Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 7 2017 05:00AM

On 3 February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a harrowing report on the violence happening against Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. This was based on hundreds of interview conducted in January 2017 among refugee communities that had just crossed the border into Bangladesh. The report is disturbing, and is greater evidence that crimes against humanity are occurring.

The methodology appears careful and thorough. In addition to narrative testimony from recently arrived refugees, the investigators used photographs of physical injuries (only those photographs that they had taken themselves) which were examined by a team of medical professionals. The photographic and narrative evidence was found to line up, supporting allegations of horrendous abuse. Additionally, the report used comparisons of satellite photos from before and after October 2016 to demonstrate the burning or leveling of Muslim-majority villages.

Many of the findings of the report are too graphic and disturbing to be described again here, so I encourage those who are strong enough to read the original report. Some facts worth noting, though, are the 90,000 displaced people--just since October 2016, the 65% of the interviewees who reported killings, and 43% of the interviewees who reported rape on the part of Myanmar security forces. The report also acknowledges that these figures likely underreport the violence occurring, especially sexual violence. I also want to point out that the report states "Influential and respected members of the community, particularly teachers, imams, religious scholars and community leaders were reportedly specifically targeted." This suggests, by targeting religious functionaries, that the security forces were not only attacking the local population, but were specifically trying to undermine the Islamic religion. Additionally, the report found incidental evidence (this was outside its strict mandate) of further restrictions on religious practices, like prayer, wearing of beards, and burial of Muslim dead. Much like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forcing Muslims to eat pork, this appears to be a flagrant sign of genocidal intent (my analysis--not the report's). Finally, the report concludes that "the recent level of violence is unprecedented."

In an interesting twist, there was also big news out of Rakhine today that a Buddhist monastery head in northern Rakhine has been caught with millions of methamphetamine pills. In Indonesia, everyone knows that there is a strong correlation between high levels of local governmental corruption and the local imposition of Islamically-inspired bylaws; might violence against non-Buddhists in Rakhine be a cover for other nefarious activities by non-Muslim leaders?

One of the most stunning things in this context is how ASEAN's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights seems to be falling down on the job. There are no results when one searches their website for Rohingya or Rakhine. The events taking place are unambiguously in violation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by all states (including Myanmar) in 2012. (Find downloadable versions of the Declaration in English and Burmese on the Commission's website.) The press release of the Commission's most recent meeting makes no statement about current events. Much more is needed. I cannot say I am surprised at ASEAN's non-interference, as this is a long-standing characteristic of the body, but I am disappointed. The crimes against humanity in Northern Rakhine seem to me to be a major test case for ASEAN's human rights aspirations. When a case is so flagrant, can the body bring itself to say something?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 31 2017 11:00AM

Over the last week, I and so many others have been riven by policies of the new United States putting Muslims and minorities in jeopardy and, in the words of one federal judge, potentially causing “irreparable harm” to them. More concern arose when it became clear that a mosque in Quebec was the victim of an anti-Islamic terrorist attack.

In this same time span, though, there have been some concerning developments from Myanmar that should not fall off the radar screen, impacting religious minorities. Of course, the most beleaguered religious minority in the country is the Muslims, both Rohingya and otherwise. The Rohingya continue to be subject to ongoing oppression inside Burma’s borders. Now a large block of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh are facing a blow to their safety and security as the government there has announced they will be moved to basically a sand bank in the ocean that is not yet big or permanent enough to appear on Google Earth. It is already hard for Rohingya to get out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh, but this news makes the recognized refugee populations who have crossed the border much more vulnerable as they continue to await international action.

Perhaps the loudest news from Myanmar over the weekend was the assassination of one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers, a leader who happened to have been Muslim, U Ko Ni. (U is his honorific; some news reports give his name without this title.) U Ko Ni was a well-known activist dating back to the 1988 Student Movement, a prominent advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and a loud voice for equal protection under the law. He was shot in broad daylight, in cold blood, at the arrivals terminal of Yangon airport-- incidentally just having returned from a visit to Indonesia on official business-- while holding a toddler (his grandson) in his arms. Taxi drivers at the airport heroically chased down the assassin, but one among them was shot dead, leaving behind a wife and three children, including an infant only 45 days old. This attack appears to have been planned and coordinated; the attacker knew when the U Ko Ni was due back in the country, and traveled far from his reported home in Mandalay to commit this violence. Although the assassination severely heightens tensions, it has also brought some shows of solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, as the funeral was attended by a broad cross-section of society, including Buddhist monks.

