Asian Tensions: The Implications of Religious Violence on the Future of GLobal Politics
A look at the Buddhist-Muslim violence that has engulfed southern Thailand and the future implications of religious-based conflicts on global politics.
The population of the southern provinces of Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, have recently suffered a dramatic spree of religious violence sparked by the local Muslim minority. The attacks, which have claimed twenty lives in the same number of days, have re-ignited religious tensions across south-east Asia. Could they perhaps be interpreted as a glimpse of future world conflicts to come? Are we once again witnessing a trend away from wars between nations and towards a more religiously-orientated order whose genesis was watched by the world on the 11th of September 2001?
On the 26th of October 2004, some 2,000 Muslim men in the southern Thai province of Pattani protested in front of a local police station in response to the detention of 6 men accused of supplying weapons to Islamic separatists. Though the protest initially appeared to be peaceful, it quickly developed into a skirmish between government security forces and a number of armed Muslim men hiding within the ranks of protestors. In the violence that erupted, six men died of bullet wounds, and a further 1,300 were rounded up and sent to a military detention centre. The spiral of fatalities that was to be triggered may not yet have run its course.
During the course of the six hour transit of the arrested protestors to the military establishment, 78 Muslim men died of asphyxiation. Autopsies later performed by Thai forensic scientists showed that the majority of the dead had suffered fatal injuries to their necks and chests. The men had been so tightly packed into the military trucks that over the course of the six hours transportation they had suffocated. In 24 hours, 85 people had died. Not since April, when 107 suspected militants were killed in a failed attempt to seize arms from a local police station, had such a horrendous death-toll been registered in a single day.
Initially, the central government led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was quick to attribute the deaths to the dawn-to-dusk fasting of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. However, under intense pressure from both the international community and the King of Thailand, the government offered a formal apology for the outcome of the protest and promised an official investigation into the handling of the incident. So too did the international community voice their sorrow for the death of so many Muslims at the hands of the Thai army. Neighbouring countries in particular also expressed their deepening concern over the possibility, indeed likelihood, of future violence. Such fears can hardly have been alleviated as the local Muslim population vowed to take revenge against the government. Abdulraman Abdulsamad, chairman of the Islamic Council of the local province, informed the Thai press that “I cannot say what is going to happen, but I believe that hell will break out”.
And so, unsurprisingly, revenge attacks by the Muslim population swiftly followed. Two days after the deaths of the Muslim men, 2 bombs devastated a local marketplace in a provincial town in the south wounding some 20 people. The following week, the decapitated head of a 58 year old Buddhist village chief was left in a polythene bag, accompanied by a chilling note: “This was less than what has been done to the innocent”. Two days afterwards, 9 more Buddhist locals were killed by armed Muslims in a local village near to the location of the original protest. Then, on the 5th of November, some ten days after the initial incident, a group of Islamic insurgents attacked a Buddhist monastery, murdering a soldier on duty guarding the local Buddhist monks.
The two week orgy of violence caused few shockwaves through the global community. However, perhaps it should be recognized as part of an ever-growing trend of religiously orientated hostility that can be seen all over the world. The Beslan school siege in September 2004, for example, left 344 civilians dead – at least 172 of them children – and countless more wounded. It should not be forgotten that the terrorists that took the school were all Muslims from the neighbouring region of Chechnya and Ingushetia, a fact confirmed by both the Russian media and government.
The ghastly massacre happened three years after the attacks launched by a handful of Muslim extremists on the 11th of September 2001, perhaps the starkest example of this developing and alarming trend. With a death toll nearing 3,000 the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by these Islamic terrorists dealt more damage and caused a greater number of deaths than the 2400 victims of the bombing at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Perhaps this shows that not only does this new form of religiously driven violence have a potential to cause large scale damage but that it also has the ability to inflict even greater destruction than the military efforts of an entire country.
