Disputes rooted in national, regional, ethnic, and religious identity defined much of the conflict in Southeast Asia as the decade ended, and they looked set to continue in the decade ahead. It is not as if identity conflicts in Southeast Asia are anything new, but three factors in particular have affected how they have played out: the role of violent religious extremism, especially that associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the rise of majoritarian populism; and increased tension between migrants and “indigenous” peoples, particularly over land and resource issues.
Between 2014 and 2020, ISIS inspired a small but significant minority of Southeast Asian Muslims to believe that a global Islamic state could control territory, win military battles, and apply Islamic law in full. An even smaller minority responded to appeals to contribute to the struggle by joining ISIS forces in Syria or by waging war at home. The new “caliphate” changed the dynamics of violent extremism in the region but also affected risk perception, security policy, and donor priorities. Its attraction was waning by 2019, but its legacy was a conviction in the extremist fringe that an Islamic state, as an alternative to a democratic system, was both possible and worth fighting for.
Conservative majoritarian political movements in Asia—Islamic in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, Buddhist in Myanmar, and Hindu in India—generally emerged from a different set of factors than those that produced support for ISIS. They tended to be ultranationalist rather than antinationalist. Like majoritarian movements elsewhere, they were driven by a fear that the majority’s privileged position was under threat from minorities—religious, ethnic, and sometimes sexual. The movements were particularly lethal when they were backed by governments in power. When they were in opposition, as in Indonesia, they could still use popular mobilization to push a discriminatory agenda.
Many conflicts in Southeast Asia also arose with shifting relationships between “migrants”—often internal, from another part of the country—and “indigenous” residents with a distinctive culture and a particular claim to territory. Many of these were triggered by the expansion of palm oil and other plantation crops into areas officially designated state land but in fact customary land. A different kind of dispute arose with the influx of Chinese migrant workers employed on China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects and resource-extraction activities, where local resentment fed into long-standing issues of ethnic Chinese economic dominance.
These trends have added new layers of complexity to the region’s identity politics, but they have not necessarily produced creative new approaches to conflict resolution. Throughout the region, the best ideas for approaching conflict have come from local actors who can use their knowledge of communities to unpack the broader issues and tackle one or two manageable parts. Donors can give local actors technical capability such as negotiation skills, new technologies, and information about models that have worked elsewhere. But the ability to resolve conflict ultimately depends on the political will of the actors concerned, combined with the best approximation of a level playing field. Powerful actors have no reason to compromise when to resist doing so carries no political risks.
The following sections explore how ethno-nationalist conflicts, Islamist extremism, migrant-versus-indigenous disputes, and resource issues combine to shape and change identity conflicts in the region.
Ethno-Nationalism and the Global Jihad
Southeast Asia has a huge number of armed ethno-nationalist struggles for independence or autonomy, with Myanmar alone accounting for dozens. Governments call these movements “separatist”—the term is almost never used by the fighters themselves—because they aim to dislodge themselves from the rule of an ethnically distinct elite. The rise of the global jihad—first Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and then ISIS from 2013 onwards—led to fears on the part of governments in the region (and often their Western partners) that nationalist movements rooted in Muslim populations could join forces with terrorists in a way that could bring violent attacks from the periphery, where these movements were based, to the national capital or to major tourist centers.
But one can be armed and Muslim in Southeast Asia without having any interest in fighting an international “Crusader-Zionist alliance” or setting up a universal caliphate. For the most part, nationalist movements are not interested in deviating from political goals linked to a specific territory, language, culture, and/or shared history to join movements led by Middle Easterners. The Free Aceh Movement, fighting for independence from Indonesia, never showed any interest in approaches by Al-Qaeda in the early 2000s. Not only were its leaders not interested in broader ideological goals, but one of their objectives was to get Western support, which any hint of alliance with Al-Qaeda would have made impossible. The National Revolutionary Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, BRN) in Thailand’s deep south proved impervious to offers of help from foreign Islamist fighters, including from Indonesians and Malaysians eager to join. Among the Rohingya, Harekat al-Yaqin—the Arakan Salvation Army (ARSA)— has focused since its establishment in 2012 on securing for the Rohingya the full citizenship rights that other officially recognized minorities in Myanmar enjoy; although, like BRN, it has used terrorist tactics to intimidate others and punish informants. For these nationalist insurgencies, outside assistance with arms and training has sometimes been acceptable when foreign fighters were not, but at least in Southeast Asia, most Muslim ethno-nationalist groups have recognized that links to the global jihad, whether Al-Qaeda or ISIS, would be political suicide.