Finally, although not so eye-catching, last week brought a development for two Kachin Baptist pastors in the north of the country, who will go on trial for their involvement in documenting and passing on to reporters information of a November attack on a Catholic church. The pastors have been missing and unreachable for over a month, but now the government has (under pressure) announced it was holding them and will be charging them with unlawful association with an armed ethnic insurgency. The bombing of the Catholic church building was originally claimed by the Burmese military-- with an accusation that the building had been storing munitions for ethnic fighters-- before they later denied any involvement and blamed the insurgents for the attack. Christians from across the spectrum have rejected the army’s new story, but the whole case is definitely putting a dark cloud over Christian activities.

I think it is useful to put the fates of Muslim and Christian minorities in Myanmar side-by-side, because they face similar challenges being simultaneously ethnic and religious minorities and very often opposing the still-powerful Burmese military. The only silver lining here might be that the discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional new policy in the US does give priority to refugees who are persecuted in their home countries for following a minority religion, so maybe Trump’s administration will allow in more Muslims and Christians from Burma?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 03:31PM

The opening keynote of the Southeast Asia Symposium was given by Dr José Ramos-Horta, well-known for being not only the former president and former prime minister of Timor-Leste, but also his 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. He also gave what I (and some colleagues I spoke with) found a more engaging talk to the public to kick off the Festival of Southeast Asia last Tuesday night. I don’t know if it was the topic, the hour, or the audience, but he seemed both more open and personal—in addition to hitting on topics of interest to me—on Tuesday night. Three general points seem worthy to report on here.

First, Dr Ramos-Horta shared some rather amusing stories from his previous time in Oxford. He was invited to come by Peter Carey (my colleague and predecessor teaching Southeast Asian history here), who called on him in 1984 to take time off to study so as to prepare for Timor Leste’s future. (In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr Ramos-Horta was travelling around the world as an activist for the Timorese cause; he described this in the lecture as ‘organizing street protests’ rather than any formal or concerted diplomacy.) He came in 1986, but his main point of academic study at the time was southern African politics, connected with the Timorese leadership in exile in Mozambique. During his time at St Antony’s College, he describes the hall’s food as ‘oscillating between bad and worse’, so he often ate at High Table and thus managed to rack up a bit of a bill. When he left college without settling the tab (money was understandably tight for the kind of organizer he was), the college bursar managed to find his address for ever-increasing bills over the next seven years. No matter if he went around the US or in Europe or Asia, somehow St Antony’s knew how to track him down, and the interest kept compiling. Finally, with admiration for British bureaucratic doggedness and enthusiasm, he settled the tab which had grown to exceed £500.

Second, Dr Ramos-Horta had some interesting things to say in connection with Myanmar. He has been engaged with Myanmar for over two decades, and described giving the ‘first ever human rights training program’ in Myanmar in 1994, teaching NLD and Karen activists in the jungle after he had entered the country illegally. The real points of interest, though, related to his absolute refusal to condemn any actions of (fellow Oxfordian and Peace Prize Laureate) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course, in both popular and academic accounts she has come under fire for her silence on the persecution of Muslims and her strong-arm tactics setting an unexpected party list for the elections and compromises with the military and other shady characters. Dr Ramos-Horta said (an actual quote I recorded), ‘I will not criticize Suu Kyi.’ He believes that she has to stabilize her country first, and he sees her as following the same strategy he did in Timor Leste by working with her opponents, gaining their trust, and understanding them. When Timorese young guns criticize Ramos-Horta and his long-time associate and fellow leader of the Timorese people Xanana Gusmao over the issue of justice, Ramos-Horta’s response is that they must fight not only with their convictions but also with their brains.

This connects also with the third big theme that I wanted to highlight: Ramos-Horta’s perceptions of the relationship with Indonesia. This probably surprised me the most, with the night including such strong quotes as ‘There are no two countries in Asia who have a better relationship than Timor Leste and Indonesia.’ When in the context of a talk that unabashedly criticized the conditions of the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, and certainly in the context of Ramos-Horta’s career, this Indonesia-loving was unexpected for me. Ramos-Horta’s position is that the fight was not against Indonesia, per se, but against an unjust regime. He explained it by saying that Timor Leste never claimed to have defeated Indonesia, but rather his country became free because the Indonesians freed themselves. He highlighted his good working relationship with (former general and former Indonesian president) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from the negotiations in 1999 that withdrew the Indonesian military from the territory to their overlapping presidencies, when SBY and JR-H agreed to set up an international centre on reconciliation as a model for other nations coming out of conflict. Ramos-Horta strongly defended the choice to form a ‘Truth and Friendship Commission’ with Indonesia and not to pursue any form of international tribunal (or even a national tribunal for collaborators in Timor Leste), arguing that ‘an international tribunal would not serve the cause of peace, stability, democratization.’ He also was very cold on other movements struggling for independence against the Indonesian state. Although Ramos-Horta described himself as a friend of Acehnese leader Hassan di Tiro in New York for many years, he says he never supported Acehnese independence. More shocking to me was that he very explicitly does not want to endorse West Papuan independence—rather, he went on the record saying that Indonesia must solve the situation, and that Papua is a part of a sovereign Indonesia. After his condemnations of the situation of occupation, this struck me as a surprising incongruity, but the case he made was that Timor Leste and Papua had very different situations under international law, and that he does not want to meddle.

