Sectarian strife needs Asean response

Sectarian strife needs Asean response

A regional response is urgently required to stop the escalating Buddhist-Muslim violence in the Asean region. The risk of a deadly regional backlash, stemming from religious hatred campaigns led by Buddhists extremist groups in Myanmar, is growing by the day. There are grave concerns this violence _ which has already fuelled incidents in Malaysia and Indonesia _ coupled with increasing tensions in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, could spiral out of control.

The recent killing of five Myanmar Buddhists in and around the capital of Malaysia has raised sectarian tensions to boiling point. Many Myanmar Buddhists, who are economic migrants in Malaysia, now feel they are under threat. Images of this violence are circulating on social media sites, triggering shock, sympathy and anger in Myanmar. In an attempt to quell this violence, the Malaysian government has detained more than 1,000 Myanmar nationals, many of whom now face deportation. The prospect of deportation and the perceived lack of protection have inflamed tensions even further.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, counter-terrorism police recently uncovered a bomb plot against the Myanmar embassy and a previously unknown terror cell.

Demonstrations have been held across the country against Myanmar's treatment of Muslims, and some groups have declared jihad against Myanmar and are actively recruiting mujahiddin for the cause.

Anti-Myanmar sentiment across the Muslim world is set to rise during the Ramadan period.

Since the deadly attacks on Muslims in the town of Meikhtilar, Myanmar in March, incidents of violence have occurred elsewhere in Myanmar and within the Asean region. The "969" movement, led by extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu, has been linked to the increase in anti-Muslim mobilisation in Myanmar.

Regional extremist links are not new, and neither are they exclusively Islamic. It has been alleged that Malaysia has become an organising and fundraising ground for 969, with well-established networks and systems within the Myanmar migrant community that have been financing the movement.

To stop the vicious cycle of violence, Asean countries must come together now. The solution must be regional. The more time wasted in responding to this growing sectarian violence, the greater the risk of a mass-scale religiously-motivated retaliation.

Asean, through the secretary-general, must make a stance against this violence. Asean can no longer hide behind the convenient mask of non-interference. A sense of urgency coupled with tact and diplomacy is needed and any further delay will have grievous longer-term security, social and economic consequences for the entire region.

Countries must also take action in their own territories. Malaysia must bring the perpetrators of violence against Myanmar nationals to justice, monitor extremist activities and avoid casting a cloud over the multi-faith fabric of Malaysian society. Any indiscriminate deportation of Myanmar migrants must be stopped, and if deportation is necessary, both governments should work together on a sustainable solution.

The Myanmar government should realise its inability to rein in the violence against Muslims is seen internationally as its complicity in the events, undermining the wider reform agenda. It must bring to justice the perpetrators of the violence, make hate speech against any group a crime, and address the issue through broader national reconciliation processes.

Myanmar and Malaysia should establish a joint bilateral commission to deal with what has become a transnational security issue. Solutions must be found for managing immigration between the two countries, domestic policing, rule of law and greater community understanding between Buddhists and Muslims.

Both religions cannot afford to become the prey of ethno-nationalist and political groups seeking to further their agendas in Myanmar or Malaysia. A safe space must be created for dialogue and joint action among Buddhist and Muslim leaders, as well as the broader public, to prevent extremism from taking hold in their communities and in the region.

The cycle of violence can be stopped, but only if we act before it is too late.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood is the inaugural laureate of the Isa Award for Services to Humanity and Council Member, Overseas Development Institute, London. Lilianne Fan is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, and former adviser to the Asean Special Envoy for Post-Nargis Recovery.

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