEAN regulations, bearing in mind the characteristic of ASEAN treaties and conventions are legally-binding. These efforts must be directed towards the future of an independent Timor-Leste, as overdependence to foreign parties will only affect the decision-making process. Meanwhile, there are many sources of foreign aid to Timor-Leste, primarily from Australia, Japan, Portugal, European Union, United States (US), and China.

Aside from that, in a social-community context, the condition of Timor-Leste’s human resources is also a notable concern. In 2020-2021, the unemployment rate of citizens aged 25-31 is 43.3%. This situation can actually be minimized by encouraging community capacity education and training, which confidently will boost labor productivity. Given Timor-Leste’s target to avoid dependence on oil commodities, investment in human resources is a noteworthy matter to be acknowledged.

Timor-Leste’s reputation as a developing country experiencing instability, both politically and economically, makes other ASEAN member states in having moral obligations to assist the former. Pursuing economic targets unquestionably demands extra energy for Timor-Leste. Should the issue not be immediately corrected and changes are made, it will assuredly create a steep road when becoming a member of ASEAN later as it takes more time to reach other ASEAN member states’ economic abilities. Without question, this is a big stumbling block for Timor-Leste–the good intentions to admit it as a member might turn into problematic conditions for ASEAN in the future.

On one hand, all challenges have made several parties, particularly Singapore, hesitate to agree on Timor-Leste registration prior to its ratification as an official member. While on the other hand, Timor-Leste’s position in trading activity (exports-imports) is significant in the region, hence potentially becoming an important partner for Southeast Asia countries.

Emergence of potential opportunities

Presumably for the East Timorese, joining ASEAN means an open access for local residents, especially in the field of tourism and manufacturing, which is beneficial in expanding economic capacity. This includes the cross-border employment opportunities, particularly the ASEAN Economic Community which covers eight major industries for an ASEAN market of 683 million people. These opportunities will encourage the diversification of state revenues from oil and gas to other potential sectors, such as agriculture and tourism.

Furthermore in the economic sector, Timor-Leste will gain closer relations with neighboring ASEAN countries. Between 2016 and 2019, more than half of Timor-Leste’s imports originate from five ASEAN member states, amounting to US$2.05 trillion, whereas the figure for exports of goods and services was only US$95 million. Timor-Leste admittance to ASEAN can reduce this level of trade activity gap.

In a geopolitical context, Timor-Leste–as a part of ASEAN–can avoid the possibility of being exploited for the benefit of foreign influences. Timor-Leste’s government even confessed on a likelihood to totally ally with the US or China should ASEAN not agree to the membership application. Nevertheless, it should be noted that China’s role can not be underestimated given that the country has aid to fill Timor-Leste’s infrastructure gap. Its involvement in ASEAN, at least, offers a safety net that the Portuguese-speaking country will adjust its policies to the interests of ASEAN. Perceiving the regional dynamics, political and security reasonings must be made priorities instead of merely economic considerations.

The entrance of Timor-Leste is touted to be a model of democracy. Compared to many other states in ASEAN, including Myanmar and Thailand, which–at some point–are still authoritarian and supported by the military; let alone Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia which are communist countries, the presence of Timor-Leste might help the process of democratization in the region. Certainly, this will be challenging for a small democratic country which is presently struggling.

Moreover, in an institutional aspect, the recognition of Timor-Leste can make the organizational regulations gradually adapt to issues of contemporary dynamics. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat might be given authority to have a greater role in active and constructive use to ensure ASEAN’s long-term projects. This notion is not only to accommodate new members, but to model ASEAN as a more adaptive organization which is steady in facing future challenges.

Eventually, Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN hopefully can become a new opportunity for well-integrated cooperation. Opportunities for cooperation and markets of Timor-Leste will be wide open and beneficials for ASEAN member states and also its dialogue partners. The reciprocal relationship between the two parties is expected to go hand-in-hand. Thus, ASEAN member states must provide support through the provision of capacity related to building assistance and other forms of assistance relevant with Timor-Leste’s needs. Simultaneously, Timor-Leste is also supposed to exhibit contributions for the development and progress of ASEAN. This will be advantageous in the form of a more active and effective cooperative relation in the future of ASEAN.

*This article is co-authored with Silvia Jultikasari Febrian, an undergraduate student of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia.