Are these deaths, be they in Thailand, Beslan, or New York, indicative then of a ‘clash of civilisations’? In his 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order”, Samuel P. Huntington, formerly a foreign policy aide to the Clinton administration, theorizes that the world is witnessing a change in its structure. The future of global politics, he argues, will rest upon ‘civilizations’ rather than nation states. Huntington explained that since the end of the Cold War people have begun to identify themselves by blood, belief, faith and family rather than by nation, ideologies or economics. While nation states remain the principle actors in world politics, the most important division or grouping between the people of the world are the major civilizations (Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese). He points out that the crucial and defining characteristics of these civilizations are the fact that they do not have any clear-cut boundaries, they lack a precise beginning or end (unlike many countries and empires in the past) and are constantly evolving and adapting.
New ‘hotspots’ of tensions can, and will, erupt along the fault lines between civilizations, whether they be found in Chechnya, Central Asia, Kashmir, the Middle East or Tibet. This provides an explanation of the points made earlier in this article about the new trend of religious violence, and also helps to explain the location of these new areas of tensions and hostilities. It should however be noted that since terrorism, as executed by religious fanatics, knows no international boundaries the acts of violence do not always occur at the ‘fault lines’, they do however often, if not always, originate from such places.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that Huntington’s line of thought has, in the past, come under attack from political commentators who have labelled him as an alarmist, ‘Islam-phobic’ and neglectful of the unipolar view of America as the dominant state on the world stage. Indeed many critics of the Huntington theory has turned towards Francis Fukuyama, the acclaimed writer of the ‘End of History’, who offers the opposing view that mankind’s global conflict that has spanned over the ages has finally arrived at an end. Fukuyama argues that the global development, of all people regardless of international borders, towards liberal democratic capitalism has been the main cause for the conclusion of worldwide hostilities. However, since the attacks of September 11th, Huntington’s thesis of an imminent clash of civilizations has becoming increasingly and even more widely received and accepted.
Interestingly, the Huntington theory, when applied to the current violence in South-eastern Asia, offers a coherent and logical explanation for the reason and causes of the hostilities. It should not be forgotten that South-east Asia is, if one continues to adopt the Huntington line of thought, a potential hotspot for religious tension and destructiveness. Thailand, as an obvious constituent of the Buddhist civilization, lies directly above an area heavily populated by the Muslims of Malaysia and Indonesia. The country is also situated within close proximity to the Hindu civilization of India and, as the military and economic powers of China continues to increase, within the sphere of influence of the Sinic grouping. As a result, if the government of Thailand aspires to avoid future bloodshed, it must seek to address the Buddhist-Muslim dilemma with careful consideration for the religious fragility involved. Unquestionably, if the world is truly witnessing a destructive trend towards religiously driven violence, then Thailand may well provide a distinct model for peace and success or a formula for imminent disaster.
If, as Huntington suggested, the future of world politics does indeed rest upon the division of man into these civilisational tribes (in which religion forms a fundamental component) over and above the nation state, then we, as citizens of the world, must address the evolving and imminent problems of religiously based violence. If a peaceful solution or consensus between two religious groupings cannot be achieved in small scale conflicts of interests such as those of Thailand and Russia (which both ended in tragedy) then the future will indeed be bleak and we may very well be witnessing the dawn of an imminent clash of civilizations. In the view of this particular author, if a peaceful resolution can truly not be found then a conflict between the civilizations of the West and Islam will indeed be imminent and can only have one possible conclusion. Due to the military and economic superiority of the Western world, Islam will be devastated in a war that it will have no realistic prospect of winning and would then be rebuilt, even if against its will, along Western lines (as happened in Japan after the conclusion of the Second World War). Nevertheless, this forced transformation would only occur after the loss of thousands if not hundred of thousands of lives. As a result, though we, as members of the global community, must hope for a future of peaceful co-existence between the many civilisational tribes of the world, we must also plan and prepare for a pessimistic eventuality even if we seek to avoid it.