The former president’s speech ranged much more broadly, including Israel-Palestine, corruption, North Korea, UN operations and bureaucracy, and the nature of ‘foreign experts’, just to name a few. Those interested in hearing the whole thing can check out St Antony’s podcasts, which recorded the event. (Unsurprisingly, some of the more Oxfordian experiences don’t come through on an audio recording, like Matthew Walton’s gentle prodding of the president to actually answer the questions posed, or Eugene Rogan’s absolutely masterful handling of the room in the face of a tricky audience member, or the really beautiful presentation of the college scarf to the former member by Phyllis Ferguson.) It is always interesting to hear from a distinguished international leader like José Ramos-Horta, but last Tuesday felt especially engaging for me, and especially Oxford.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 1 2016 02:38PM

The news out of Myanmar this week is exciting, as they inaugurate a new president (a close deputy of Aung San Suu Kyi) and two new vice-presidents (a Burman Buddhist general and a Chin Christian). My most esteemed Burmese colleague here at Oxford described to me how moving she found the ceremony, where the incoming government had chosen a song about how one must pass midnight to reach the dawn. In any case, the first civilian head of state in 50+ years is a good step toward democratization and rule of law.

Another move, though, looks a little more ambivalent or questionable when it comes to solidifying Myanmar’s path towards the rule of law. The parliament is debating a proposal that would give Aung San Suu Kyi extraordinary powers, basically turning her into a functional prime minister, since she has been denied the presidency. This would be skirting the constitution by changing sub-constitutional law (‘rule by law’ more than ‘rule of law’), but proponents may very well be right that it would reflect the wishes of the voters last November.

Very interestingly, this also follows an Indonesian precedent. I have several times heard Burmese folks talking about the ‘Indonesian model’ for transition from a military dictatorship to a functional democracy (multi-ethnic, with the daughter of the first president, etc. etc.), so much so that I was asked to speak about Indonesia’s transition to democracy when I visited Yangon in 2014. In this case, though, the precedent that Myanmar is following is not from the 1998 overthrow of the Suharto regime (which is the model they usually refer to), but rather the 1945 revolution to overthrow colonialism in Indonesia.

When Indonesia declared independence in August 1945, it immediately promulgated a constitution with a strong presidential system. The president, Sukarno, was a leading nationalist figure whose profile had only grown under the Japanese occupation, a Javanese man, not particularly pious, but heavy on charisma. He was balanced out by Mohammad Hatta, a deeply devout Sumatran with plenty of administrative sensibility. (This is not terribly unlike the balancing act to choose the president and two vice-presidents of Myanmar.) The problem was, after several weeks, the Indonesians found that the presidential system (which they had also set up with only one state political party) was not really working, even in the context of Indonesia’s nascent political consciousness. So, as I have outlined for the End of Empire project, Vice-President Hatta issued a declaration two months into independence that fundamentally changed the system of government without amending the constitution. From late October 1945, Indonesia had a Prime Minister overseeing a Working Party from the parliament—a system much closer to what they were accustomed to from the Dutch model that many Indonesians had observed.

How did this extra-constitutional, prime ministerial arrangement work out for the Indonesians? Pretty well, at first. The 1949 and 1950 temporary constitutions (the first Dutch-backed, the second more autochthonous) both enshrined the Prime Minister as the head of government, while holding onto the President and Vice-President as important figureheads. According to the superb research of Adnan Buyung Nasution, that was also the intention of the constitution that had been basically agreed by the Constituent Assembly of 1956-59 before it was dissolved. In the end, though, the Prime Ministerial system fell when it was unilaterally abrogated by President Sukarno (backed by the army), because he wanted to accrue more power unto himself, ostensibly to break through deadlock in the country. The president and the army re-implemented the original 1945 constitution from July 1959—without the broadly-agreed provision to set a Prime Minister on top of the on-paper arrangements—to reinforce their power as the country drifted towards authoritarianism. That same strong-presidential system was useful for the later strongman Suharto, and had to be tempered by constitutional amendments after Suharto’s fall (e.g., term limits on a president).

