The US-Afghanistan Withdrawal: Islamic Repercussions in ASEAN

Posted by Written by Chris Devonshire-Ellis Reading Time: 9 minutes

Washington hasn’t just destabilized a country; it’s potentially created problems across Southeast Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization may be called on to fill the breach.  

The US pullout from Afghanistan and the chaotic manner in which it has been undertaken looks more like a comprehensive defeat than any organized withdrawal. It is now the Taliban that is dictating terms to the United States, and a deadline of August 31, 2021, imposed by them on the US to complete an exit, and not the other way around. 

As has been noted elsewhere, there will be consequences, and especially among Muslim insurgents elsewhere across South and Southeast Asia. Foreign investors and trade and supply chain operators now must contend with the possibility of longer-term disruptions as insurgents will now feel emboldened by the collapse of the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan. They will feel that Washington today is far less likely to intervene should regional struggles over territory and ideology resurface. Asian Governments too will wonder who to call on when things start to get out of hand. In this article, I outline the existing fractures within the region that could develop problems if insurgents decide to take the opportunity. 

Indonesia 

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Indonesia is a Muslim-dominated country (the exception being the island of Bali, which maintains Hindu culture and religion, and which has already experienced terrorist attacks) and retains a moderate view of Islam, maintained by the existing Government and military. However, a stricter version of Islam is creeping into society, with the more extreme views of hardline cleric Rizieq Shihab gaining in popularity. He has called for a ‘moral revolution’ and fronts the Islamic Defender’s Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI), which has a history of violence in the country. 

On December 30, 2020, the Indonesian government issued a joint ministerial decree banning the FPI, and therefore sending its members underground. The government said the FPI had threatened Indonesia’s national ideology, committed illegal raids and atrocities, including terrorism, and its organizational permit had expired. The government also showed footage of Rizieq Shihab pledging FPI’s allegiance to ISIS and supporting an ISIS-style caliphate. 

Curiously, the Indonesian branch of the UK based Amnesty International, a global human rights watchdog, has stated, “We have an increasing concern about the increasing crackdown by the Indonesian government towards Islamists, or those perceived to be Islamist or radical Islam,” suggesting that the difference between human rights and terrorism is not always understood by NGOs. 

Moreover, major Islamic groups like the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama continue to positively counter forces of extremism in the country, promoting religious tolerance and local culture. For instance, some Muhammadiyah-led higher-education institutions are attended mostly by non-Muslims, especially in non-Muslim dominated provinces, such as Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, where they fill the gaps in services not adequately funded by the government.

Malaysia 

Muslims comprise about 61 percent of Malaysia’s population and are the dominant religious culture. The country also has significant populations of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. However, because of increasing investment and political ties with Saudi Arabia, the promotion of a harder line of Islam has been gaining ground in the country and has obtained support from many of Malaysia’s ruling Sultans. All are Muslims and have been receptive to an increase of Islamic culture in Malaysia, including clerics who have been banned from other countries. One such is Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim now resident in Malaysia. Naik is the founder and president of the Islamic Research Foundation and the Peace TV network, the largest religious satellite channel network in the world. Based on hate-speech laws, Naik’s Peace TV’s channel is banned in India, Bangladesh, Canada, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom. Naik, despite openly living in Malaysia, is wanted by Indian authorities on charges of terror financing, hate speech, inciting communal hatred, and money laundering. His sermons in Malaysia, however, are extremely popular and have attracted up to 100,000 people. Malaysian politicians have been eager to align with him due to his popularity, therefore continuing to boost his presence in the country.

The use of Sharia Law is also increasing in Malaysia due to the larger population of Muslims compared with other religions. The country has a dual system of law, that provides that Islamic law is a state law. That refers to Sharia (in Malaysia known as Syariah). There have been increasing conflicts between the different laws and increasingly, Syariah Laws have been taking precedence and imposed upon non-Muslims. Some Muslim Malaysians have also been part of the ISIL network fighting in Syria and elsewhere; eventually, they will return home. As and when they do, they will find large swathes of rural Malaysia eager to listen to tales of their jihad. Malaysia will inevitably continue down a less tolerant, more conservative path, unfriendly to unbelievers and suspicious of everyone not conforming to a fundamentalist way of life. Malaysia’s unifying United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has dominated politics in Malaysia since independence in 1957 but has found it increasingly difficult to maintain its desire for a secular government during the past two election cycles. 

