Religion & Politics in Asia

Democratic politics in many Asian countries represents a marginal adjustment by vested interest groups which continue to trample on the rights of citizens while hiding behind flimsy policies and manipulated mandates.

Contributed to Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

The sight of hundreds of saffron-robed Buddhist monks marching in protest through the streets of Yangon, their hands clasped in prayer, is a strong reminder of the significant role that religion plays in the politics of Asia.

It may be too early to tell whether the fledgling alliance of monks will prove strong enough to topple Myanmar’s military regime, but many observers recall that the popular revolt that forced Burmese strongman Ne Win to step down in 1988 was also spearheaded by the country’s influential Buddhist clergy.

Religion in Asia is a powerful leveler. Few popular movements for freedom and democracy in the region have taken off without strong support, if not inspiration, from religious quarters.

The earliest movements for independence in then Burma and in Indonesia drew inspiration from religious groups. In modern Indonesia, Islamic scholars and thinkers like Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholis Madjid spearheaded the fledgling democracy movement of the 1990s, with the former eventually becoming president.

Elsewhere in the region, the link between struggles for freedom and religion is less overt but still present. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed office in 2001 as a result of a mass movement that tapped support from the Catholic Church.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to march down the territory’s busy streets in 2002 and 2003 drew inspiration from the Catholic Church which has a strong presence in the former British colony.

The religious tinting of protests against authoritarian rule has helped keep many of them non-violent and reduced conflicts. While political change may be accompanied by short bursts of violence, an all-out civil war is rare.

Yet, to the Western mind, religion and politics should be separate. The strong Catholic Church of Europe keeps a tight rein on its clergy and followers through the Vatican to maintain the division between church and state embedded in European political culture.

The Western mind is also affected by a long history of conflict with the Muslim world, which makes it hard for them to imagine the Muslim faith as a liberating force.

Terrorist attacks by Islamic militants over the past decade have entrenched the view that the militants who carry out these attacks are bent on curbing freedom and undermining democracy. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely the quest for freedom in Muslim society that breeds Islamic militancy. Al-Qaeda itself was a combined product of fierce opposition to a feudal Saudi regime and an active role in liberating Afghanistan from Soviet occupation.

But in Asia, mainstream religion and liberation politics form a combustible compound. Despite the focus on a few irrational extremists in Indonesia and understandable fear of violence, most Muslim activists engage in politics in the name of populism.

Their agenda is usually based on the idealistic premise that an Islamic way of life promotes freedom and justice. In a country where politicians and officials are popularly perceived as selfish and corrupt, this is a powerful message and one that forces secular politicians to temper their behavior and adjust their programs lest they lose the election.

There is, of course, a limit to political movements mobilized by religious faith. East Asia has proved quite resistant to theocracy, and despite the important role of Islam in Indonesian political life, the country’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religious faith and several attempts to nudge the country towards conservative Sharia law have been voted down.

The mainly Buddhist kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia maintain a healthy balance between clergy and state. Even in Myanmar today, the Buddhist hierarchy has yet to declare its support for the protests spearheaded by younger monks.

The role of religion in Asian politics will only be further marginalized once political pluralism is more firmly established. This explains why the agenda for political reform must go way beyond simply ensuring free elections.

For now, democratic politics in many Asian countries represents a marginal adjustment by vested interest groups which continue to trample on the rights of citizens while hiding behind flimsy policies and manipulated mandates.

There is an urgent need in Indonesia, for instance, to build on the progress of the past decade by encouraging political parties to develop equitable policy platforms and ideologies instead of dressing up old traditions of patronage in democratic garb.

The same goes for the Philippines and Thailand, where democracy at street level seems an elusive dream and explains why ordinary people still pray for miracles and place an inordinate amount of faith in, among others, stone amulets. Many of them would surely support the marching monks of Myanmar. Posted by Bulatlat

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in The Straits Times and The Jakarta Post (September 21, 2007).The writer is regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.

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