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, Jan 23 2017 02:25PM

Today’s front-page, lead article in Republika, the country’s Islamic-leaning national daily paper, is entitled: “Trump to Jokowi: I have Plenty of Friends in Indonesia.” The gist of the article is that Jokowi and Trump spoke by phone as the Indonesian president offered his congratulations on the inauguration of a new American counterpart, and that they believe American-Indoneisan relations can be stronger than ever.

A particular phrase in the second paragraph sticks out, though: “according to Jokowi, Trump also has business interests in the homeland (i.e., Indonesia). Because of this, Jokowi is confident that Trump will not do anything that could disadvantage Indonesia.” * In some versions, as in Indopos, Jokowi reports that Trump literally told him over the phone "I have many business interests in Indonesia," therefore our national relations will be good. Similar lines were reported in Kompas, MetroTV, and the Jakarta Post. Trump's old friend and campaign prop, Setya Novanto, was even more bald-faced in saying that relations would be good because Trump would see Indonesia as an investment opportunity for his personal enrichment.

It will surprise no one that I am all about having lots of friends in Indonesia. On my good days, I count myself among the Americans who has a fair number of friends in this country. However, the idea that Trump will not do anything that could be detrimental to Indonesia because he has business interests here (that, implicitly, would be hit extra hard if there were any negative consequences to spread around) sounds exactly like the kind of violation of the Emoluments Clause that the drafters of the American Constitution feared.

Even if this is just how foreign leaders perceive the new American president, as subject to their influence because of his overseas business interests and vulnerability to foreign governments' policies, then it will be a foreign policy moment unlike those we have experienced before. If we believe what Indonesia's leaders are saying, this is indeed how Trump wants foreign leaders to perceive him, which is more serious.

*The article as printed in the paper version of Republika does not seem to be online, so here is the Indonesian original: "Selain itu, menurut Jokowi, Trump juga memiliki urusan bisnis di Tnaah Air. Dengan hal tersebut, Jokowi yakin Trump tidak akan melakukan sesuatu yang dapat merugikan Indonesia." If I find a link in the future, I'll be happy to post it. In the meanwhile, I have a photo if anyone wants to see the whole thing.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 16 2017 03:13PM

I think it is no secret that I really like to exercise my right to vote in American elections, and that I supported the presidential candidate who won my home state of Virginia this last autumn. Like so many people who fit that profile, I am appalled by the allegations that Russia may have tried to rig American elections. I am appalled, but not surprised. Furthermore, I am not surprised, and also struggling with whether to have feelings of indignation. This is because I know a bit too much about America’s history abroad.

For all our decrying of a foreign government meddling in our electoral process, we Americans should remember that we have frequently throughout the twentieth century been documented to meddle in other country’s elections!

When I taught Cold War history under Prof. John Lewis Gaddis (a rather outspoken conservative and pro-America historian), it was taken as a well-established fact that America had engaged in a campaign on multiple fronts to influence the Italian elections of 1948. Fearing another repeat of Czechoslovakia, where Communists had come to power through elections and immediately joined the developing Communist bloc, the US put all kinds of money plus both overt and covert actions into supporting the Christian Democrats in this election. Apparently, this tactic (using everything short of military intervention) came to be called “political warfare.” Certainly there was a campaign to get Italian-Americans to write home to relatives and discourage voting for Communists. Media events were staged to make the Christian Democrats look good. All signs point to suitcases of cash being handed to America’s preferred party. There were also engineered political stand-offs to create circumstances favorable to the Christian Democrats. Some of the interventions were just careful propaganda from abroad; some (like shipping over weapons with minimal or no reimbursement, just in case of a Communist victory) seem to have violated both US and Italian law at the time.

