There is a consensus that the narrowing of political space for civil society activities and civil liberties is precipitating democratic backsliding (Diamond 2015) and this authoritarian trend is gaining momentum across Asia (Diamond 2020, Pongsudhirak 2018). This paper examines the role of religious organisations in the ebbing of secular democracy in four of Asia’s plural societies- Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. These religious organisations represent what I call uncivil society as a way of highlighting their illiberal socio-political agendas. Civil society is usually seen as a force for liberal reforms, but uncivil society merits more scrutiny because it represents the dark side of the 3rd sector, is subject to elite capture (Elinoff 2014) and, as discussed below, can be a powerful advocate for an illiberal agenda conducive to authoritarianism. The term uncivil society is controversial, and some reject it as analytically ambiguous and pejorative (Bob 2011). However, many scholars find it conceptually useful to better understand the broad spectrum of civil society (Chandoke 2003, Kopecky and Mudde 2003, Shah 2008, Lewis 2013, Pawakapan 2013, Kuhonta and Sinpeng 2014). It is also a commonly used term to differentiate between grassroots, non-state community-based groups and other non-governmental organisations that are beholden to or serve the ruling elite’s interests (Economist 2015, Nair 2018, Hutt 2019).

Mobocracy FORSEA

Mobs have a rich tradition in modern Asia, often supporting progressive causes and democracy. For example, people power had an impact in Gwangju 1980, Manila 1986, Yangon 1988, Beijing 1989 and Bangkok 1992, giving momentum to democratization (South Korea, Philippines and Thailand) but also sparking authoritarian repression aimed at thwarting democratization (Myanmar and China).  In some cases, the politics of the street challenges entrenched elites and is a response to flawed democracies such as in contemporary Hong Kong. As Bermeo (2016) argues, such mobilization targets democratic backsliding and is an effort to preserve or expand political space for civil liberties and organisations that work to promote them. Protestors confront undemocratic governments that try to suppress mass mobilizations that seek to undermine authoritarian rule. The 2007 Saffron Revolution in Myanmar is a good example where monks used their moral authority to criticize the military government’s policies that did so little to promote public welfare. While the government quelled the protests with bullets, batons and imprisonment, the monks did give momentum to Myanmar’s slow-motion democratization (Thant 2020). Thus, the politics of the street can be a strategy to promote the public’s needs in the absence of other means. Yet, recent mass protests in Bangladesh and Indonesia promoted reactionary political agendas, invoking Islam to influence mainstream politics.

While it is important not to succumb to the fallacy of equating elections with democracy, it is equally crucial not to exalt mobocracy as a manifestation of a democratic spirit by scrutinizing the patrons of street politics and how and why demonstrations are manipulated. Indeed, in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia mobocracy is an institutionalized feature of the political culture as mainstream parties and other political actors routinely engage in hartal (mass protests) that mobilize millions of protestors in support of rival elite political agendas (Hossain 2000).

Religious organisations across Asia have played a significant role in pressuring democratic governments to support, or at least not interfere with, their anti-secular agendas. By engaging in the politics of the street, and through social media, unelected religious leaders mobilize mobs to persuade elected political leaders to acquiesce to, connive in and/or embrace their illiberal agendas, sometimes at the behest of rival elites. In response to this challenge to their authority, some political leaders deploy authoritarian measures to counter religious leaders’ influence, ostensibly to safeguard secular democracy but by means that compromise it.  Such efforts undermine tolerance in plural societies and thus mobocracy contributes to an ongoing process of majoritarianism and democratic backsliding.

By mobocracy I mean the reliance on street politics and demonstrations to secure changes and advance policies that lack the legitimizing power of democratic elections and processes. Radical religious groups have relied on such tactics to push reactionary and exclusionary religious agendas. They are part of civil society but arguably more influential than most civil society organisations because they enjoy greater moral authority by virtue of their spiritual role and can tap into more extensive networks and mobilize devoted followers conditioned to act without question and endure sacrifice for their faith.  Leaders of such ‘uncivil’ groups sanctify their agenda in the name of their religious beliefs, leveraging the sacred to advance the temporal. In doing so, they provoke both accommodating and repressive government responses that subvert secular democratic tolerance. This trend gives momentum to the wave of Asian authoritarianism.

While not necessarily an accurate barometer of public opinion, spectacles can be persuasive, and nothing is as riveting as televised throngs of protestors chanting and marching in the streets.

In democracies, leaders are acutely aware of public opinion and in some ways beholden to the crowd even if it may not be representative, because the optics of large demonstrations that ricochet across the mass media and reverberate in social media put leaders on the spot. Governments respond to mobocracy because democracy renders leaders beholden to the crowd and the emotional sentiments that are aroused. Religious leaders are weaponising street demonstrations as a warning to political leaders that they best respond or face escalating and destabilizing headwinds. The Internet has become a powerful tool for such groups to sow disinformation and mobilize mobs, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers in democratic societies (Schiffrin 2017). This is a facet of digital authoritarianism that is usually attributed to state actors (Freedom House 2018). In stoking and exploiting the anger of the weak and dispossessed, religious leaders participate in elite politics through the backdoor of the streets and in the echo chamber of viral shares.

Here we focus on 21st century examples of religious groups that have promoted authoritarian and anti-secular agendas by engaging in mob tactics that have undermined tolerance and secular democracy on behalf of entrenched elites (Lorch 2017). Civil society organisations have significant democratizing potential, but there is a growing awareness of uncivil society and how it is subject to elite capture. Such organisations may not espouse democratic values and can be coopted by patronage networks and therefore become agents of backsliding rather than avatars of democracy. In this sense, they can precipitate or accelerate authoritarianism rather than counter it.