The Philippines has been the exception to the rule, where different factions of ethno-nationalist insurgents in the Muslim south, from the mid-1990s onwards, periodically have looked to the global jihad to help redefine identity in the face of internal disputes, retaliate for government attacks, or get access to new sources of funding. Thus, in 2000, the Special Forces unit of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgent group, worked on a series of bombings with the jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah after the Estrada government declared “all-out war” on the MILF and attacked its main camp. In 2008, a more radical splinter of the MILF emerged, as one top commander, angered by yet another setback in the interminable peace process, set up a new group called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
The declaration of a caliphate by ISIS leader Abubakr Al-Baghdadi introduced a new ideological element into the dynamics of these ethno-nationalist groups. Through the end of the five-month siege of the city of Marawi in 2017 by militants in Mindanao, the Philippines, ISIS provided an umbrella that transcended ethnic and regional identities. If, in Muslim-majority Southeast Asia, ISIS attracted support because of the appeal of the caliphate rather than local grievances, in Muslim Mindanao it fed into a narrative of discrimination, neglect, and abuse. Many fighters were drawn in by material incentives, including recruitment payments.The ideological attraction, however, was real, not just for the leaders of what came to be called the East Asia Province of Islamic State, but also for some of the middle-class recruits who had grown up in the smart-phone era and had ready access to ISIS propaganda. For them, an Islamic state seemed like a plausible alternative to corrupt democracy.
Muslim Majorities and Minorities
Whatever happens to ISIS in the Middle East, its impact on identity politics in Southeast Asia has been profound. This includes increased Islamophobia among some non-Muslim communities, and heightened government wariness of nonviolent Islamist movements—strengthened, perhaps, by a huge influx of donor funds to Southeast Asian security forces for counterterrorism training, equipment, and sophisticated surveillance technologies.
Two Buddhist-majority countries, Myanmar and Thailand, evinced very different reactions to efforts to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria. Both were driven by local dynamics rather than ISIS, but ISIS served as a backdrop to vilify Muslims as violent extremists. In Myanmar, government-directed persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority, which goes back to colonial-era alignments and post-independence politics, combined with a hugely influential Buddhist national movement called Ma Ba Tha to promote the idea of Muslims as a national security threat.Ma Ba Tha warned that Muslims—4 percent of the population as against the Buddhists’ 88 percent—would swamp the Buddhist population through in-migration, a high birth rate, and a campaign to marry and convert Buddhist women. This was a classic majoritarian narrative.
While the government made some attempt to stop Ma Ba Tha hate speech, especially after an eruption of communal violence in 2012, the movement retained a huge grassroots base through a network of monasteries. Moreover, military actions sent a different signal: that anti-Muslim mobilization was in fact state policy. In Rakhine State, attacks on security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), first in October 2016, then in August 2017, triggered savage retaliation by the Myanmar military that appeared aimed at the forcible expulsion once and for all of the Rohingya from Myanmar and resulted in more than 700,000 crossing into Bangladesh.Other Muslim ethnic groups, much smaller, suffered as well. The popularity of Ma Ba Tha ensures that the Myanmar government has no political incentive to ease its anti-Muslim stance.
In Thailand, however, successive governments have made periodic efforts at a ceasefire with the BRN rebels in the far south. In such circumstances, hate speech directed at a potential negotiating partner can be detrimental. In 2017, the unpopular Thai military government brought criminal charges against a prominent monk for his inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric, declaring him a national security threat. The government was presumably worried about sparking more violence in the deep south, but it may also have had an eye on future talks.
In Indonesia, a series of pro-ISIS terrorist attacks, most of them low tech and low casualty, including in central Jakarta in January 2016, created a heightened concern about Islamist activism. In late 2016, massive street demonstrations, organized by hard-line Islamist activists, that brought down the Christian governor of Jakarta, popularly known as Ahok, led many officials in the government to see radical Islam for the first time as an existential threat to the state. Officials tried to make a case for a linear progression from hard-line activism to violence, but not only were the leaders of the so-called 212 Movement (after the largest protest, on December 2, 2016) deeply anti-ISIS; they were also deeply nationalist. They just wanted the Indonesian state to have more of an Islamic cast, as befitted the 87 percent majority position, and to ensure that Muslim-majority areas in Indonesia were only governed by Muslims, thereby undermining constitutional guarantees of equal rights of all citizens. They had no problem with Christians governing Christian-majority areas of eastern Indonesia. While pro-ISIS extremists shunned the democratic system as promoting man-made instead of God-given law, 212 leaders saw democracy as a way to ensure majoritarian control at the expense of minority rights. They also used mass mobilization to hint at the possibility of uncontrolled mob action if their demands—in this case to arrest and try Ahok for blasphemy—were not met. They subsequently all mobilized in support of President Jokowi’s rival in the 2019 election, only to be taunted when he lost by ISIS supporters, who said that they should have known better than to trust in democracy.
