The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021

Polarization, Power, and the Pandemic – New Drivers of Conflict in Asia

Michael Vatikiotis

The views expressed in this publication are the views of the author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world enjoyed a brief and rather hallucinatory moment of hope for a future of freedom without conflict. Weapons of mass destruction were locked down and big powers set about designing a world of partnership and cooperation governed by democratic systems.

The optimism persisted even as wars raged in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and across Africa, for the 1990s was one of the great eras of peacemaking, starting with the 1993 Oslo Agreement, which inaugurated a decade of stability in the Middle East, and the Dayton Accords, which ended the ferocious Balkan Wars of the mid-1990s. By the end of the 1990s, despite ongoing conflicts, there was relative peace and prosperity, and also a dizzying degree of optimism stemming from technological advances that brought the world together rather than forcing it apart.

Three decades on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is worth reflecting on the fractured, squandered legacy of that fleeting, end-of-history moment. The peace and prosperity of the 1990s segued into the fearsome global war against terror in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington by the Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on ever since. A principal driver of conflict in this century has been exclusionary political systems and the persistence of conflict rooted in identity and religious dogma that afflicts more than half the globe, from the pastoral scrublands of sub-Saharan Africa to the jungles of Sulu in the southern Philippines.

By the start of the third decade of the 21st century, these prolonged identity wars had generated the world’s largest outflow of refugees since the end of the Second World War, and a dangerous level of proxy conflict that allowed larger powers to pursue their geopolitical interests under cover of regional and internal conflicts.

On the whole, Asia has weathered the ups and downs of global security rather well. Half a century of war in Indochina ended in 1991 with one of the most comprehensive peace agreements the world has seen in modern times, in Cambodia. Building on this preference for “jaw jaw” rather than “war war,” internal conflicts in the Philippines and Indonesia were successfully negotiated to an end. These agreements are holding, even as residual conflict persists in Papua and elsewhere in the Philippines.

In South Asia, a comprehensive peace agreement in Nepal brought an end to a long-running civil war, and even in war torn Sri Lanka there was a measure of hope for stability, if not accountability, after the brutal end to civil war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority. The nuclear-tipped standoff between India and Pakistan lay dormant, even if hopes for a more constructive cross-border relationship remained unfulfilled and tensions over disputed claims on Kashmir rumbled on.

Meanwhile, democratic transitions across Southeast Asia were accompanied by political stability and economic growth. Despite the dividends, not all of these transitions were enduring. Indonesia’s democracy has stood the test of time despite concerns about shrinking space for civil society. Thailand was buffeted by two military coups, which resulted in a decade of polarization and violent protest. Cambodia’s strongman leader, Hun Sen, banned opposition parties and hounded their leadership. After two reasonably free and fair elections in Myanmar, the army launched a coup on February 1, 2021.

Even as democracy faced setbacks in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand, China’s rise helped consolidate economic gains by providing jobs and a market for goods. One of the significant shifts of the past half century has been that trade, as opposed to aid, became the major driver of economic growth in Asia. Following a swift recovery from the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis, and another from the wider global recession in 2008, Asia’s generally well-managed economies demonstrated a resilience that helped keep widespread social instability at bay.

However, as the new decade got underway, it was clear that Asia was not immune to some of the trends evident in other parts of the world. Identity politics was on the rise, fueling greater intolerance and sparking communal conflict, especially around elections. There were geopolitical tensions between a United States struggling to maintain its global primacy and a rising China determined to assert itself as a new global power. As the global Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in 2020, these fault lines widened and accelerated instability.

The data points supporting this view include the rise of communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus across India, similar assertions of religious primacy in diverse societies like Indonesia and Myanmar, and the possibility that violent extremist groups being flushed out of the Middle East found fertile ground in remote areas of Southeast Asia.

Competitive politics, normally a healthy sign of democratic pluralism, has generated less-healthy social side effects such as racial and religious tension, especially in an environment less tolerant of universal liberal norms. Just as elsewhere in the world, illiberalism is infecting ostensibly democratic countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

In these countries, norms and institutions of political pluralism, often long established, have been undermined—by the populist assertion of ethnic and religious primacy in the case of India and Sri Lanka, and by authoritarian leadership in Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. One of the saddest examples of this has been Myanmar, where both of these trends are on full display: the assertion of exclusive Buddhist and majority Bamar identity, married to the cult of leadership dressed in ostensibly democratic garb.

