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Growing extremism as source of strategic instability in Asia

The proclivity for extremism in Asia has spread beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

Protesters at a rally against the Indonesian government's ban of Islamist group Hizbut-Tahrir, July 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Barcroft Media)
Protesters at a rally against the Indonesian government's ban of Islamist group Hizbut-Tahrir, July 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Barcroft Media)

North Korea's growing nuclear brinkmanship, renewed tensions between India and China along their disputed border and persistent frictions in the South China Sea have all contributed to a renewed focus on inter-state instabilities in Asia. There is, however, another growing source of strategic instability at the sub-state level, as increasing religiosity and extremist ideologies gain momentum in the national consciousness of several countries in the region.

The most vivid evidence of this is the surge in terrorist attacks across the region, most notably the ongoing terrorist insurgency and military operation in Marawi in the southern Philippines. But there have also been bomb attacks in Jakarta in May 2017 and January 2016; attacks on police posts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in October 2016; an attack on a café in Dhaka in July 2016; the first terrorist attack in Malaysia linked to Islamic State in June 2016; and a bomb attack on a Hindu shrine in Bangkok in August 2015, which, though attributed to a human trafficking group, may allude to potential connections between religious extremists and organised criminal elements in Thailand.

To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon. After 9/11, terrorism and other non-traditional security threats gained prominence in the regional national security debate. Then, as now, transnational terrorist organisations sought to leverage local grievances to expand their influence. Now the Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Syria and Iraq echoes the role initially played by the Afghan mujahedeen in fuelling global Islamic extremism. Moreover, an eventual defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq may prompt its Asian recruits to step up attacks in their homelands. The situation has been further complicated by a turf war between al Qaeda and IS-affiliated groups, which can sometimes range from open hostility to tactical accommodation.

There have been several changes in the nature of this threat in recent years:

1. The threat is increasingly emerging from seemingly non-militant civil society groups with radical agendas, rather than fully-fledged terrorist organisations. The rise of groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam in Bangladesh and the Islamic Defenders Front in Indonesia are evidence of this development.

2. The geographic scope of instability has expanded. In the early 2000s, Indonesia and the southern Philippines were the primary sources of instability in Southeast Asia. Now Malaysia, southern Thailand and even Myanmar need to be considered.

3. While repressive regimes remain a catalyst for radicalisation (as seen in Central Asia and Xinjiang), increasingly it is the democratic process itself that has encouraged radicalisation. This is evident from the growth of radical religious groups in states with nascent (Myanmar) or maturing (Indonesia) democracies. Imperfect democracies, such as Bangladesh under the current Awami League government and the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, have further fuelled extremism.

Radical civil society

While not discounting the role played by global transnational terrorist organisations in contributing to extremism, it is important to recognise that legitimate grievances are often at the heart of growing religious fervour. For instance, the marginalisation of mainstream opposition political parties in Bangladesh has encouraged the growth of more radical fringe groups such as Hefazat-e-Islam and Ansarul al Islam. The ongoing witchhunt by the Awami League government against the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh National Party (in the form of arbitrary arrests and as part of the 1971 war crimes tribunal) created a void that has been filled by groups that espouse a more intolerant brand of Islam. Attacks on foreigners, religious minorities and secular intellectuals, journalists and bloggers are on the rise.

A related phenomenon is the ascent of groups that are, strictly speaking, not terrorist organisations, but rather civil society groups with radical agendas, such as the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) and Islamic People's Forum (FUI) in Indonesia. These groups have moved beyond being a mere nuisance through their obstructionist and disruptive tactics, to increasingly moulding the national agenda. This was most vividly illustrated by the recent election for Jakarta's governor in April, when the incumbent, ethnic Chinese and Christian Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was defeated, despite his strong credentials, and subsequently convicted on blasphemy charges.

Radical civil society groups in Indonesia are also seeking to gain strength and support by tapping into mainstream social issues while espousing an anti-globalisation agenda. In 2012, Indonesia's upstream oil and gas regulator BPMigas was disbanded by the constitutional court after an alliance of civil society organisations (including several Islamic organisations) ordered a judicial review of the body over allegations it was showing favouritism towards foreign companies, contributing to ongoing regulatory uncertainty for Indonesia's oil and gas sector.

These groups have gained momentum amid the apparent inability or unwillingness of authorities to crack down on them, which contrasts with the more proactive approach taken in dealing with the threat of terrorism. This has prompted a culture of growing religious intolerance, as demonstrated by the 2008 Ahmadiyah Decree and application of Sharia law to non-Muslims in Aceh in 2014. In this context, the decision by the Indonesian government to sign a regulation in July to ban civil society organisations engaged in illegal activities (leading to a ban on Hizbut-Tahrir) is a positive move, though questions have been raised over its human rights implications and the erosion of checks and balances.

Beyond the 'usual suspects'

Another observation is the growth of radical and militant religious groups in places where they did not previously exist, such as in Malaysia. What is particularly disturbing in the case of Malaysia is the growth of Islamic extremist ideology among members of the security forces trained in the use of firearms and explosives. Malaysia's volatile political climate (which has fuelled growing ethnic and religious polarisation) has aggravated the situation. Prime Minister Najib Razak is seeking to consolidate his position amid the ongoing 1MDB scandal by burnishing the credentials of his ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party as a defender of the Malay Muslim community, such as by launching the Bumitputera Economic Transformation Roadmap 2.0 earlier this year as a means of reiterating the government's well-established Malay affirmative action policy.