One other issue emerged from the 212 Movement that will be worth watching. As is the case in other countries of Southeast Asia, tensions have emerged in Indonesia over the number of Chinese workers coming in on Belt and Road Initiative contracts to work on infrastructure projects. The 212 Movement’s activists tried to make a case that Jokowi’s dependence on China was coming about through collusion with local ethnic Chinese, like Ahok, who discriminated against pribumi (literally indigenous, but in this context meaning Muslim) entrepreneurs. There has been little anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia since the deadly 1998 riots, but unscrupulous politicians could still try to use unhappiness with Chinese workers from the mainland to stoke anti-Chinese sentiment more broadly.
Migrant vs. Indigenous
Many of the conflicts in Southeast Asia have a migrant-versus-indigenous dimension, although “indigenous” and “migrant” can both be fraught terms in multiethnic societies.The notion of outsiders coming in to dispossess the rightful owners of land or displace a traditional elite has become an important narrative of conflict in the region, especially where control over lucrative resources is involved.
Benedict Anderson, in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, showed how the idea of a nation is a constructed concept that can create powerful bonds of loyalty through shared histories written by dominant elites, with the concept of citizenship creating the myth of a shared identity that erases or obscures ethnic, racial, class, and other distinctions.Ethno-nationalist insurgencies can be understood as a challenge to that constructed history, but so are some indigenous movements that seek recognition from the nationalist projects that have overlooked or excluded them. The problem is that “indigeneity” is also a social construct, open to different interpretations. It can be defined in opposition to the state and the dominant elite, to new arrivals of different ethnicities, or to competing indigenous groups.
The different ways “indigenous” is used in Malaysia are a case in point. The term can refer specifically to the ethnic groups that make up the “First People” (Orang Asli) of the Malaysian peninsula; to the notion of “native son” (bumiputera), or Muslim Malays as opposed to the two other major ethnicities that became citizens at the time of independence, Chinese and Indians; or to non-Muslim ethnicities of Sabah and Sarawak as opposed to Malays coming from the peninsula or immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia. The state adopted the first definition, designating the Orang Asli as “wards of the state,” and thus less than full citizens, under the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954; “indigenous” carried the implication of “backward and in need of guidance.”The “native son” concept was used by the dominant elite to assert privileged status over non-Malays, relegating them to a second-class status. The third notion of “indigenous” has been used by local elites to stigmatize mostly Filipino immigrants whose undocumented arrival was deliberately encouraged by the state to alter the demographic balance in support of the ruling elite.
Another example of competing indigeneities comes from the Philippines, where Mindanao Muslims sought to define themselves in opposition to the Christian elite from the north who in the early 20th century gradually established political and economic dominance over much of the island. The 2017 law that emerged from the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), gives one definition of indigenous:
Those who, at the advent of the Spanish colonization, were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, whether of mixed or full blood, shall have the right to identify themselves, their spouses, and descendants as Bangsamoro.
This became the definition on which the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which came into being in 2019, was constituted. The problem was that this competed with an earlier definition of “indigenous cultural communities” (ICC), even though both allowed for self-ascription:
A group of people or homogeneous societies identified by self-ascription and ascription by others, who have continuously lived as organized community on communally bounded and defined territory, and who have, under claims of ownership since time immemorial, occupied, possessed, and utilized such territories, sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions, and other distinctive cultural traits, or who have, through resistance to political, social, and cultural inroads of colonization, nonindigenous religions and cultures, become historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.
But what happens when an indigenous community, living within the boundaries of the new autonomous region, claims land that the latter wants to control? The Teduray, an ICC, complained that Bangsamoro authorities had disrupted the process of its gaining title to more than 200,000 hectares of land and 12,000 hectares of water. They had submitted the claim in 2014 to the central government’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), but the new Bangsamoro administration called on the NCIP to stop any consideration of land claims falling within its jurisdiction. The Teduray called this tantamount to the perpetuation of an historical injustice, setting up the fault-lines for a potential conflict between two self-defined indigenous groups.