The case I know best, which is much less documented, is American intervention in the 1955 elections in Indonesia. Much more work has been done on the American support for a 1958 regional rebellion on Sumatra and Sulawesi, but it seems that the United States also intervened in the democratic national elections three years earlier. Indonesian historian (and priest, incidentally) Baskara Wardaya has written in his book about American policy towards Indonesia about a $1 million US dollar “donation” provided to the Masjumi party—with no strings attached. This was a tremendous sum in Indonesia in those days, but it is not entirely surprising that the CIA would dump it into a party that had both led the most pro-American administrations of Indonesia (almost explicitly crossing over to the American bloc) a few years earlier and would generate the leaders of the CIA-backed rebellion a few years later. Joseph Burkholder Smith, in his rather questionable tell-all memoir of his CIA agent days, also alleges that the US was subsidizing the Masjumi-aligned newspaper Abadi and that Masjumi’s failure to win an outright victory was a big surprise.

The big revelation from the Smith memoir, though, is the entirely believable allegation that the United States attempted to create a scandalous sex-tape with a Sukarno look-alike. The CIA apparently hired a balding Chicano actor in Los Angeles to play Sukarno, and filmed him in flagrante with a blonde woman portrayed as the wicked KGB operative pushing his policies to the left. If this is true, or even if a former CIA-agent wished people to believe it was true, it sounds an awful lot like kompromat.

So, although I am sad about recent foreign disinformation and influence games related to American elections, I’m not sure my country can throw many stones from our glass house. What the United States did in interfering with other country’s elections was morally wrong, and what the Russian Federation has done interfering in American elections was morally wrong, but no American intelligence official should claim that we do not understand or could not foresee these tactics.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 26 2016 02:49PM

Selamat Natal! (This is Indonesian for "Merry Christmas!") I'm writing this Boxing Day post to say "Selamat Natal," only because this has become such a controversial thing for Indonesian Muslims in recent years.

This year, one of the big news stories leading up to Christmas was about how the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Indonesian Ulama Council), a quasi-governmental organization that issues fatwas, or juridical decisions, for Indonesian Muslims, prohibited any Muslims from using or wearing Christmas-related accessories. (Basically, stores should not ask Muslim employees to wear Santa hats or elf costumes leading up to Christmas.) This decision came out on December 14, 2016, and lead pretty quickly to raids by the rather radical Front Pembela Islam (FPI, so-called Islamic Defenders' Front) of major shopping malls across Surabaya to look for and take action against any Muslims supporting Christmas in prohibited ways. The spiritual leader of FPI, Habib Rizieq, has also gone on his website (possibly NSFW, because of loud audio and radical views) to decry attempts at "Christmas-ization" (Natalisasi) the country's Muslims and accuse the National Human Rights Commission of totaly misunderstanding the fatwa. (Fun update: Habib Rizieq has just been reported to the National Police--again-- for blaspheming another religion.) The MUI reportedly deeply regretted the FPI's actions as inappropriate, but no one was really surprised that the fatwa would lead to this chain of events. It got picked up in the world media, including everyone's favorite American alt-right questionable-news source, and continues to be a sore point locally.

This is not the first Christmas controversy to be caused by the MUI, though. In fact, MUI Christmas controversies date back to 1981, when the first head of the MUI, Hamka (perhaps Indonesia's leading Islamic popularizer and proselytizer of the 20th century) forbade Muslims from taking part in Christmas activities such as songs, nativity plays, or school Christmas assemblies (original fatwa here). Ironically, one of Hamka's sons spoke out in 2014 to say that his late father would have disagreed with the fatwa forbidding Muslims from saying "Merry Christmas," as his father always said "Merry Christmas to you" to his Christian neighbors.

This idea of explicitly wishing Christians "Merry Christmas", though, is one of the on-going points of contention (hardliners like Habib Rizieq are strongly against it). This is probably why my Facebook feed in the last 24 hours has been chock full of Indonesian Muslims explicitly using the words "Merry Christmas" (or, in one case, "Mele Kalikimaka") for their Christian friends. This social media-based, very visible protest against the forces of arch-conservatism is Indonesian Islam at its finest.

So, Merry Christmas to all, and hopefully this post will not Christmas-ize any readers.

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.