Illiberal democracy is in the ascendant and fueling identity-based conflict, but there is limited international pressure against the trend. A complex interplay of social and economic factors in Europe and the United States has eroded support for liberal activism and intervention overseas. At the same time, China has increasingly offered an alternative approach and a ready source of funding.

Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has further constrained global cooperation and advocacy, so, great-power competition between the United States and China is starting to provoke tensions in the region, as was the case during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 60s.

Finally, over the horizon and in the not too distant future, there is the prospect of additional sources of conflict stemming from the effects of climate change, a possibility brought into sharper focus by fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Identity Politics: The New Normal

On a scorching April mid-morning in 2019, people streamed into an open playing field on the side of the small Indonesian town of Ciamis in West Java. The crowd of several thousand, most of them women wearing the Muslim hijab, waited under limp flags and bunting for presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto to arrive. Meanwhile, a group of young men took to the stage: “We are the Two-One-Two Mujahideen,” one of them cried. “Under our command, God willing, we will pursue our goal of the caliphate.”

It was hard that day to find anyone who didn’t equate their decision on whom to vote for in Indonesia’s presidential election with their faith and vision of the role of Islam in daily life. At a nearby Islamic religious school, a youthful religious scholar stressed that their rules stipulated no involvement in politics, but their students had participated in antigovernment rallies and demonstrations in droves.

Indonesia’s presidential election on April 17, 2019, resulted in a decisive victory for the incumbent, President Joko Widodo. But the campaign was bruising and divisive and fought mainly on the issue of religious identity. Prabowo, a former army general who entered politics in 2009, built his campaign on promises to support a conservative Islamic agenda that reaches back to the birth of the Indonesian republic in 1945, and on arguments over whether the Muslim-majority nation should become an Islamic State.

The vote tally was surprisingly close, given incumbent President Joko’s popularity. Joko Widodo won around 55 percent of the votes and Prabowo around 45 percent. More concerning was the new electoral map, which showed Prabowo winning majorities in conservative Muslim regions of the country—West Java, most of Sumatra, Sulawesi, and parts of Kalimantan. These were the same regions that supported a violent uprising in the 1950s led by the Darul Islam movement, which was eventually suppressed, and its leader executed, in 1965.

This left President Joko with the challenging task of uniting the country and shoring up defenses against conservative religious dogma. For Indonesia’s economic fortunes depend on how successfully it can continue to project itself as a moderate Muslim nation. Local autonomy allows parts of the country to effectively implement conservative Islamic law, as is already the case in Aceh, in North Sumatra. As the scholar Jamie Davidson argues in a new study of democracy in Indonesia, “pitched contestation of identity politics in the electoral sphere is the new normal.”1

The return of identity politics to the mainstream political arena in Indonesia is troubling but hardly surprising. It is part of a broader trend in South and Southeast Asia, in part related to the consolidation of democratic transitions that have opened the space for the spread of illiberal ideas of nationalism and identity.

The ten countries of Southeast Asia are among the most diverse in the world in terms of ethnic and religious identity. Broadly speaking, half the region’s population of 640 million professes the Islamic faith, and the other half is mainly Buddhist. There is a sizable Christian minority spread across the region.

Democratic transitions have gained traction in societies that were long accustomed to managed forms of pluralism, under either absolute monarchies or powerful colonial regimes. As a result, most modern bodies of law, including constitutions, ensure equality of citizenship and tolerance of religious freedom in plural contexts such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Even in Malaysia, where the majority Malay and Muslim population enjoys economic and political privileges, there is no law denying the freedom of non-Muslims.