Indigenous-migrant conflicts, which may seem easily parsed at first glance (powerless clans versus powerful interlopers, for example) become not so simple when the terms are unpacked and the multiplicity of interests and identities revealed. “Migrant” can become a label for a vilified out-group, especially one that is ethnically distinct, economically successful, or perceived by ethnic insurgents as an extension of the state they are fighting (non-Papuan Indonesians in Papua, ethnic Bamar in Myanmar’s Kachin State). Unwanted minorities can also be defined as migrants to reinforce their pariah status, the Rohingya being the most dramatic example. The label of “migrant” in a conflict is almost always a pejorative, regardless of who uses it.
Across the region, land and resource issues are at the root of indigenous-versus-migrant conflict. In Myanmar, resource extraction in areas where ethnic insurgencies have signed ceasefire agreements with the government has led to the extension of military control and in-migration of lowland (Buddhist) Bamar to work as wage labor. This is only one aspect of center-periphery relations and subnational conflict in Myanmar, but it is an area of ongoing concern.As Kevin Woods writes:
Concessions create new forms of territory that typically require first to be “secured” and then to be policed. This helps to produce and inscribe the power and authority of those claiming to uphold the right of the concessionaire through this policing role, in this case the military-state, its laws, and its “right to force.” Military-state territory is created in practice, then, by regional military commanders and state agencies working in tandem to allocate resource concessions to particular businesspeople and companies. The concessions allocated to domestic and foreign businesspeople, if taken as territorial reconfigurations, act as a currency of power and authority for the extension of the military-state.
In most of these indigenous-migrant conflicts, the state comes down on one side, often complicating resolution. When “indigenous” is defined in opposition to the state, then migrants can be perceived as state agents. When “indigenous” is aligned with the dominant elite, then “migrant” becomes a threat to the established order. It is important to underscore as well that just as all of these categories—state, indigenous community, migrants—are social constructs, they also involve perceptions and dynamics that can change over time. One example is the Filipino immigrants in Sabah, where in the perception of the Malaysian government they ceased being a political asset, exploited for votes and labor, and became instead, especially after the rise of ISIS, a potential security threat, seen at both the national and local level as possible allies or protectors of the Abu Sayyaf Group.
The three trends in identity conflicts identified here—the rise of ISIS, the emergence of majoritarian politics, and indigenous-migrant issues—all involve the creation of social constructs designed to advance a particular cause. Ethno-nationalist insurgencies are based on the creation of histories as much as are nation-states; the difference is who controls the writing and dissemination of those histories. Indigenous and migrant groups are often at odds, but what constitutes “indigenous” and “migrant” is open to multiple interpretations. The first step in conflict resolution will necessarily involve an effort to understand those interpretations and how they developed.
All of these conflicts have become more complex, because they mostly involve an international dimension, and because, in all, social media has become a tool for reinforcing identities in a way that is beyond the capacity of governments to control.
One of the attractions of ISIS in the region was its ability to portray Islamic State as a plausible alternative to corrupt democracies. Its propaganda machine made it possible to fit local grievances of exclusion or marginalization into a universalist framework, with the enemies of Islam defined as the West, non-Muslims, and agents of states that refuse to apply Islamic law. Videos of individuals making the case in local languages were disseminated over social media; ISIS relied on hundreds of thousands of chat groups on WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, and other platforms to get the message to anyone with the capacity to use a smart phone. Those videos and other propaganda materials are likely to outlast ISIS itself and to continue to provide a basis for religious study groups in the region for years to come.
Likewise, the emergence of majoritarian politics has been characterized by a strong xenophobic streak. In Myanmar, this involves defining Rohingya Muslims, who should be entitled to citizenship, as foreigners in a way that serves to justify their internment or expulsion. Majoritarianism in Indonesia is not just anti-Chinese, but identifies the West as responsible for corrupting youth, stealing resources, and weakening the economy. Majoritarianism, which relies on mass mobilization, also benefits from social media and messaging, which can link politicians directly to political strongholds, bypassing democratic institutions like parliaments or political parties.
Indigenous-migrant issues take on an international dimension to the extent that they involve a focus on international corporations or support from diaspora groups overseas. Web cameras make it possible to follow clashes in real time. The antiracist protests in Papua in August and September 2019, followed by anti-migrant violence, followed by state arrests of alleged provocateurs, could all be watched as it unfolded. Not only does this make escalation difficult to avoid, but it calls for a new set of techniques in conflict management on the part of both the state and civil society. The unfortunate tendency of states in the region has been to curb freedom of expression and restrict access to the internet, or in some cases to use buzzers and bots.
