By M.S.N. Menon
There are about 250 million Muslims in South East Asia. Most of them in Indonesia. Fifty years ago, it was difficult to see a Muslim woman in veil. Today it is difficult to see one without it. The process of Islamisation has been very rapid.
Of the ten members of ASEAN, three (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei) are Muslim. They have Muslim majorities. But they have minorities, too. Six are Buddhist (Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). And one state—the Philippines—is Christian with a substantial Muslim minority.
They have all a common problem: they don’t know how to live in a multi-religious society. In the Philippines, the Muslims are in revolt and are demanding an independent state. East Timor has already broken away from Indonesia. It is a Christian state.
It was from India that Islam migrated to South East-Asia. It was mild. Arab Islam, dogmatic and harsher, was introduced into the northern regions by Arab traders and missionaries. With the growth of petro-dollars, fundamentalism has taken rapid strides. So, too, the influence of the Arabs. But there is resistance from the old culture of Indonesia. There is no such resistance in Malaysia. It is true the economic integration of the region has played a major role in preventing the talibanisation of the country. It has also held together the disparate forces in the region.
What is going to happen in the future, one cannot predict. In the meantime, the Chinese have floated the idea to a Free Trade Area. If this gains acceptance, it can contain the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. But will Japan, India, South Korea want a Free Trade Area dominated by China?
The civil war between the Muslims and Christians in the Philippines has gone on now for a number of years. As East Timor broke away from Indonesia, largely through Western support, the Muslims are likely to break away from the Philippines with Arab support. But such a development will weaken the region, and widen the rift between the Muslims, Christians and Hindus. In Indonesia there is already a civil war between the Muslims and the Chinese. The revolt of the Aseh Muslims against Jakarta is really a war between the radical North and the moderate South. If the extremists succeed in creating a theocratic state, it will have far-reaching consequences in the entire region, especially inMalaysia, which has a non-Muslim population of 45 per cent.
Indonesia is becoming ungovernable. Malaysia has been under the patriarchy of Mahathir Mohammed. There is no guarantee of a smooth transition. In the meantime, fundamentalism has raised its head in Malaysia. The victims are mostly Hindus. Thailand has failed to produce a clean leadership. In the Philippines, it is still personality-based politics. Before 1997, when S.E.Asia was overwhelmed by an economic crisis, it used to get a lion’s share of the foreign direct investment. Today most of it is going to China and India. Gone are the days of the “tiger economies” of South East Asia.
ASEAN has adopted a broad anti-terrorism pact with the USA pledging its total support. The fundamentalists and terrorists are already linked with Bin Laden’s al-Quaida. As things stand the Christians are more or less protected by America, and China will protect its diaspora in S.E. Asia. The only community open to Muslim terror are the Hindus.
American involvement in anti-terrorism has naturally worried the Chinese. It can bring back the American presence to S.E.Asia. Which is why China proposed the Free Trade Area project. Of course, a free trade area of a billion and a half people has attracted many.
But this Chinese expansion has alarmed India. India would, therefore, like the American presence to continue.
The Islamic fundamentalists are naturally opposed to the American presence. Which is why some of them have proposed a federation of Islamic states. But such a step would ruin ASEAN and halt the Islamic resurgence.
When Narasimha Rao launched his “Look East” policy, the idea was to strengthen India’s relations with the Buddhist nations. There is a very large Buddhist population in the area in a chain of states, starting from Myanmar to Hong Kong, with Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia coming in between. It is in the interest of India to sustain their unity and development. Only such a policy can protect the Indian population and Indian economic interests in S.E. Asia. Unfortunately, the momentum, which was given to the “Look East” policy under the NDA regime, has suffered under Manmohan Singh. He has shown no interest in the region. Shows how faulty our foreign policy is at present.
Organiser, India -