However, competitive politics have started to erode these institutional safeguards for ethnic and religious harmony. In part, this is the product of imperfect or flawed election processes that fail to genuinely reflect popular sovereignty. They only mimic liberal democratic norms, and as a result are prone to elite manipulation. More frequently held elections drive politicians to look for votes by appealing to lowest-common-denominator factors such as race and religion, which tug at fragile communal boundaries. Indonesia’s twenty years of democratic transition have been accompanied by a palpable rise of religious conflict, as measured by the Setara Institute in Jakarta.2

Majoritarianism is increasingly evident. In Indonesia, there have been calls for the implementation of Shariah law and the denial of high office to non-Muslims. In Thailand, for the first time, the Buddhist hierarchy has sounded the alarm about the threat from the Muslim minority in the deep south of the country after Buddhist monks were killed in retaliation for the slaying of Muslim preachers.

In Malaysia, the decline and eventual defeat in 2018 of the ruling United Malays National Organization, which had a monopoly on power for six decades, has been accompanied by efforts to salvage support in the Muslim Malay community using racial and religious attacks on the opposition. And in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the transition away from military rule towards elected government saw a sharp rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and overt violence, fueled by political forces bent on delegitimizing popularly elected leadership.

This is not to say that the majority of people in these countries necessarily subscribe to messages of hate or notions of majoritarianism. Often these views are not even shaped around specific party platforms or political movements. Thus, in Indonesia, support for enshrining Islamic Shariah law and other legislative moves to appease conservative Muslim mores emanates from parties that don’t ostensibly have Islamic identities. Islamic parties in both Indonesia and Malaysia remain small and relatively powerless.

In South Asia, the drift into identity politics has stemmed from popular dissatisfaction with more liberal, inclusive leadership that failed to deliver reform and prosperity. As one commentator put it: “Political parties with more liberal visions have come sadly to be associated with corruption, drift, and inaction.” In Sri Lanka, the harshly Sinhala-nationalist regime of Mahindra Rajapaksa gave way to a more liberal and inclusive government that soon foundered on the rock of economic stagnation and was unable to curb religious extremism. The 2019 Easter bombings, carried out by an Islamic extremist cell, helped galvanize popular support for Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala nationalist populism. Elections in November 2019 brought former president Mahindra Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya to power as president.3

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection in India in May 2019 gave his Bharatiya Janata Party a green light to ramp up its Hindu nationalist agenda. About 80 percent of Indians profess the Hindu faith, but a sizable Muslim minority, making up about 15 percent of the population, and pronounced regional attitudes towards language, faith, and caste make it hard to impose rigid religious or ethnic uniformity on the country’s 1.3 billion people. Yet that’s what Modi and his allies have tried to do.

India was lucky to avoid major upheavals after the government in 2019 proceeded to schedule the rebuilding of a Hindu temple on the site of a destroyed mosque in the city of Ayodhya and remove restrictions on Hindu migration to Kashmir, with its large and restive Muslim population. An expected Muslim backlash was curtailed by strict, even repressive measures that, for example, shut down the internet in Kashmir. The avowedly Hindu-nationalist government has done little to restrain anti-Muslim sentiment. In late February 2020, New Delhi experienced the worst communal violence in almost three decades when Hindu mobs attacked Muslims and the police largely stood by. Almost fifty people died.

Reinforcing these trends towards identity politics across the region is the combined impact of an alarming rise in income inequality and in religious orthodoxy. The two trends are mutually reinforcing.

Trends towards Religious Orthodoxy

Muslim society across Asia has inclined towards orthodoxy and intolerance over the past three decades. Funding for conservative Islamic education in support of Salafist and Wahabi teaching, which has mostly come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, has undoubtedly fueled the trend.

In Indonesia, Saudi influence on the Islamic education system can be traced to rise of Shiite Iranian influence following the Islamic revolution in 1979. Throughout the 1980s, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent hundreds of millions of dollars to counter Iranian influence by establishing well-funded institutes that propounded the strictly orthodox and Wahabist doctrine prevailing in Saudi Arabia.4 The effect has been to bleach Indonesian Muslim society of many of the more tolerant, syncretic influences of past Islamic teaching, which has helped fuel the Salafist extremists who spearheaded Indonesia’s homegrown and internationally linked Islamic terrorist organizations.