In the end, my evaluation is that this kind of extra-constitutional arrangement might be a temporary fix, but should not be relied on in the long-term. Of course, perhaps the MPs in Myanmar only intend to make this arrangement for the extraordinary personage of Daw Suu, but that raises different questions about the respect for rule of law in balance with the charismatic personality of a particular leader. Of all the Indonesian precedents to follow, this one is not my favourite.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 22 2015 11:10PM

The news from the last two weeks out of Myanmar has been very good, with my most-trusted election observer calling the polls "mostly fair" and hailing the outcome as reflecting the will of the people, even while decrying the violence and manipulation that marred several districts. (That violence seems to have gotten worse after the election in Shan State, which should cause us all serious concern.)

The outcome was a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), famously led by Oxford alumna and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The next step, once the new Burmese parliament convenes in the new year, is for this body to select a new president for the country. Even though the NLD commands enough seats in parliament to select the candidate outright (despite the 25% of seats reserved for the military), Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be selected-- as my Oxford colleagues have discussed at length, the new constitution of Myanmar was written with the most stringent indigeneity requirements in the world so as to bar her from that office.

In an interview with the BBC two weeks ago, Aung San Suu Kyi laid out very frankly her "rose by any other name" plans, whereby she will field a candidate who meets the requirements of the constitution, but she personally will continue to call all the shots. She said these things so frankly, supposedly to support transparency and openness in her plans. It sounded, though, like a "puppet president" situation, which has been very problematic for at least one of the neighbors.

Indonesia's 2014 national election saw allegations of a "puppet president" candidate. The then-governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, popularly called "Jokowi," was a recent arrival on the national political scene, but he was in the party of former president and overall political strongwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri. (It bears noting that Ibu Mega and Aung San Suu Kyi have a number of parallels as the daughters of founding leaders and independence figures of their respective countries. I would not dream of making a comparison about power-hunger, though; ahem ahem.) A number of political opponents in the run-up to the presidential election alleged that Jokowi would be a mere "puppet" for Megawati, an allegation that Jokowi tried to fight against. Sadly, the idea seems to have stuck even after the election, not much helped by the fact that Megawati is doing everything she can to assert her right to control the president as a puppet. Megawati certainly does not have the levels of support in Indonesia that Aung San Suu Kyi has in Myanmar. (Ibu Mega has run unsuccessfully three times for president-- in 1999 [indirect election], 2004 and 2009 [direct elections]-- and lost every time, only being made Vice-President and being elevated to the top spot in 2000 when then-president Abdurrahman Wahid resigned.) Perhaps, though, she has similar aspirations to run the country from behind the scenes, since pesky democracy (rather than constitutional stipulations) is holding her back from being in front of the curtain.

The results in Indonesia have not been spectacular. The cabinet that Jokowi announced was a tremendous let-down, packed with Megawati's buddies with just a sprinkling of competent, open-minded leaders. My esteemed colleague Michael Buehler at SOAS has recently caused quite a ruckus in Indonesia with his revelation that lobbyists in the US filed paperwork reporting that they were working for the Indonesian executive branch in organizing Jokowi's presidential visit to Washington. (Note: I'm on the record supporting his research as responsible.) This seems to be a window on cabinet disfunction, and a president who might not be able to coordinate between his various deputies. The unwillingness of the Jokowi administration to jettison the corruption-tainted Police General Budi Gunawan (and many others in the police, and spreading elsewhere)-- seemingly because of ties to Megawati-- has also been a major disappointment. Overall, there is concern that Jokowi's administration is disfunctional because of the different interests trying to pull at the policy strings. Even if he is not a puppet president, he has certainly been battered by waves of political influence from the chairwoman of the party.

Will a puppet presidency work out better for Myanmar? One can only hope so. In Myanmar this would be more transparant (although still skirting the law), and the puppet-master would have real popular support. We are also inclined to see Aung San Suu Kyi as a more responsible figure all-around, although it should be remembered that Megawati Soekarnoputri looked like a great reformer and pro-democracy voice in the 1990s, too.

Whatever comes of this situation, we can be glad for the steps that Myanmar has already taken towards normalization and pray for the best as it continues to look to its future.

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.