Marawi and the future of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia

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Image: Ma’ahad Jamio Mindanao Al-Islamie, Marawi City

To quote from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict here

“The battle for Marawi in the southern Philippines is likely to have long-term repercussions for extremism in Southeast Asia. The ability of pro-ISIS fighters to occupy an entire city and hold the Philippine armed forces at bay for almost two months has already inspired violence elsewhere in the region and may lead to more attacks in the region’s cities; a more coordinated regional strategy among extremist groups; and strengthened capacity among pro-ISIS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia”.

The full report, available here, makes grim reading. I concur with the page 23 assertion that there is “simply no chance in Indonesia of a military-style assault by extremists on a town centre“, however I also agree with the report’s argument that an entrenched disconnection from the benefits of democratic governance in the region, including accountability and equality, will continue to provide fertile soil for extremist ambitions and strategically scratchy assaults on state power.

Note – Taking a step back and considering conflict more broadly across Indonesia and the Philppines, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict website here is an excellent source of information and analysis that goes beyond the headlines, while the images on the site here marvellously convey the Islamic culture that permeates the region.

The Chinese and Indian diaspora

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Image source: The Economist here

One influential element in Southeast Asian history has been the impact of external great powers. Some of these powers have risen to prominence more recently, such as Japan and, even more recently, the United States, but others have had a significant impact over a much longer period.

Few of these external great powers have had a greater impact than China and India. These power centres haven’t always been recognisable in their current forms, but the underlying Sino-Indic tensions and influences have been present for centuries and have significantly shaped the contemporary political and cultural landscapes.

This is evidenced in a vast range of examples, spanning the Brahmanic traditions in Thai Royalist rituals, the syncretic form Islam in Indonesia with its Hindu-Buddhist traits and the Chinese mercantile philosophy embedded in Singapore’s deep state.

Looking at contemporary societies in Southeast Asia it is tempting to consider these Sino-Indic influences as being largely historical relics, slowly being erased by global forces including capitalist consumerism and radical Islam, but I think that view is only partially correct.

The graphic above is, and can only be, a hazy snapshot of a point in time. How, for example, is starting or stopping being Chinese or Indian defined? How accurate is the visual depiction here? Despite the difficulty of answering those questions I believe two broad assertions are valid.

One is that most of the great Indian diaspora is not seeing, and has not seen for some time, a future for themselves in Southeast Asia. Whether this is by choice or compulsion is a different question, but I see the region as now being much more inclined (demographically) to a Chinese orientation.

The other is that, notwithstanding the rubbery figures presented, the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia would itself be a sizable nation state. In other words, China has already established a presence in Southeast Asia that goes beyond seizing control over some small and other inconsequential rocks in the South China Sea.

What is much more ambiguous however is the extent to which this diaspora can, and desires to, access and exert political power in support of its Chinese origins and against the interests of its host state/s.

That test of loyalty is complex and from what I have read seems to throwing up some interesting answers, but must sadly be a topic for another day.

Southeast Asia online courses and sources

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Image Source: University of Mississippi here

Not everyone shares my good fortune in having learnt from some of the world’s leading experts on Southeast Asia. The disclaimer of course is that doesn’t necessarily mean I learnt as much as I could have or should have, but that’s on me. I still know I was very lucky to get the chance.

What could I say to those who didn’t get the same chance but still want to learn more about the region? Well, one approach I would recommend for would be students is to make the most of what is online at no cost.

Specifically, there are many University courses, including from some leading Universities, that make their course outlines, weekly focus and readings publicly available. The latter is potentially extremely useful for those seeking high quality readings.

An example of online course information is available here, with a great collection of readings that I will look into in more detail later, and it was through searching for an example for this post that I stumbled on the fascinating timeline that became the feature image above.

That timeline is fascinating in showing, among a host of other details, the pervasive presence of the Lee Kuan Yew dynasty in Singapore and the regular turnover in the Filippino Presidency. And the blanks in Thailand? Perhaps that wasn’t quite the power vacuum it appears, but you may need to a bit more awareness of that country that only comes from high quality academic readings to understand what what I am hinting at.