This paper scrutinizes the role and agendas of the Buddhist organisations Ma Ba Tha (MBT-Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) in Myanmar and Bodi Bala Sena (BBS-Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka and the Islamic organisations Front Pembela Islam-FPI (Islamic Defenders Front-IDF) in Indonesia and Hefazat e-Islam (Guardians of Islam) in Bangladesh. Based on interviews and secondary sources, this is a comparative assessment of how these religious organisations have contributed to democratic backsliding and authoritarian creep. I argue that Arabisation contributes to a less tolerant, more devout form of Islam in Asia and this is sparking turmoil in diverse societies. This multi-pronged process of expanding Saudi soft-power involves funding for mosques, clerics, educational and welfare programs across Asia and large-scale labour migration from Asia to the Middle East along with the haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In Muslim majority nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia, minorities are at greater risk of majoritarianism while in nations where Muslims are in the minority like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, they have become targets of a surging ethnoreligious nationalism that taps into anxieties about the presumed threats of Islam. Arabisation is contesting the foundational principle of secular democracy by stoking intolerance and rendering diversity into a target rather than an ideal to uphold and embrace.


In post-WWII Asia, decolonization led to the formation of secular democracies in newly independent nations. Under the British, India (including Pakistan/Bangladesh), Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), along with the Netherlands East India (Indonesia) under the Dutch, had political parties and mass organisations, participating to some degree in representative government operating within the authoritarian confines of colonial rule. These were secular governments in plural societies based on the rule of law that constituted the foundations of the newly independent nations. Incubated under colonial rule and infused with nationalist yearnings influenced by war and violence, the newly independent democracies began in challenging circumstances.

The legacies of war and violence loom large in our case studies, including the 1947 Partition in India and the Indonesian war (1945-1949) against Dutch efforts to reimpose colonial rule. Nehru was able to promote his secular vision for India, but his ability to prevail at the time didn’t mean that he vanquished religious zealots or the Hindutva chauvinist agenda that now prevails in Modi’s India. Aung San was Burma’s wartime leader and negotiated with the British for the transfer of power but was assassinated before independence was attained and his efforts at ethnic reconciliation could gain momentum. Since then Burma/Myanmar has been riven by numerous prolonged ethnic insurgencies that have provided a pretext for sustained military repression. Unlike the other nations in this study, Sri Lanka attained independence in 1948 with a relatively peaceful transfer of power, but a prolonged and brutal civil war from 1983-2009 left deep scars on Sri Lanka’s democracy and society. Bangladesh was originally part of Pakistan but won independence after a civil war that claimed some three million lives in 1971-1972. Thus, politics in these nations are shaped profoundly by collective traumas and attendant unresolved grievances. Post-independence democracy was initially welcomed with high expectations in all four nations, but in each authoritarian governance became the norm.

Ebbing Democracy: Indonesia and Bangladesh

Orthographic map of Indonesia. Wikipedia Commons

Under founding father Sukarno, Indonesian democracy became increasingly authoritarian, culminating in Guided Democracy from 1957 when parliamentary democracy and party rule was suspended (Lev 2009). Subsequently, in 1965 an alleged communist coup provided a pretext for military intervention that precipitated a bloodbath claiming several hundred thousand lives in 1965-66 and led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of those suspected of leftist ties or sympathies (Roosa 2006). General Suharto presided over this purge and formally became president in 1967. Nobody has been held accountable although the military, its’ paramilitary units, and Islamic youth groups are implicated. Under pressure from the military, current President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has abandoned his promise to investigate this maelstrom of orchestrated violence, yet again postponing a reckoning for a buried tragedy that has been partially exhumed (Hearmann 2018).

Suharto’s New Order government (1967-1998) ruled with an iron fist, giving the military a decisive political role, suppressing dissent and suspending all political party activity in between rigged elections in Indonesia’s fig-leaf democracy. With Suharto’s downfall in 1998 Indonesia embarked on a democratic transition and has experienced a series of elections, peaceful transfers of power and even the 2014 election of Jokowi, the first ‘outsider ‘to win the presidency. In many respects Indonesia over the past two decades has shrugged off the prolonged ossification of democracy under Suharto, yet there has been a backsliding or deconsolidation, a point we take up below (Mietzner 2018a).

Orthographic map of Bangladesh. Wikipedia Commons

The civil war in Bangladesh was triggered by the refusal of West Pakistan to accept the victory of East Pakistan’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the 1970 presidential poll and arrested him. In 1971 the military junta sent troops into East Pakistan where they engaged in targeted assassinations of Bengali intelligentsia, nationalists, civil servants, students and minorities, provoking a powerful backlash and guerrilla war (Bass 2013). The Pakistan military armed Islamic paramilitary groups to assist it in the widespread massacres and mass rapes that ensued, prompting a flood of refugees into India. Responding to this crisis Indian PM Indira Gandhi sent Indian troops into East Pakistan and by the end of 1971 West Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh was born.

Sheikh Mujib, who established the Awami League political party in 1949, is revered as the founding father of Bangladesh and served as the first president and later as prime minister (Riaz 2016). The Constitution written at his behest embraced four fundamental principles- nationalism, secularism, democracy, and socialism- but as economic and political conditions deteriorated, he declared one-party rule in early 1975.  He and most of his family were killed six months later by army officers. The current PM Sheikh Hassina is a surviving daughter who was in West Germany when the attack occurred. Following Mujib’s assassination the nation plunged into political turmoil, but in 1977 army chief Ziaur Rahman came to power, ushering in a period of military rule that ended with the restoration of democracy in 1990. During this era, the Awami League was side-lined, but it has since emerged as the dominant party (Riaz 2016).