Myanmar 

Myanmar has endured an ongoing dispute with the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State to its North. The conflict dates to WWII when the Rohingya Muslims, who were allied with the British and promised a Muslim state in return, fought against local Rakhine Buddhists, who were allied with the Japanese. Following independence in 1948, the newly formed Burmese Union Government of the predominantly Buddhist country denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, subjecting them to extensive systematic discrimination in the country. Rakhine State borders Bangladesh, a Muslim dominated country. 

Violence has flared up again over the past decade with an increasingly hardline Military Government keen to expel Muslims from Myanmar and not accepting of the Rohingya as Burmese. The Myanmar Government regards them as Bangladeshi, and as part of the 250,000 Bangladesh refugees that fled to the Rakhine State in the 1990s due to famine and other troubles. In October 2016, border posts along the Bangladesh–Myanmar border were attacked by a new insurgent group, Harakah al-Yaqin, resulting in numerous deaths. Attacks became more common, with coordinated attacks on 24 police posts and an army base that left 71 dead. A subsequent military crackdown by Myanmar prompted the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate the matter and release a report on October 11, 2017, detailing the Burmese military’s “systematic process” of driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from Myanmar “through repeated acts of humiliation and violence”.

While there is some justification for Myanmar to claim many Rohingya are Bangladesh refugees, that does not apply to all. Now, however, the two groups have assimilated, leading neither the Bangladesh nor Myanmar Governments to accept responsibility or grant asylum. Both regard them as stateless.

The Rohingya National Army (RNA) emerged in 1998 and has more recently claimed ties with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani-backed Islamic extremist organizations, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islam and Karkat-ul-Ansar, have also claimed to have branches in Myanmar with the intent of creating an Islamic State (flag shown) in Rakhine with the RNA. 

Philippines 

The Philippines is Asia’s only Catholic-dominated religious culture, with a population of about 109 million. However, its southern Mindanao Island, the country’s second-largest and most fertile, has been an Islamic Sultanate since the 14th century and maintains a core of some 5 million Muslims to the south of the island close to the sea border with Indonesia. The locals here are called the Moro people, and are Muslim, though comprising of 13 ethnic groups. In the past, they have reportedly been subject to neglect and violence by Christian majorities in the Philippines, leading to the creation of separatist outfits like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) wishing to annex Mindanao.

Several atrocities were committed by both sides over the years, resulting in the creation of the Islamic Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao (flag shown), in 2018. Bangsamoro effectively governs itself, although the region is still in some transition and some border areas and cities are undecided about which way to turn. That is expected to be concluded by 2022. Bangsamoro has introduced Islamic Sharia laws. On July 12, 2018, a bicameral conference committee approved the application of Sharia law to all Muslims in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. These laws shall not apply to non-Muslims, (i.e. Catholics) but they “may volunteer to submit to the jurisdiction of Sharia courts.” 

The question for the Philippines is whether this solution (not dissimilar to China’s creation of Autonomous regions in its more culturally diverse regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang) will suffice or whether the Muslim population of Bangsamoro will itself either become radicalized or seek to expand. 

Thailand 

Thailand is 94.6 percent Buddhist, with a Muslim population of just 4.3 percent from a total population of some 70 million. Yet there have been long-term problems to the Muslim dominant southern part of Thailand, and the Pattani region. This includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla. In total, this area covers about 18,330 square km and has a population of about 3.5 million. 

The disputes here are historic, dating back to medieval times when it was a Malay Sultanate. It was reclaimed as part of Thailand in the late 1780s but was subjected to a policy of ‘Siamification’ from the 1930s. Resentment has festered and resulted in violence in the early 2000s. Today the Pattani region (or Patani) is the subject of an insurrection where the inhabitants wish to create an independent, Islamic state. The situation is further muddled when one considers that even during the Sultanate period, Pattani used to pay tribute to the Kingdom of Thailand and not to Malaysia. 

