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Religion in Southeast Asia: Diversity and the threat of extremes

Religion in Southeast Asia: Diversity and the threat of extremes
Published 19 Sep 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan

Until recently, parents in Thailand would leave their children in Buddhist temples while they worked the fields and factories. Buddhist monks would act as caretakers and teachers. Religious education was strong, as were the donations flooding into Buddhist temples. But with the rise of state-run primary school education, religious education has slipped dramatically (so too the temples' cash flow).

This is a familiar story across Southeast Asia. As the region climbs from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, there is often less time devoted to religious practice and more to working the fields or putting in hours at the office.

Graphic compiled by author using Pew Research Data 2014.

Asia leads the world in religious diversity. Southeast Asia is home to two of the most religiously diverse countries (Singapore and Vietnam) as well as two of the least diverse (Cambodia and Timor-Leste). Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are all on the less-diverse side too.

This Pew Research study sheds light on a region that has in recent years been beset by communal violence and religious intolerance.

Recent communal violence in Myanmar has made headlines, as have ongoing insurgencies in southern Thailand and the Philippines. Even Singapore, the world's most religiously diverse country and a bastion of stability, was faced with ethnic unrest during the Little India riots in December 2013. Vietnam (third most diverse on Pew's global RDI) has been long been criticised for its repression of religious groups, highlighted this month by reports that at least 85 Montagnards (hill tribe people of mostly Protestant faith) have fled to Cambodia after a crackdown. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Brunei have all had their problems. [fold]

Graphic compiled by author using Pew Research Data 2014.

The region's religious diversity is nothing new. Different religions have long intermingled and traded. Waves of Indianisation and Sinicisation, not to mention colonialism and the arrival of Islam and Buddhism, left a deep imprint on the region. Through this diversity, a relative tolerance was maintained both to enable trade and due to the naturally sparse geography of Southeast Asia. This was until the first half of the 20th century, when religious movements bound together to oppose colonial powers. 

This politicisation of religion in Southeast Asia may well be going through a period of revival. 

One doesn't have to look far to find a host of examples of religious nationalism and conservatism. The ushering in of sharia law in Brunei has raised eyebrows, as has the growing conservatism of sharia law in Indonesia's Aceh province. Communal violence between Buddhist extremists and Muslim populations in Myanmar has killed dozens since the country's transition to a more open society. In 2012, footage of Myanmar Buddhists hacking Muslims to death with swords and then burning their bodies (some still alive) sent shock waves across the region.

The aspirations of international extremist groups to expand their theatres of operation into Southeast Asia is of similar concern. Islamic State has professed its intent to expand into Southeast Asia, while the hundreds of Southeast Asian ISIL jihadis (from Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia) will cause problems if they return. The recent announcement by al Qaeda  that it intends to start operations in South Asia, including Myanmar, should also be a concern for the region. Meanwhile, the list of sympathetic extremist groups already based in the region is long.

Buddhist extremism is also attempting to spread its tentacles. Sri Lanka Buddhist Nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which is believed to be behind anti-Muslim violence in the country, has links to both the government and nationalist Buddhist Sangha further afield. Earlier this year, BBS invited U Wirathu (often referred to as the 'Buddhist bin Laden' and spiritual head of Myanmar's Buddhist extremist 969 group) to visit. A spokesperson earlier this year noted that BBS was reaching out to a network of similarly minded (read extreme) Buddhist groups in the region. There is an increasing risk of a strong rise in violent Buddhist nationalism, particularly in Myanmar.

One prominent Buddhist scholar earlier this year told me solemnly about what he saw as the corruption and decay of his faith in parts of Southeast Asia. Another Myanmar friend explained what he thought was behind the recent heightened tensions: 'it's easier for Buddhists and Chinese (or non-Muslims) to get along because we shop together in markets and we eat together in restaurants. Muslims have their own halal foods and shops.'

These everyday realities of interaction, when combined with hateful rhetoric, exacerbate differences and create frictions. It is but one fissure in a region that has seen horrendous ethnic violence in the past and could easily see a resurgence of religious nationalism and an escalation of communal violence in the near future.

As the region undergoes rapid development, the role of religion is shifting. This will ultimately affect perceptions of identity, a change that will create anxiety in many young men and women and may see them gravitate toward extremism or other positions of intolerance. Coupled with labour migration, shifting gender roles and  changes to traditional social structures, this creates a crucible for potential conflict. Addressing these insecurities of identity in a changing society (where identity is less likely to be prescribed by religion) will be key to tackling the spread of communal violence and extremism. Far-sighted approaches are needed in order to build robust, tolerant and inclusive Southeast Asian societies. 

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