Islam and Authoritarianism

The military’s tolerance for the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is striking given that party members actively fought with West Pakistan and engaged in massacres against pro-liberation nationalist groups. Riaz argues that after 1975 the military, ‘brought Islam into the political arena to gain political legitimacy. Thereafter, political expediency dictated the use of religious rhetoric in politics by all parties irrespective of their claims to be secularists; they befriended Islamist parties for electoral gains and street agitation’ (Riaz 2018, 308).

Following the 1975 military coup, the government declared Bangladesh an Islamic Republic in 1977, and under military rule the Constitution was amended in 1989 to make Islam the national religion. In the 1980s, also under military rule, JI’s leadership returned from exile in Pakistan and subsequently avoided accountability. However, the Awami League campaigned in 2009 on seeking accountability and restoring secularism in the Constitution, winning a strong mandate. Subsequently, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled the amendment unconstitutional and void, thus reinstating secularism. The principle of secularism was declared, however, in the absence of secularization and as such is contested as a state sponsored initiative (Riaz 2018). Due to the marginalization of political Islam from mainstream politics it has moved to the streets where the government is trying to pacify and co-opt it if possible but also resorts to more extreme measures including arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killings.

The prosecution of liberation war-era crimes drew strong public support, especially among younger urban Bangladeshis (Riaz 2014). Their mass protests in 2013 known as the Shabagh Movement demanded capital punishment for those convicted of war crimes committed back in 1971 (Riaz 2016). This clamouring for belated justice and harsher sentences for the leadership of the JI polarized politics and upped the ante, instigating a powerful backlash from Islamist groups. The JI had been a coalition partner with the BNP, the Awami League’s main political rival during the 1990s. The widespread urban youth support for secularism in a deeply conservative Islamic society stoked powerful tensions. The JI was banned, and the BNP boycotted the 2014 polls complaining that the ruling Awami League was not allowing free and fair elections. The subsequent 2018 jailing of Khaleda Zia, its leader, on corruption charges, is seen as a partisan political vendetta to crush the BNP.

Riaz (2019) argues that Bangladesh’s hybrid system is ostensibly democratic but essentially authoritarian. The government marginalizes dissent, and in encouraging extremism and empowering state security, it narrows the space for civil society and democracy. In 2018, the Awami League won 293 of 300 parliamentary seats in systematically rigged elections (Bergman 2019, Riaz 2019). It has presided over creeping authoritarianism and has secured control over all key government institutions while running roughshod over dissent. Although it positions itself as a secularist party, the Awami League has embraced a raft of policies aimed at shoring up its Islamic credentials in a bid to broaden its appeal and to counter Islamist hardliners. At the same time, it has suppressed civil society (Rezwan ul-Alam 2019, Fazli 2019).

As Riaz notes, the embers of, “latent tension between the idea of secularism and the role of Islam in society”, have been fanned by increasingly polarized politics (Riaz 2018, 307). The successes of the secular Shahbagh Movement provoked a backlash among Islamists, creating martyrs and a sense of being besieged. Hefazat-e-Islam seized the opportunity to engage in mobocracy to force the government into concessions, flooding the streets of Dhaka with throngs of believers agitating for their leader’s agenda. Attempts to silence secularists have gained momentum since these protests in 2013 demanding the state institute a blasphemy law with provision for capital punishment, a tool often used by Islamists in other Muslim majority nations to persecute political opponents and critics. PM Sheik Hassina countered this demand by reassuring the devout that there are already laws in place that enable the government to prosecute anyone harming religious sentiments.

Hefazat-e-Islam, the Islamic group that orchestrated the blasphemy demonstrations, subsequently mobilized massive street demonstrations in 2017 targeting a controversial female statue. Gathering in front of Dhaka’s Supreme Court in April 2017, Hefazat-e-Islam demanded the removal of a statue of the goddess of justice. The statue was visible from the mosque across the street and was characterized as an affront to Islamic values possibly because it represents a female and was thus distracting, and allegedly represents western jurisprudence, the target of Islamists who advocate adoption of Islamic law (shariah). This was a divisive political issue, pitting secularists against religious fundamentalists in a nation where it is open season on free thinkers; several secularist bloggers were hacked to death by vigilantes since 2015 (BBC 2015). The outcome of the anti-statue movement was curious, involving a brief removal from the prominent site visible from the mosque and then soon thereafter its reinstallation in a less visible spot nearby. It was significant that PM Sheik Hasina agreed with the protestors in backing removal, but the reinstallation could only have come with her government’s approval. This compromise solution is a sign of the times that is denounced by her secularist supporters as the slippery slope of appeasement.

January 2017. The statue of Greek goddess Themis, a symbol of justice and fairness, was removed from the front of the Supreme Court premises. Image: Mamunur Rashid /

While the battle to remove the statue from in front of the Supreme Court may seem trivial, it highlights the larger issue of the rule of law being sacrificed to mob pressure; who is sovereign-the elected government or militant clerics?  The AL has also backed down by issuing revised school textbooks that cut some poems and stories that Hefazat-e-Islam deemed atheistic. Additionally, in 2017 the government moved to recognize degrees issued by previously unauthorized Islamic schools. Now the government recognizes the qawmi madrasa degrees as equivalent to a university MA degree in Islamic or Arabic studies, so graduates are now eligible to take civil service examinations. Thus, whether it is the statue, textbook poetry, or the status of religious educational organisations, each seemingly minor issues, they represent Bangladesh’s contested secular identity. There are concerns that the government’s short-term electoral tactics carry the seeds of long-term catastrophe; by allowing Islamists to position themselves as aggrieved victims, and making concessions to them, the government is unwittingly empowering them and validating their claims.