The secessionist movement has, however, sought the establishment of a Malay, Islamic state, Patani Darussalam (flag shown), encompassing the three southern Thai provinces. This campaign has taken a particularly violent turn after 2001, resulting in an intractable insurgency problem across southern Thailand and the imposition of martial law. Separatist groups, most notably the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Koordinasi (BRN-C), have begun to use increasingly violent tactics, and there have been suggestions of links between the BRN-C and foreign Islamist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah who are known to have committed atrocities across ASEAN – including the Bali bombings back in 2002. Jemaah Islamiyah is known to have cells throughout the ASEAN region and are linked to Al-Qaeda. Currently, over 6,500 people have died and almost 12,000 injured in the conflict, which has currently been taken over by hardline jihadis and pitted against both the Thai-speaking Buddhist minority and local Muslims who have a moderate approach or who support the Thai government. 

Summary 

The fault-lines across ASEAN have existed for some time and have their basis mainly on historical territorial boundaries and the cultural differences between mainly Buddhists and Muslims (except for the Philippines). The underlying issue appears to be a lack of tolerance among certain Asian Muslims for any form of secularism and acceptance or communal living with any other culture than Islam and their version of it. While at present, the Asian and traditionally more liberal version of Islam has allowed communities to live side-by-side in relative harmony, increasingly the stricter, more extreme schools of Islamic thought coming from conflict zones in the Middle East have begun to penetrate the Asian variety. 

This has not been helped by the development of hardline Buddhism in certain Asian countries — and hardline Hinduism in India — where for political reasons, local Muslim communities have been marginalized, excluded, and had property taken from them. Such behavior only pushes these communities into resentment, and fosters space for political self-interest groups to emerge. This could result in some unexpected developments, considering the apparent message of regional security abandonment suggested by the withdrawal of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan.

In looking for alternative security assurances and the sharing of intelligence, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) looks like a possible candidate to step into the breach. Although the SCO was originally begun as a Eurasian entity, arguably to prepare the region for an eventual withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan (it was created just shortly after US troops landed in the country in 2001), it has expanded its membership to include not just China, important to ASEAN in its own right, but also India and Pakistan. Russia, with increasing trade and energy links with South Asia, is another significant member and one with both serious military capabilities and a strong background in overseas military and anti-terrorism training in addition to weapons exports. 

The SCO has a security council and has been highly active in recent weeks preparing member states – all of which share regional borders or concerns about Afghanistan – in getting intelligence, military, and security plans into operation. It has also been playing a diplomatic role in mediating negotiations with the Taliban. This makes the SCO a logical security partner for ASEAN. Interestingly, ASEAN is an official guest at SCO meetings.

While the US Secretary of State Kamala Harris is currently on a very quick trip to Singapore and Vietnam to discuss regional security, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely come up in conversations and its potential to embolden local insurgent groups to continue their regional struggles. To many, the Taliban’s success will be highly motivational. Combating that needs a more regionally based alliance and not dependence on drone warfare conducted from tens of thousands of miles distant by US military bases in Texas and producing collateral damage on the ground. 

This means that Chinese and Russian security will start to become a preferred partner in ASEAN. Cooperation, both through intelligence and the military, will increase to keep regional insurgencies down. The US may not be happy with this scenario, but this is the price to pay when Asian regional military adventures go so disastrously wrong. 


About Us

ASEAN Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia and maintains offices throughout ASEAN, including in SingaporeHanoiHo Chi Minh City, and Da Nang in Vietnam, Munich, and Esen in Germany, Boston, and Salt Lake City in the United States, Milan, Conegliano, and Udine in Italy, in addition to Jakarta, and Batam in Indonesia. We also have partner firms in Malaysia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Thailand as well as our practices in China and India. Please contact us at asia@dezshira.com or visit our website at www.dezshira.com.

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