In a broader sense, there has been a rise in religiosity among those of all faiths stemming from greater social and economic inequality and insecurity, aided by the retreat or defeat of secular salvation ideology in the form of revolutionary Marxist-Leninist thought. Mass-based charismatic sects in both the Christian and Buddhist churches appeal to people who have been marginalized or feel socially and economically insecure. (Interestingly, in the Philippines, the avenue for channeling peasant grievances is a fifty-year-old Maoist insurgency, the New People’s Army, that continues across much of the country in the absence of substantive negotiations over social and economic reforms.)

When the embrace of religious faith and orthodoxy is linked to chronic social and economic inequality, you have a recipe for division in society and a lightning rod for protest that can fuel conflict and turn violent. Across much of Asia, economic growth and development have not been accompanied by an equitable spread of wealth or leveling of incomes. In Thailand, the richest one percent of the population control almost 60 percent of the wealth. In Indonesia, the four richest men in the country are wealthier than the poorest 100 million Indonesians.

Little wonder, then, that we have seen conservative religious agendas harnessing the relatively poor and disenchanted to mass protests. When hardline Islamic groups brought hundreds of thousands of people into Jakarta to pressure the government to prosecute the city’s Christian and Chinese governor at the end of 2017, they could tap into angry people whose real incomes have declined or who perceive they have limited access to better healthcare and education.

Mainstream religious orthodoxy that breeds exclusivity and communal friction should not be conflated with the fringe phenomenon of Islamic extremism. Ever since the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the attempted destruction of the Pentagon, in September 2001, the world has fixated on the spread of Islamic militancy as a source of global terrorism. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan gave birth to Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and more recently to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), which successfully established a franchise in the southern Philippines whose representatives seized the city of Marawi in western Mindanao and held it for five months in 2017.

To be sure, radical Islamic movements supporting violent extremism remain a threat in the region, as governments fear that the defeat of ISIS in northern Syria may send foreign fighters scurrying back to Asia. Indeed, there were deadly attacks in Indonesia in 2018, and arrests in Malaysia and the Philippines continue to be made. ISIS remains active in the southern Philippines.

Arguably, though, violent extremism linked to radical Islamic movements can be contained and may be on the wane. A more pressing threat to stability is the much broader spread of religious orthodoxy that upsets social harmony, generates religious conflict, and affects tolerant and relatively open societies that have helped foster rapid economic growth and development over the past half century. The problem is that the more politicians milk identity politics for popular support, the more these social trends will be fanned and religious prejudice or conflict condoned. The case of Myanmar is worth highlighting.

The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar

The Myanmar military’s decision to proceed with an orderly transition to elected government saw a mild-mannered general named Thein Sein lead a hybrid government of civilian and military officials after flawed elections in 2010. This political opening lent impetus to the emergence of local parties based on ethnic identity, such as the Arakan National Party in Rakhine. Growing popular support for civilian-led opposition parties forced army-backed parties to look for issues to animate the popular base, which made Muslims a target in areas such as Rakhine State and Mandalay.

The problem got worse when politicians on either side of the civilian-military divide tapped into Buddhist preachers who started using hate speech across social media networks to ram home the message about the Muslim threat. U Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay, spread hate speech that prompted the initial violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in 2012.

Some observers consider that Buddhist extremism was harnessed as an instrument to deter support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy ahead of the 2015 elections. But the problem also speaks to profound issues of race and identity that are legacies of the colonial era, which was characterized by policies of ethnic divide-and-rule.

Decades of military rule after independence entrenched the classification of component races rather than promoted an all-embracing national identity. This set the stage for ethnic politics to consume the democratic transition after 2011.5 A recent survey of popular opinion in Myanmar found only modest support among the majority Bamar population for the kind of autonomy that the country’s ethnic armed groups have been fighting for since the end of the colonial era. “The trend points to growing political divisions that have emerged out of the democratic transition and arguably will be obstacles to greater democratization,” the survey concluded.6

Politically inspired hate speech has had a serious impact in Rakhine State, where traditionally more than a million and a half Rohingya Muslims had lived in uneasy coexistence with the majority Buddhist Rakhine. Communal violence and a government-led campaign to disenfranchise and isolate the Rohingya ensued. By the end of 2012, Rohingya in central parts of Rakhine had been corralled into dingy camps with little or no freedom of movement.