Liberal secularists condemn appeasing hard-line Islamic groups as a counter-productive dead-end. Unappeased, Hefazat-e-Islam seeks more reforms, still lobbying for a blasphemy law, capital punishment for atheists, and cancellation of government programs promoting gender equality. Thus, rather than quelling demands, clerics portray each concession as a vindicating victory and thereby gain momentum. Such unelected religious hardliners are pressuring Bangladesh’s elected government to embrace Islamic values as they define them, resorting to street protests and inciting violence to achieve their aims. By not disavowing Hefazat-e-Islam and similar groups, the Awami League government has demonstrated tolerance towards those who are intolerant and in doing so leaving supporters who embrace the nation’ secular ideology feeling betrayed (Lorch 2019).

The politicization of blasphemy also casts a shadow over Indonesia where the once popular ethnic Chinese Christian candidate running for governor of Jakarta was defeated and subsequently jailed due to his comments that allegedly insulted Islam. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was derailed by the Islamist Front Pembela Islam (FPI), which organized mass street demonstrations, drawing as many as five hundred thousand protestors. Jokowi was targeted by his powerful opponents in their attacks on his protégé Ahok who succeeded him as governor of Jakarta when he left that post to become president in 2014. Ahok was considered a shoo-in for election in 2017 but being an ethnic Chinese Christian in a Muslim majority nation where anti-Chinese sentiments are widespread left him vulnerable. A tape of his comment on the campaign trail was doctored to make it appear Ahok was criticizing Islam. This fake tape was widely disseminated and then the orchestrated mass protests kicked in, stoking an ethnoreligious nationalism that sealed his fate.

This is an example of mobocracy at work. The unelected leaders of the FPI and its powerful patrons eager to weaken Jokowi before the 2019 elections, mobilized mobs that became effective weapons of the powerful in their political jockeying (Aspinall 2015, Mietzner 2018b). Such patrons include two former generals-Prabowo Subianto who was presidential candidate in 2014 and 2019, along with former president Susilo Bambang Yudohyono, aka  SBY, (2004-2014) who was backing his son in the gubernatorial election and grooming him for higher office. The Jakarta rallies thus highlighted how mobs were deployed by entrenched elites and how Jokowi’s marginalization of the FPI backfired as it maneuvered to regain the patronage it enjoyed under SBY.

FORSEA’s Saskia E. Wieringa reflects on the outcome of the 2019 Indonesian Elections

This ‘blasphemy election’ and the court proceedings provided a barometer of religious tolerance and free speech in Indonesia, revealing the strength of religious hardliners and their mobocracy tactics. Ahok was sentenced to two years in jail, an unexpectedly harsh sentence given prosecutors had recommended two years of probation. In the febrile atmosphere of fundamentalist Islamic politics in contemporary Indonesia, with anti-Ahok protestors demonstrating angrily outside the courtroom, the judiciary apparently bowed to mob pressure. There are stark implications for a democracy that is increasingly hostage to unelected hardline Islamists who astutely and assiduously work social media and dominate street politics to push their conservative agenda and harass politicians and the institutions of government into heeding their bidding (Schafer 2019). Given that they are acting on behalf of powerful patrons, such ‘renta-mobs’ are helping to subvert democracy.

Worried about where the proxy attacks might lead, President Jokowi issued a decree in 2017 allowing the government to disband organisations that advocate an agenda at odds with Panca Sila (the nation’s founding secular principles) as enshrined in the Constitution. He then moved swiftly to disband Hizb ut-Tahrir, an ultraconservative Islamic political movement that rejects secularism, democracy, and religious tolerance in defiance of Panca Sila. By moving against this group, Jokowi forcefully moved to preserve secularism and served notice to his Islamic hardliner opponents and their patrons. Following Jokowi’s decree on mass organisations, these opponents accused the president of de-Islamicising Indonesia and undermining democratic freedoms. The latter charge seems valid as Jokowi has shifted from the rule of law to the rule by law, deploying his executive powers to target his opponents rather than relying on the ballot box and law enforcement to protect the polity from the threats of extremism. In this way the FPI provoked Jokowi to resort to authoritarian measures to protect himself and secular rule, but in so doing subverted liberal democratic values.


Arabisation has swept across Islamic societies in Asia, spreading a more fundamentalist and intolerant form of Islam in diverse societies (Kingston 2019, Ghoshal 2010). Saudi Arabia has underwritten this sustained wave of Arabisation with generous support for mosque building and education (Varagur 2020; Weiss 2017). Social media have also played a significant role as cybercommunities build networks of interaction and communication about shared concerns that are subject to the influence of hardliner clerics who embrace extremist positions that attract a wide following. Social media enables local mobilization of devotees to join protests and shaming or worse of those who oppose the messages of intolerance and hatemongering. Cybermobs patrol social media to single out anyone who opposes this agenda while the internet empowers hardliners who can reach vast audiences across borders and oceans.

Social media has caught on like wildfire and serves as a conduit for spreading fundamentalist tenets and disseminating the teaching of Salafist preachers to large and impressionable audiences (Hasan 2018). It has also been useful to mobilize against targets ranging from minorities, deviants, blasphemers and anyone who defies fundamentalist exhortations. It is a useful platform for opportunists to push agendas in the name of Islam. Social media enforces conformity with the growing fundamentalist consensus as users fear being ostracized or criticized in their virtual communities.

Arabisation and the spread of a more fundamentalist Islam and jihadist discourse has spread on these transnational networks. This intrusion, much like the western wave of globalization, has not been universally welcomed and many Muslims view this radicalism as alien to local cultures and values. But the political centre of gravity for Islam in Asia has shifted remarkably towards intolerance and more devout observance. This trend has intensified since the 9/11 attacks on the US and the subsequent war on terror, and on the Internet, it is amplified by shared grievances within a global community of outraged believers who post in an echo chamber of escalating extremist diatribes.

