Religion And Nationalism: Is Southeast Asia Turning Into The Next Middle East?

The tragedy of the Rohingya in Myanmar should be viewed within the region-wide context of the resurgence of religious nationalism across Southeast Asia.

NGO workers distribute food to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
NGO workers distribute food to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
Dominique Moisi


Does Southeast Asia risk turning into the new Middle East? Will it be the next region to be dominated by the encounter of a culture of humiliation and a culture of violent rivalry between and within nations? Luckily we aren't there yet, nor is it inevitable. But the question itself underscores the significance of the new situation created by the rise of religious nationalism throughout Southeast Asia.

The eruption of Islamic fundamentalism appears to have contributed to the awakening of Buddhist nationalism, like in Myanmar, or to Hindu nationalism as has happened in Narendra Modi's India.

The tragedy of the Rohingya in Myanmar must be considered within the context of the resurgence of religious nationalism. A minority that has always been humiliated, the Rohingya do not even have the right to citizenship. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in his speech at the United Nations, it is not a matter of restoring, but of establishing their rights in a country where being Burmese means being Buddhist.

Now Myanmar, with the Rohingya, has its "unnamables."

Of course they are a tiny minority: 88% of the Myanmar population is Buddhist, with 6% Christian and only 4% Muslim. In an address ahead of the UN General Assembly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of Burmese democracy, did not even mention the Rohingya by name.

India has its "untouchables' and now Myanmar, with the Rohingya, has its "unnamables." Suu Kyi's silence is probably as much the product of her personal disregard for the fate of a minority that does not exist in her eyes as it is the result of a political calculation in relation to the armed forces with which she currently shares power.

"Local" at first, the Rohingya tragedy became over time a regional, if not international crisis in a part of the world where national and religious identity increasingly tend to overlap. Was Pakistan not created in order to absorb the Muslim minority of the Indian former empire? How can the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has accompanied the progressive establishment of peace and prosperity in the region, survive the emergence of divisions based strictly on religion: Buddhists on one side, Muslims on the other?

In Myanmar and Thailand, the population's majority is Buddhist; in Malaysia and Indonesia, the majority is Muslim. The legacy of the empires, British and Dutch, has left scars in this region that could reopen at any time. During the Raj, the British, like all the empires before them, tended to use the minorities to establish their authority. "You are mistreated. Let us protect you against the discrimination of which you are victims," they used to say. Once the colonization ended, these minorities were not only still considered inferior; they were now also traitors.

The Mesjid Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia — Photo: Cazzjj

It was this discrimination that drove a minority of Rohingya youth to choose the path of violence, encouraged, perhaps, by the fiery speeches of Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East or even in Asia. The tragedy is that this radicalization of a minority of Muslims emerged precisely as we were witnessing a similar fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist strain rising within the Buddhist community.

Buddha might well have preached peace and tolerance, but the fervent monks started to behave like modern-day Savonarolas, inciting hatred against the Muslims. This led to a succession of religiously motivated massacres, at first entirely ignored by the international community. "What do you want..." the thinking seemed to be. "This is happening very far away, and aren't the victims Muslims, potential terrorists?"

And there, precisely, lies the problem in this era of globalization and the communications revolution. Defeated on the ground in Syria and Iraq, can terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS), dream of using the fate of the Rohingya to mobilize the emotions of Asia's Muslims? Demographically, the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia, is in the region. After the fate of the Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan war in the 1990s, the tragedy of the Rohingya now provides a new opportunity to denounce the selective sympathies of the Western world.

It is essential to put an end to this cultural, more than religious, trend, if we want to avoid a domino effect that will have catastrophic consequences for the equilibrium of the entire region. Maybe the UN can add action to its words and find in the Rohingya crisis an opportunity to save its reputation by stopping Southeast Asia from becoming a new Middle East? Now that's a lot to hope for.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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