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China’s assurance of Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

We now have new hope thanks to news reports that were published in the Bangladeshi dailies on Tuesday and contained the word of Yao Wen, the recently appointed Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, that the repatriation of Rohingyas to their native Myanmar would begin as soon as possible. We believe that the Chinese government is truly considering Bangladesh’s concern over the safe and immediate repatriation of more than a million displaced Rohingyas in light of the Chinese envoy’s pledge.

The envoy reportedly made this commendable remark to our foreign minister at a recent meeting at his office.

If his words are followed by action, we think China’s role in this case will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace, particularly in light of the repeated failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya due to the government of Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. And when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we wholeheartedly believe in China’s potential. China is a dependable friend of Bangladesh and a major global force. There is no doubting the importance of the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador’s position in this situation.

The Rohingya situation needs to be resolved diplomatically and via political means, according to the international community. The US and other Western nations keep applying pressure to Myanmar even though they are unable to ensure the safe and willing return of the Rohingyas. As Bangladesh seeks the swift repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, Li Zhiming, the former Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, stated that China would serve as a “bridge of communication” and do its utmost to support a timely resolution. China supports Bangladesh’s desire to begin repatriation, and China will keep assisting the two friendly neighbors in finding a solution to this persistent problem. China will make an effort to address this issue effectively because it is one of humanity.

In truth, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and territory, is no longer able to handle such a large number of displaced people as it deals with a wide range of domestic and international problems as a result of the recent worldwide pandemic and the war in Russia and Ukraine. Hosting the growing population of Rohingyas, including newborn children, is also not a long-term option for them. In previous editorials, we have emphasized numerous times the importance of finding a long-term solution to this situation.

To protect China’s interests in Myanmar, the Rakhine state must remain stable. The infrastructure that China built in the state of Rakhine will have a big impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are also necessary to run all of these facilities. These Rohingyas and Rakhines can be trained by China to work efficiently in a variety of facilities and sectors. A stable Rakhine will draw tourists, and the region’s tourism industry can grow. Rakhines and Rohingyas can work in that sector as well. That will deal with the state’s unemployment issue. The level of racial animosity will progressively decline as the economy improves, and harmony may be guaranteed. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans in addition to ensuring presence in the Indian Ocean.

Given all, it can be concluded that the Rohingya situation will be resolved if China takes the proper action.

Bangladesh desires the safe and honorable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh and China have long-standing, close ties. During a visit to Bangladesh on August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Bangladesh is making serious efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis. During this tour, the Rohingya issue received important discussion. China’s help was requested during this visit in order to play a bigger role in the Rohingya situation and find a political solution that would guarantee return. China has contributed significantly to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth by funding numerous economic initiatives there.

We think the Rohingya situation would not have lasted as long if the big nations had shown the kindness and sincerity that we see now. An appropriate solution to the situation would have been achieved by now if the humanitarian component of it had been given precedence above its geopolitical ramifications.

According to our assessment, the main source of the crisis lost steam due to the competing interests of the major players, many of which Bangladesh and Myanmar have bilateral relations with for a variety of reasons.

The Rohingya situation is solely a matter of human rights. Democracy and human rights are related. From that vantage point, it is impossible to deny the significance of democracy for the sustainable return of displaced Rohingyas to their country of origin, Myanmar.

We believe that other global power players cannot avoid their collective responsibility to rise to the occasion above their political lines and assist China for a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that China’s assurance to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope.

Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner. The Rohingya issue must be addressed in Myanmar, a country that China has significant influence over. As a result, China can make a big contribution to the return of the Rohingya.

To resolve this problem, the regional powers need to step forward right away. Everyone expects that by resolving the Rohingya issue, China, a friendly nation of Bangladesh, will significantly contribute to the peace, security, and stability of the area.

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To engage or not engage. Hindus and Muslims suss each other out

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Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.

Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.

Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.

What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.

For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.

“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.

For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.

A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.

“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.

Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.

Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.

These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.

Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.

“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.

In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.

“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.

Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.

“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.

Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.

A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.

Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.

“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.

Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.

So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.

The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.

To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.

In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.

Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.

From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.

“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.

“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.

To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.

By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.

“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.

The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”

Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”

Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”

Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”

Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”

Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.

In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.

“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.

“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.

In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.

The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”

The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.

Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.

“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.

Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”

Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.

Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.

“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.

“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.

The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.

Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”

Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.

“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”

It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.

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