The strengthening of democratic institutions would ordinarily help, but when majoritarians gain control (in many Western countries just as much as in Southeast Asia), they can put in place discriminatory policies through legislation and court decisions. In the meantime, donors could look for ways to train judges, educators, legislators, and others to promote the notions of citizenship and equality under the law in a way that eliminates distinctions between majorities and minorities and at least starts with a level playing field. Colonial pasts and anticolonial struggles have shown how exclusivist citizenship can be. But in the current climate, it is at least a start.
1 ISIS only declared a caliphate and the new “Islamic State” after taking control of Mosul in June 2014. But it had already moved into Syria more than a year earlier and had attracted support from Southeast Asians inspired by the “parent” of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq, led by Ahmad Musab al-Zarqawi. About a dozen Indonesians and several Malaysians had joined the ISIS forces before the official declaration of the caliphate. Several of their compatriots had joined rival militias in Syria, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Syam and the Al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front.
2 In the Thailand case, insurgents rejected occasional offers by would-be jihadists from Indonesia and Malaysia to join the fight. The Free Aceh Movement, prior to the 2005 peace pact, accepted training from Libya in the 1980s and purchased arms from southern Thailand and beyond, but its fighters were only Acehnese. Among other considerations, The Free Aceh Movement’s leaders from the beginning wanted Western support against Indonesia and knew that any hint of an association with Al-Qaeda would make that impossible.
3 Former militants from another insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), formed the more extreme Abu Sayyaf Group, originally called the Islamic Movement (al-Harakat Islamiyah), in 1991 out of frustration with their own leadership and a desire for a stronger Islamic identity. The Abu Sayyaf Group’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda from 1994 to 2002 reflected a tactical partnership rather than an ideological meeting of minds.
4 Julie Chernov Hwang (2019), “Relatives, Redemption, and Rice: Motivations for Joining the Maute Group,” CTC Sentinel 12(8), .
5 The Myanmar government claims that the Rohingya are not a definable ethnic group, but “Bengali immigrants” from British India and later Bangladesh. The historical record is contested, with Rohingya claiming a presence since long before the 1823 cut-off point in Myanmar’s citizenship law, and Rakhine historians pointing to census data showing a huge increase in the Muslim population of Arakan, as Rakhine was then called, during the British colonial period as the British brought in agricultural labor from neighboring Bengal. The term “Rohingya” was not in wide use as a self-identifier before the 1950s. As with the Uyghur minority in China, however, relentless persecution has helped forge a sense of ethnicity and nationhood.
6 International Crisis Group (2017), Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar, Report No.290 (Brussels: ICG), .
7 International Crisis Group (2017), “Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability,” ICG website, October 27, .
8 For a full discussion of the anti-Ahok protests and the ideological positions of their leaders, see a series of three reports from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC): Nava Nuraniyah (2018), After Ahok: The Islamist Agenda in Indonesia, Report No.44, ; IPAC (2019), Anti-Ahok to Anti-Jokowi: Islamist Influence on Indonesia’s 2019 Election Campaign, Report No.55, ; and IPAC (2019), Indonesian Islamists and Post-Election Protests in Jakarta, Report No.58, .
9 The ILO, one of the first UN agencies to acknowledge indigenous rights, accepts the problems of definition but simply notes that indigenous peoples self-identify as having distinct cultures, ethnicities, languages, and customs. As the concept of indigenous rights has grown in the region, the term has also acquired a strong association to specific territory, especially amid concerns about resource exploitation by powerful political elites. See International Labour Organisation, “Who are the indigenous and tribal peoples?” ILO website, accessed June 3, 2021, .
10 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, 1983.
11 Rusaslina Idrus (2011), “The discourse of protection and the Orang Asli in Malaysia,” Kajian Malaysia 29 (January): 53–74, .
12 Zulaikha Zulkifli (2013), “I processed thousands of ICs for Sabah illegals,” malaysiakini, February 28, .
13 Republic Act No.11054, July 24, 2017 (The Lawphil Project) .
14 Republic Act No.8371, An Act to Recognize, Protect, and Promote the Rights of Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigeneous Peoples, October 29, 1997 (Official Gazette), .
15 Germelina Lacorte (2019), “Indigenous peoples hit BTA rule on ancestral domain,” inquirer.net, October 13, .
16 See The Asia Foundation. (2017), The Contested Areas of Myanmar: Subnational Conflict, Aid, and Development (San Francisco: The Asia Foundation), .
17 Kevin Woods (2016), “The Commercialisation of Counterinsurgency: Battlefield Enemies, Business Bedfellows in Kachin State, Burma,” in War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin ceasefire, 1994–2011 (NIAS Press), 114–145, .