In Thailand, the long-standing separatist insurgency in the south has also shown signs of mutating from a largely localised and predominantly ethnic Malay nationalist movement into a transnational religious extremist one. Several factors have contributed to this, including the military junta regime's more hardline approach towards the peace process; potential collusion and operational connections with organised criminal elements engaged in arms, narcotics and people trafficking; and the growth of Salafi Islam in the southern provinces. In centralising power, the new military-drafted constitution moves away from insurgent demands for greater autonomy and devolution of power to the provinces, further souring the relationship with the southern separatists and raising the prospect of further radicalisation in the region.  

Democracy as catalyst for radicalisation

Repressive regimes have long been recognised as catalysts for extremism, as illustrated by the cases of the Central Asian republics and Xinjiang, where restrictions on religious practices have inadvertently encouraged the growth of more extremist brands of Islam. Most recently, the democratically elected government of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has demonstrated its dictatorial tendencies with the implementation and recent extension of martial law on the southern island of Mindanao and suspension of the peace process with communist insurgents in the region.

However, extremist ideologies are now also emerging in democratic states. In Indonesia, the process of democratisation in the post-Suharto era has inadvertently fuelled growing religiosity among segments of the population. In many ways this echoes what happened in the former Soviet states in the aftermath of the Cold War, where new freedoms sparked a growth in religious fervour.

In the case of Indonesia, political decentralisation has led to a growing number of administrative units and devolution of power to local leaders. The country now has more than 500 regencies and municipalities (or Kabupaten) with power increasingly residing in the hands of regency leaders (or Bupatis). This has resulted in a disconnect between the country's commitment to secularism at the national level (as embedded in the principles of pancasila) and growing religiosity at the local level, as evidenced by the implementation of Sharia by-laws in several provinces and growing use of the country's blasphemy law. Ahok's conviction was the 97th case since the law was enacted in 1965 – 89 have occurred since the country's transition to democratic rule in 1998.

These processes have been exacerbated by imperfections in the democratic process – attempts to enflame ethnic and religious sentiments for political ends in Malaysia is a key example. Even more notable is Myanmar, where the democratic transition process has been accompanied by the growth of Buddhist nationalism and a concomitant marginalisation of religious minority groups. The minority Rohingya Muslim population of Rakhine State have been increasingly disenfranchised from the democratic process – as well as being denied full citizenship rights (including not being recognised as one of Myanmar's designated 'national races') the community has been subject to discriminatory legislation, such as the 'Race and Religion Protection' laws that were enacted in 2015.

The potential for Buddhist nationalism to fuel radical Islam has given rise to fears over a possible domino effect. The porous borders between Bangladesh and Myanmar and the emergence (or re-emergence) of groups such as the Rohingya Solidary Organisation and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army following the riots in Rakhine State in 2012 have prompted fears that Myanmar could be the next stage for a militant Jihadist struggle.

Beyond radical Islam

Finally, it is important to recognise that it is not only countries with Muslim populations that are facing growing radicalisation. While radical Islam may receive the most attention, politicised religiosity is on the rise throughout Asia. As already noted, Buddhist nationalism has been a trigger for the growth of Islamic extremism in Myanmar – similar extremist sentiments have also been seen in other countries with predominantly Buddhist populations, including Thailand and Sri Lanka.

In India, good governance has generally trumped Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration. However, as the country heads toward parliamentary elections in 2019 and the Modi government consolidates its position after a string of state election victories, latent fears persist that the government will show its 'true colours' by reverting to the ideological roots of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its sister organisations in the Sangh Parivar.

China meanwhile is demonstrating a different sort of reversion to conservatism embedded in the perceived superiority of Chinese culture. Under President Xi Jinping, there has been a concerted effort to not only centralise power but also revive traditional Chinese cultural practices. This is being done as a means to justify Xi’s increasingly tight grip over the country and substitute for the eroding appeal of the Chinese Communist Party’s Marxist roots.*

Solutions: old and new

In some cases, the solutions to these challenges harken back to lessons learnt from earlier efforts. For instance, a coordinated regional approach is necessary in tackling the ungoverned spaces that so often emerge as breeding grounds for extremism. Addressing the maritime piracy threat in the mid-2000s required the creation of the Malacca Straits Patrol initiative, comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. A similar process today is the recent establishment of the Trilateral Maritime Patrol Indomalphi between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, which will facilitate intelligence sharing and joint patrols around their tri-border region (a regional hub of criminal and terrorist activity). Similar coordinated efforts are required in tackling the ungoverned spaces between Bangladesh and Myanmar that link South and Southeast Asia, which have traditionally been regarded as separate, mutually exclusive regions.

However, these developments also allude to the need for new solutions. For instance, the growth of radical civil society groups requires as much if not more emphasis on counter-radicalisation as there has traditionally been on counter-terrorism. Indonesia has been learning the hard way, given the contrast between the efficacy of its much-respected Detachment 88 counter-terrorism body and the less effective de-radicalisation efforts of the under-resourced National Agency for Combating Terrorism. In this context, long-overdue revisions to Indonesia's 2003 counter-terrorism laws are necessary to address issues ranging from the radicalisation of prison populations to apprehending fighters returning from the Syrian conflict.


As the preceding discussion illustrates, the proclivity for extremism has spread beyond the 'usual suspects'. It is no longer merely Pakistan, Afghanistan, the southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia that are vulnerable. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand are now joining the list of countries facing growing religiosity and extremist behaviour. In the case of China and India, such pressures have the potential to not only contribute to the persecution of minorities at home but also fuel growing assertiveness abroad, which would pose broader geopolitical risks.

Finally, just as the leadership void created by Trump's 'America First' agenda has been a catalyst for growing inter-state instabilities in Asia, so growing puritanism in Asia can also be regarded as another by-product of the 'age of Trump', demonstrating that growing intolerance is not confined to the West. The absence of the United States as a champion of liberal, democratic, secular values has given forces on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum more space to expand their influence and flourish.

*Editor's note: This paragraph, removed during editing, was reinstated after publication.

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