Enjoy the reading.

And so it begins again…

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20151107_woc370_1Image source: The Economist

As the above graph indicates, this time of year marks the annual beginning of the slow and inexorable increase in Indonesia’s forest fire pollution levels.

Perhaps the most eye-watering comparison (pun only slightly intended) is the comparison with US average daily emissons. That Indonesia can, by late in the year, produce two or even three times the US daily emissions from forest fires alone speaks to the scale of the environmental catastrophe.

And that isn’t even starting on the human cost.

Has Southeast Asia expanded?

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That’s the question I am considering following the release of the latest Australian census information, including in the commentary here.

That commentary suggests that over 25% of Australians were born overseas, with over half that number born in Asia. If Australia’s populatiion is around 22 million, that infers that at least 2.75 million Australians are of Asian descent (being born in Asia), a number likely to swell considerably if it includes those Australians of Asian descent (born here).

A highly conservative estimate is therefore at least 3 million Australians being of Asian descent.

How does this compare with Southeast Asian populations, seen in the middle column below?

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Clearly a total of around 3 million Asians puts Australia towards the bottom of the list in population numbers. Nevertheless, based on population numbers alone, the claim that Australia is increasingly part of Asia has increasing validity.

However…another way to consider this 3 million strong cohort is to reflect on their relative economic, social and political power in and on their “home” states.
I will reflect on this argument further and post again soon.

The Ahok issue II

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I hadn’t seen the footage here of a crowd singing (what I believe is) “Rayuan Pulau Kelapa” for now jailed Ahok. I believe it translates as “The beautiful and prosperous land, my motherland, Indonesia” but I’m very happy to be corrected.

Anyway, to me it is deeply revealing that his jailing is seen by the crowd as having political implications at a national level. As Ahok was a city mayor this isn’t an association you would normally make, but this is hardly a normal case and I believe they are justified in seeing the link.

Singaporean political tremors

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Staying with Singapore for a while, it is opportune to provide a link to revelations that are being taken very seriously in Singaporean society. The link here gives you the basics, with the summary being a key member of Singapore’s dynastic political family suggesting that the President was personally and politically imperfect. Heresy indeed.

I’m still thinking through the meaning and consequences of these surprisingly candid comments. Part of me sees echoes of a garden variety family falling-out, but there is certainly a bit more to this development. What is perhaps more striking are the traces of Royalist language and thinking, that “we” are uniquely positioned to see, and speak out on, what is the best for the country.

In this is almost an abandonment of the democratic pretense that the Singaporean people should judge the best President electorally. Or is it, perhaps, a shrewd move to create almost unprecedented space in the public sphere for a potent political opposition?I’m unconvinced the latter was intended, but it may be the consequence.

The most stable regime in Southeast Asia is suddenly just a little bit vulnerable.

Update – The always insightful Thomas Pepinsky’s take on the issue can be seen here.

Singapore slang

For anyone travelling to Singapore soon there’s a great list of words to use (or perhaps best avoid) here.

Regrettably I can’t comment on how accurate or helpful the list is, and I’d welcome the opinion of readers views who, literally, know what they are talking about in Singapore.

Blog update

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Sadly work commitments have kept me from posting much recently, a situation unlkely to change for a while. I will keep posting occasionally and thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, for those Indonesians who wish want to return to the good old days, have a look at this (old) graph.

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Source: The Economist here

It was 20 years ago this year that the Indonesian economy really hit hard times, and a new generation is coming of age that can no longer remember that time. The country, and its economy, has come a long way since then. Let’s hope that trajectory continues.

Jakarta’s election III

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Unsurprisingly to regular readers I’ve been wanting to post about the verdict in Ahok’s blasphemy case, but a desire for reflection and other commitments delayed my posting.

Of the other commentary I have encountered the closest to my own position is the one here. I would use different premises, but my conclusion would resemble the author’s. I’d also paint the outcome in terms of the damage to Indonesian democracy, but that is a lot more abstract than, in Lindsey’s words, the verdict being “a warning to minorities”.

With Ahok’s conviction and sentencing the political ground underneath Indonesia’s democratic pillars just shook with a little bit more intensity.