The Southeast Asia boat crisis is the latest event to inflame religious divisions in the region. The crisis elicited a nasty backlash on social media and rendered what should have been a united response to a humanitarian crisis the subject of divisive debate across the region. The biggest failure of Southeast Asian governments in the crisis has been to allow the religious narrative to dominate. Indeed, this has been a root cause of the abysmal response. 


A terrorist attack on a Southeast Asian religious site would be disastrous in the current atmosphere. (Flickr/Mikaku.)

Over the past week, protests organised by religious groups in IndonesiaMalaysia and Myanmar have highlighted these divisions. In Malaysia and Indonesia, religious groups have focused on the imperative to save Muslims rather than people of any creed. In Yangon, Buddhist extremists led protests against the Rohingya Muslims, while the response by the Myanmar Government suggested the Rohingyas are a problem for Muslim-majority countries to solve.

Thailand backed away from the region's initial resolution to help the Rohingyas stranded at sea, even when Indonesia and Malaysia announced their commitment. Along with ongoing reports of jungle camps and mass graves in Thailand, this suggest that some in Bangkok hold similar views to Myanmar's Buddhist extremists. Both Buddhist-majority countries have unresolved conflicts with Muslim minorities in their countries. These conflicts, while markedly different, feed the same narrative that pits Buddhists against Muslims.

The deathly slow response from ASEAN to act in the crisis has deepened these divisions.  

Extremism and conservative religion has flourished across the region in recent years. Brunei adopted draconian hudud, the Islamic penal code. Aceh, in Indonesia's west, followed suit, reinforcing its Sharia law. Malaysia's Kelantan state has pushed ahead with the introduction of hudud. Jihadi groups, once on the wane thanks to effective counter-terrorism responses, have been invigorated by ISIS's success and are now seeing a resurgence in the region.

While the region's struggle with extremist interpretations of Islam gets column inches, a resurgence in Buddhist extremism also continues.

In 2014 Myanmar's firebrand monk, Wirathu (often dubbed the 'Buddhist Bin Laden', though he prefers to think of himself as James Bond), visited the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka, the group responsible for 2014 attacks on Muslim communities in the country's south. Wirathu was met with a standing ovation, and the two groups signed an MoU to 'protect' Buddhism. Wirathu's group, the 969s, is responsible for leading much of the violence against the Rohingya and Muslim communities in Myanmar. 

The fault for these divisions lies at the feet of weak governments. Gone are the days of strong leadership in Southeast Asia from the likes of Lee Kuan Yew. Today, Southeast Asian governments court dangerous populism and bend to extremism. In Malaysia, the government has played into a political game to 'out-Islam' its political opponents. In Myanmar, the long-running conflict with dozens of armed ethnic groups has embedded a legacy in which Buddhist narratives dominate the political space. 

These divisions could be exacerbated by the increase in Islamic finance and banking in Malaysia and Indonesia (the region's biggest economy), which will likely see a strengthening of religion in business and politics. 

There is increasing concern that the recent treatment of the Rohingya will bolster narratives for radicalisation in the region. There is no evidence of links between Rohingya and jihadi groups, but jihadists near and far have condemned the plight of the Rohingya. Al-Shabab, in a rare statement this week, blamed the 'savage Buddhists' for the Rohingya's plight. Al Qaeda last year announced it would extend its operations into Myanmar for similar reasons. A statement from ISIS – which would have the most pull in the region – is also likely, possibly in the next edition of its recruitment magazine, Dabiq (which has long courted Southeast Asians). Needless to say, much of this work has already been done on Twitter and Facebook. 

Perhaps most worrying of all is the threat of an attack on a Buddhist temple or religious site carried out in the name of the Rohingya. These sites are soft targets – far softer than the 2013 foiled bomb plot on the Myanmar Embassy in Indonesia by an Indonesian cell sympathetic to the Rohingya. Of primary concern is the UNESCO-listed temple of Borobudur in Java. Such an attack, which could be reminiscent of the 2013 attack on Mahabodhi Temple, one of India's holiest Buddhist temples, would provoke tit-for-tat violence on Muslim communities in Myanmar. In the present environment that would be hard to contain.

At a regional level, ASEAN must do more. The boat crisis won't be the last divisive problem the bloc faces. It must assert greater control over this crisis and more generally over the political narrative regarding religious divisions (a leaked internal EU document explains how this might be done in regard to a boat crisis). If ASEAN and its member governments allow extremist views to trump the politics of moderation they will have a tough time steering good policy. 

The danger of doing nothing is to allow deep divisions which will  be difficult to repair.