FORSEA’s Saskia E. Wieringa writes about the pace of Islamization in Indonesia.

Arabisation in Indonesia is propelling Islamic fundamentalism with proposals to ban alcohol, extra-marital sex, imposition of sharia in some regions and a surge in blasphemy cases. Since the 1990s, public discourse about the role of Islam in Indonesian society has shifted towards more fundamentalist views in line with global trends. What is striking, however, about Indonesian politics is Islamic parties’ lack of success in national elections. The hard-line message has not resonated at the national level. Yet undeniably there has been growing support for purifying Islam and encouraging stricter observance in a society, notably including the island of Java which has the largest population in Indonesia, where attitudes have long been more relaxed and tolerant (Woodward 2017)

Habib Muhammad Rizieq Shihab (also known as Habib Rizieq) founder of Islamic Defenders Front, now sheltering in Saudi Arabia. Wikipedia Commons

Alumni of the Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia (LIPIA) established and operated with Saudi funding include Laskar Jihad founder Jafar Umar Thalib. Laskar Jihad recruited Muslims to fight Christians in Ambon, where some 5,000 people were killed and more than 700,000 displaced in communal violence between 1999 and 2002 when it was disbanded. Another prominent graduate is Habib Rizieq, exiled head of the FPI that ousted the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta in 2017 on trumped up charges of blasphemy. Ostensibly driven by an Islamic agenda, it is a mass populist organisation that is dismissed by some as a thuggish vigilante group that targets vice and also serves as a cat’s paw for political interest groups. Subsequently the tables were turned, and Habib Rizieq was accused of blasphemy leading him to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia to avoid prosecution.

Islamists have also ignited contemporary identity wars in Bangladesh because they can’t abide secularism as hard-line clerics incite violence to overturn constitutional principles and the rule of law. It is also clear that since 1975 the military has revamped national identity with an Islamic essence. Arabisation has influenced the evolution of this identity, flooding the country with funding for institutional networks of influence that propagate a Salafist Islam that challenges secularism and tolerance (Khan 2017, 192). This military tolerated and Saudi financed infusion of Bangladeshi nationalism with a stronger Muslim identity has come at the expense of religious and ethnic minorities by promoting fanaticism and extremism (Lintner 2002). The appeal became evident in the mid-1980s when some 3,000 Bangladeshis joined the jihad in Afghanistan, returning with fighting skills and a radical Islamic ethos (Hasan 2011).

There are interesting parallels between Indonesia and Bangladesh as they navigate the crosscurrents of globalization and Arabisation. Both nations embrace a secular identity in their respective constitutions, but this has been challenged ever since they achieved independence by Islamic groups who seek to impose shariah and establish an Islamic state. A secular national identity has been maintained, but this has involved significant concessions to Islamic hardliners.

Unelected pressure groups in both nations have exploited democracy and electoral politics to force secular leaders to grant concessions. Indeed, President Joko Widodo selected an Islamic hardliner as his running mate for the 2019 elections in order to fend off the prospects of an Islamic attack campaign like the one that unseated his close ally in the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign in 2017. Choosing a vice-presidential running mate who supported that campaign may have disappointed some Jokowi supporters, but represented a vital risk management strategy (Schafer 2019). PM Sheik Hasina has also adopted a carrot and stick approach of symbolic concessions and harsher measures. By catering to Islamist groups outside the parliamentary system, she is empowering radical clerics and their mobs and there had been a marked authoritarian trend on her watch.

In pushing an illiberal agenda, hard-line clerics have elicited illiberal responses from Jokowi and Hasina, thus sacrificing the tolerance and democratic values they putatively are trying to save.  Marcus Mietzner calls this phenomenon, ‘democratic deconsolidation’ (Mietzner 2018a), a retreat from the values that contribute to political stability, heralding an escalation of religious-centered identity politics. The defense of democracy is best served, he argues, by deploying democratic means and the rule of law, not by criminalizing or adopting accommodationist policies. Banning only strengthens and further radicalizes targeted organisations, gifting them an incendiary issue to rally around while pandering is a slippery slope of incessant demands by those who insist on an Islamic national identity.

Othering in Sri Lanka and Myanmar

Orthographic map of Sri Lanka. Wikipedia Commons

Sri Lanka quickly moved towards majoritarian rule by adopting a language policy in 1956 that favoured the Sinhalese majority at the expense of the Tamil minority. This move replaced English with Sinhalese as the official language, thereby restricting civil servant posts to Sinhalese speakers. Subsequently in the 1970s education policies were enacted that favoured Sinhalese applicants and the 1978 Constitution gave precedence to Buddhism as the national religion, the faith of the Sinhalese majority; Tamils are largely Hindu or Christian. The civil war was instigated by Tamil extremists who established the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which pressured Tamils to boycott elections and thereby undermined Tamil moderate parties. The LTTE engaged in assassinations and ambushes, provoking a harsh military response that began in 1983 and escalated thereafter. For the next quarter of a century, Sri Lankan was a fortress democracy, run by civilian politicians heavily reliant on the military, including a brief Indian military intervention (1997-90), and besieged by a terrorist organisation (DeVotta 2005). It was a time of majoritarian excesses, limited civil liberties, and a rule by law targeting presumed enemies of the state. In LTTE controlled areas, majoritarian malevolence by Tamils was also the norm, targeting Muslims, Sinhalese and even Tamils who did not support the LTTE (Hoole 2001).

During the civil war, maintaining Sinhalese solidarity meant Othering Tamils, a hatemongering that was propagated by politicians, the media and even Buddhist monks. The end of the war burst the balloon of solidarity on both sides as people took stock of their lives and sacrifices. The government and its minions quickly moved to target Muslims as the new unifying threat, again relying on politicians, the media, and monks to promote an Othering based on the politics of hate and fearmongering.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the World Economic Forum session in Jordan on 15 May 2009. Wikipedia Commons

The civil war took a heavy toll on Sri Lankan democracy, human rights and civil society (Stone 2014). President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the civil war in presiding over a massive slaughter of civilians in 2009, had run the national government like a family business or as his critics suggested, like a Don in a Mafia clan. Nepotism and corruption were rife, but the power of the Rajapaksa clan was unassailable until it wasn’t. Rajapaksa, called snap elections in 2014 confident of victory, unaware that his kleptocracy had unified his disparate opponents (DeVotta 2016). He was defeated unexpectedly in the 2015 elections and some allege that India was involved because it was unhappy with Colombo’s cozying up to Beijing. Whatever the case, Rajapaksa discovered to his regret that Sri Lankan democracy was still functioning and the people had found him wanting, especially the Tamils and the Muslims who overwhelmingly voted for his opponent Mathripala Sirasena, a former member of his cabinet who mutinied and managed to win enough disaffected Sinhalese votes to pull off a remarkable victory.

The anti-Muslim BBS was launched by the Rajapaksa clan to whip up a unifying anti-Muslim frenzy that served the government’s authoritarian agenda (Haniffa 2016). Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, BBS secretary general the Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, enjoyed strong government support. Gnanasara is a notorious monk, who draws tens of thousands to rallies and has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Muslims were targeted as the new Other to vilify and promote national solidarity (Kingston 2019). Mobs inspired by his incendiary speeches have looted and burned Muslim shops while sympathetic media have stoked anxieties about an imagined Muslim tidal wave that will demographically swamp the Sinhalese majority. This virulent ethnoreligious majoritarian nationalism unleashed by Rajapaksa and his minions may have unified Sinhalese but also unified minorities to support the opposition and bring his downfall. Since the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 by an Islamic terrorist group, the BBS and like-minded organizations have claimed vindication and ridden a wave of anti-Muslim sentiments (Hoole 2019).

Portrait of Ne Win, a military commander who served as Prime Minister and President of Burma. Ne Win was Burma’s military dictator during the Socialist Burma period of 1962 to 1988. Wikipedia Commons

Following a coup in 1961, military strongman Ne Win took over and imposed the Burmese Way to Socialism, a recipe for transforming one of Southeast Asia’s leading economies into a basket case. He also derailed democracy, confiscated ethnic Indians’ assets, and intensified counterinsurgency operations in several ongoing ethnic conflicts. Under Ne Win, the controversial 1982 Citizenship Act that rendered Rohingya stateless, and proposed a hierarchy of citizenship status, was enacted. In 1988 the military junta that nudged him into retirement mowed down, jailed and hounded into exile pro-democracy protestors in Rangoon (Yangon). Believing the people sufficiently cowed, and the elections suitably rigged, the military junta held elections in 1991 that it lost in a landslide to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). It ignored the democratic voice of the people and slow-walked a democratic transition over the next two decades, imposing the 2008 Constitution that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from being President and grants the military veto power over any reforms by reserving 25% of the seats for it in the parliament. This means it can block any revision to the Constitution since this requires >75% support in parliament. This democracy in shackles preserves the military’s power while shifting responsibility to a nominally civilian-led government; like Bangladesh, ostensibly democratic but essentially authoritarian (Riaz 2019).

Prior to the 2015 elections, won again by the NLD in a landslide, the government of former general Thein Sein passed legislation regulating marriage and family that was seen as a sop to religious hardliners and their Islamophobic agenda. Even so, voters repudiated Thein Sein’s military-in-mufti government, suggesting that hatred for the army trumped anti-Muslim prejudice. On his watch there were outbreaks of serious communal violence against Muslims by Buddhist mobs, in some cases involving monks. Ashin Wirathu was one of these rabble-rousing monks who propelled 969, a movement to boycott Muslim shops, into the headlines and later joined MaBaTha, a Buddhist religious organisation that he made synonymous with Islamophobia through social media and street protests. His messaging exacerbated ethnoreligious tensions and incited violence, while conferring a legitimacy of sorts on the military’s ethnic clearance operations targeting the Islamic Rohingya minority in western Rakhine state. He also rallied public support for the anti-Rohingya operations in defiance of international condemnations. Here again the politics of the street played a role in government policy, although it was a case of preaching to the converted. In the 2015 elections the NLD did not support a single Muslim candidate and Aung San Suu Kyi has been resolute in defending the military from international condemnations, even at the International Court of Justice in 2019, despite the damage to her reputation.

Militant Monks

Orthographic map of Myanmar. WIkipedia Commons

Wirathu is the heavy metal rock star monk of Buddhism in Myanmar. He graced the cover of Time magazine on July 1, 2013 and was described as ‘The Face of Buddhist Terrorism.’ Such notoriety doesn’t come easy, but Wirathu has made a name for himself through high profile hatemongering on social media and cultivation of mainstream domestic and international media. He promoted race and religion laws in 2015 while stoking Buddhist ethnoreligious nationalism and Islamophobia (Walton 2017). While MBT is now banned and Wirathu is a quasi-fugitive from justice, the influence of both remains resilient.

The government did little to interfere with Wirathu’s demonstrations, lending credence to rumors about his links to state security forces. In the run up to the 2015 elections, Wirathu and the MBT stirred up communal violence aimed at boosting voter support for the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the military’s political arm. The idea was that chaos would attract the electorate to a party committed to firm security measures and undermine the appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s untested NLD. This proved a colossal miscalculation and the NLD won in a landslide. The politics of fear mongering could not dissuade the people from voting for change as the USDA was decimated at the polls, losing 301 seats in both houses to win just 41 seats overall versus the 390 won by the NLD.

This overwhelming repudiation of the USDA probably had more to do with its military ties and its record of brutality than a rejection of the MBT’s signature agenda.  The four bills known as ‘Laws for the Protection of Race and Religion’ that the MBT helped draft and persuaded the USDA to pass in 2015, appear to enjoy widespread public support. Huge rallies gathered to celebrate passage of the legislation that regulates Buddhist women’s marriage, religious conversion, population control, and monogamy, tapping into widespread anxieties and resentment towards Muslims, whipped up the MBT (Walton 2015).

MBT ultranationalists wrap an angry ethnic Burman nationalism targeting minorities in the saffron robes of religion. Conferring religious sanction on the pogroms and harassment confers a veneer of legitimacy on this intolerant ethnonationalism. The MBT dominates the political space regarding Buddhism’s role in society, even after the State Sangha council banned it. MBT is certainly more than its anti-Islamic activism, but this is a significant aspect of the organisation’s activities, giving it wide exposure and influence over debate, while defining them as ‘defenders of the faith.’  Not everyone in the MBT felt comfortable with the racist vitriol, but dissenters have been intimidated by the brutishness on display.

FORSEA co-founder and leading Burmese genocide scholar, Maung Zarni, delivered a blistering expose of Myanmar’s most influential Buddhist monk today, Nyar Neik Tha Ra (better known as abbot Sitagu) for his instrumental role in the spread of violent Islamophobia.

The MBT enjoyed legitimacy among not only nationalists, but also those who were anxious about the profound socio-economic upheaval and influx of foreign influences that threatened the way of life they were familiar with. Buddhism was the anchor people relied on in the maelstrom of sweeping changes and the MBT tapped into those anxieties and offered support not just in terms of legal reforms but also in various educational, welfare and disaster relief activities. The MBT’s strident vilification of Islam also resonated with the nation’s Buddhists because they share the organization’s alarmist views of Islam as a religion prone to violence, aggressive conversions, intolerance of other faiths, mistreatment of women, high fertility and ultimate goal of imposing shariah law.

Although the government ban on MBT called for removal of all signage around the nation, local affiliates have defied this order and it still engages in a variety of social welfare services while some affiliates in this decentralized group have rebranded as Buddha Dharma Philanthropy. Supporters might not back the involvement in politics or the hatemongering, but at the community level MBT is associated with educational, legal aid, disaster relief and welfare initiatives that provide tangible benefits while its Buddhist Sunday classes are enormously popular (Walton 2016). MBT is a powerful voice on moral and spiritual issues and attends to the sense of crisis swirling through a nation navigating rapid transformations. Wirathu’s counterpart in Sri Lanka admires and envies what he has accomplished, and they have exchanged visits.

‘Trump is a good man and I pray for him every day,’ Gnanasara told me when we met at his temple in April 2017, later bragging that he is even better than US President Donald Trump. Gnanasara’s praise for Trump came when I asked him about the president’s Muslim travel ban.

Gnanasara whips crowds into a frenzy, passionately exhorting Buddhists to rise up and protect what is being threatened—their Sinhalese Buddhist identity. At a mass rally, he proclaimed, ‘This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race’.

Farzana Haniffa, a sociologist at the University of Colombo, told me BBS was launched in 2012 to mobilize militant monks and the public against Muslims because the state was looking for a new enemy to help unify the Sinhalese community (Interview April 2017). President Gotobaya Rajapaksa (2019-), at that time Defense Minister and brother of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015), openly supported BBS, enabling it to operate with impunity even as its gangs roamed the country attacking Muslim targets. State sponsorship endowed BBS with impunity, power and funding, but when the Rajapaksa government was ousted in the 2015 elections, this meant that the BBS lost its patron and protector.

In June 2016, when I asked ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa about his support for Buddhist extremism, he downplayed allegations linking his family to BBS, but defended the violence, saying that monks, ‘are only human.’ The Rajapaksa family is also associated with the Lion’s Blood campaign of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that suddenly became ubiquitous following his shocking defeat in the 2015 elections.

Again, a smiling Rajapaksa denied involvement, saying it emerged from the people’s will. The name Sinhale refers to what many consider the proper traditional name for the island nation. The posters and ubiquitous stickers depict a lion, an iconic symbol of bravery on the national flag holding a kastane sword, and below it the name is written in Sinhalese. The Lion and the script for Sinha (lion) are in yellow while le (blood) is written in red.  The stickers became ubiquitous on shop fronts and on taxis, buses, motorcycles, while graffiti depicting the image appeared in Muslim neighborhoods. The Sinhale campaign is similar to the 969 campaign in Myanmar, enabling consumers and clients to know who they are dealing with, but it is also more menacing. The campaign asserting a resurgent Sinhalese nationalism serves as a threatening reminder of a willingness to sacrifice blood to preserve the nation’s Buddhist character.

Gnanasara bristles at the suggestion that BBS monks are militants, asserting their activism is justified because it defends Sinhalese culture. ‘So when they (Christians and Muslims) come to disturb us, we are fighting, but that does not mean we are militants’. He adds, ‘Buddhism does not mean that you should allow anything to happen’. Sri Lanka, he warns, is overly tolerant, asserting that such tolerance doesn’t exist in any Muslim majority nation. If nothing is done to stop the creeping Islamicisation of Sri Lanka, he believes that intolerance will prevail.

Gnanasara contends that 21st century Islam is more threatening and militant and that it is necessary to fight extremism with extremism. The impact of Arabisation in relatively poor and backward nations like Sri Lanka has been enormous, providing resources that plug gaps in local government programs and thus endow recipients with enormous influence.  In his view, the character of Islam has changed dramatically in the past two decades and the state authorities have been remiss in not understanding what is at stake. The threat comes from the Middle East as Saudi money has poured in to promote mosque building and establishing religious education centers (madrasa) where students are taught what he terms ‘jihadist’ Islam. He contends that the number of Muslim women wearing the veil has dramatically increased and that younger Muslim migrant workers who return from the Mideast are bringing back more fundamentalist Islamic beliefs that are sharpening communal divisions by undermining the basis of co-existence. In his view, the problem is not Islam per se, but rather what he terms jihadist Islam and the cultural wars they instigate by challenging established patterns.

Gnanasara insists he will fight ‘until such time that a leader can say that this is a country of Sinhalese Buddhists’. That doesn’t seem to entertain the diversity that now prevails in an island where one quarter of the population is not Sinhalese Buddhist. This fusion of ethnic and religious identities endows Sinhalese nationalism with enormous power that is used to target minorities and nurture an angry solidarity at odds with Buddhist precepts. It is hatemongering under the guise of protecting the sangha, but in a solidly Buddhist majority country where the state is committed by the Constitution ‘to give to Buddhism the foremost place’ and to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana (teachings of Buddha) it is hard to see any urgent threat.

Looking back over the first five years of BBS, Gnanasara proclaimed himself satisfied that his message about, ‘cultural destruction and the threat of Islamisation’ has become mainstreamed, claiming this a major success. Professor Haniffa, who is Muslim, laments that he is essentially right because in her view anti-Muslim sentiments have become mainstreamed, largely due to his efforts. He denounces the Dalai Lama for calling on Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to end violence towards Muslims. Conversely, he praises Wirathu whose agenda and tactics inspire BBS. In particular he was envious of Wirathu’s success in promoting legal changes that restrict inter-faith marriage, the conversion of Buddhists to Islam and family size.

There are interesting parallels between the two charismatic monks. Gnanasara and Wirathu espouse similar xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into immoral polygamous marriages, and penchant for swindling Buddhists and taking advantage of their tolerance and passivity (Schonthal 2015). Both conjure up a Muslim demographic explosion that does not exist. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities with small Muslim communities, and both nations have experienced prolonged ethnic conflicts that have left deep scars, undermined trust and civility and lowered barriers to violence (Schonthal and Walton 2016). Out of this cauldron, both nations now have powerful and popular extremist Buddhist nationalist organisations led by hatemongering saffron-robed monks. The main difference is that MaBaTha has actually delivered a range of social services and engaged in educational initiatives whereas these remain aspirations for BBS. Ma Ba Tha is much more than hatemongering bigotry whereas the BBS hasn’t done much else and appears to have limited capacity to escape from Gnanasara’s seething shadow. Currently, Wirathu is a fugitive from justice while Gnanasara looks resurgent, claiming vindication for his Islamophobia following the terrorist Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 blamed on Islamic extremists. In this respect, the return of his patrons to power in the November 2019 elections may herald an escalation of communal tensions and an authoritarian response.


Religious organizations do more than attend to the spiritual needs of their adherents. This spiritual role endows religious leaders with moral authority and enhances their power to mobilize followers for various ends, including political machinations. Buddhist and Islamic organizations in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia and Bangladesh are enmeshed in elite political networks and these uncivil societies are deployed to serve and preserve hierarchies of power. There are good examples of mobocracy in Asia drawing attention to the grievances of the common man against the powerful, and propelling reform in flawed democracies, but the cases examined here suggest that mobs are another contrivance in the elite’s political toolkit rather than a weapon of the weak. Just as it is a fallacy to equate elections with democracy it is also naïve to equate mobs with grassroots activism by the disenfranchised challenging entrenched elites. Bangladesh has mainstreamed the mob in its hartal posturing, but even in the other nations where mobocracy is not so embedded, the politics of the street provide a pretext for security crackdowns that narrow the space for democracy and civil rights. In each of these apparent democracies there has been authoritarian creep as governments enact laws and resort to extrajudicial tactics to preserve secular democracy even as they betray its principles.

The power of religion to command unquestioned loyalty and discipline among the devoted empowers religious hardliners but precisely because the mob is threatening to the established order, it can also serve as a pretext for repression. Ostensibly democratic but essentially authoritarian, Bangladesh’s hybrid democracy is a sign of the times in Asia where democratic backsliding is widespread.

The wave of Arabization that has engulfed Asia has provoked an ethnoreligious nationalistic backlash from Buddhists while also promoting a less tolerant identity among Muslims in the region. Culture wars fought over identity have escalated in response to this Saudi funded wave of Salafism seeking to recalibrate the role of religion in society and in the lives of the faithful. The emergence of an intensified and malevolent majoritarianism incited by this Arabization is a profound challenge to the region’s secular democracies and minorities in diverse societies. The anxieties and piety stirred by Arabization are a significant factor in the spread of illiberal democracy and erosion of tolerance in diverse societies that depend on it. Asia’s ebbing tide of secularism propelled by uncivil society represents a grave threat to the region’s political stability and citizen’s freedom from fear and authoritarian menace.

Jeff Kingston
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. He is author and editor of a dozen books, including Press Freedom in Japan (Routledge 2017), Japan’s Foreign Relations (2018), Japan (Polity 2019), Press Freedom in Asia (Routledge2019) and the Politics of Religion, Nationalism and Identity in Asia (Rowman & Littlefield 2019).

Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect FORSEA’s editorial stance.


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Posted by Jeff Kingston

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. He is author and editor of a dozen books, including Press Freedom in Japan (Routledge 2017), Japan’s Foreign Relations (2018), Japan (Polity 2019), Press Freedom in Asia (Routledge2019) and the Politics of Religion, Nationalism and Identity in Asia (Rowman & Littlefield 2019).