In 2015, many of these unfortunate people started to clamber onto boats and seek resettlement elsewhere in the region. Thousands were trafficked under harsh conditions that led to many deaths. Then, after an attack on police posts by Rohingya insurgents, an army-led clearance operation, starting in 2016, forced almost 800,000 Rohingya to flee for their lives across the border from northern Rakhine State. Large-scale acts of rape and killing are suspected to have taken place and are the subject of an international, UN-led inquiry.

While there is little doubt about local animosity between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities, the narrative put forward by the Rakhine-nationalist Arakan Army, which after months of fierce fighting with the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) now exerts influence over almost half the state, is that violence and unrest on this scale would never have occurred without instigation by the Tatmadaw and the Union government for political purposes.

Ironically, it was the Tatmadaw’s arguments with the civilian elected government over how to cope with the violence in Rakhine that contributed to the unraveling of the uneasy relationships between the powerful army commander, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The February 1 coup that ended a decade-long experiment with democratic transition came about in part after Aung San Suu Kyi rebuffed the army’s push for a rerun of some elections that had been postponed in Rakhine for security reasons.

Curbing Identity Politics

Identity politics has the potential to destabilize South and Southeast Asia more than the threat of radical extremism. Unlike the extremist threat—for which security countermeasures, if used with surgical precision, are mostly effective—it is hard to imagine effectively curtailing the use of identity politics without seriously infringing on democratic rights and freedoms.

Reforms that address political campaign rules and the responsible shaping of party platforms would help. So would fairer elections and stiffening established legal safeguards for minority rights. But it is hard for politicians responsible for implementing reforms to willingly make their task of reelection harder.

Instead, governments in the region are turning to the tools of hard security to address rising communal tensions. In Indonesia, the government banned the pan-Islamic conservative group Hizbut Tahir in 2017. Myanmar has declared the ethnic armed group known as the Arakan Army a terrorist organization, which has inflamed tensions between Rakhine and the majority Bamar. And in the Philippines, the government has proposed a more draconian antiterrorist law that would extend the period of detention without trial.7 In the long term, this security approach will infringe on human rights and impact democratic life, which could lead to a new cycle of repression and democratic regression.

In reality, most democratic transitions across the Asian region, after initial bursts of enthusiastic reform, soon gave way to fatigue and complacency. Australian academic Lee Morgenbesser argues for the Southeast Asian context that authoritarianism has adapted and survived by mimicking broad elements of democratic government, but using sophisticated tools to perpetuate the concentration of power and selfish elite behavior, which are ultimately divisive and destabilizing.8

Geopolitics: Pivots and Swings

The other driver of conflict that has loomed larger in Asia in recent years is geopolitics. The end of the Cold War in 1990 was thought to have laid to rest the ideological contestation between the communist and capitalist worlds that wreaked havoc across Asia. Wars on the Korean peninsula and in Indochina cost millions of lives and set back development for sizable populations by decades. South Korea only emerged as a developed country in the 1970s; its northern neighbor remains closed and desperately poor. Vietnam spent almost three decades in a grueling war, first with France and then with the United States and its allies, and then spent the next 20 years rebuilding the country.

The international effort led by regional states and the United Nations to bring an end to Cambodia’s brutal civil war and rebuild the shattered country seemed to mark the end of an era of invasive geopolitical conflict. The Cambodian peace process at the end of the 1980s paved the way for three decades of unimpeded economic development that has seen Vietnam and Cambodia enjoy GDP growth often in excess of 10 percent a year.

Much of this growth across the region has in more recent years been derived from access to China’s dynamic economy and growing market. China’s rise has dominated the first two decades of the 21st century, yet while there is no doubting the benefits to Asian economic growth, what has become more problematic in recent years has been the accompaniment of Chinese growth and investment with an appetite for influence and control.

China’s great-power aspirations became apparent with its challenge to U.S. military primacy in the Asian maritime domain, largely expressed by an assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea. Since 2010, China has built military facilities on islands and features it claims in the Spratly Island chain, and its powerful coast guard has harried and harassed fishing and mineral exploration activities by other littoral states across the South China Sea. China ignored a 2016 ruling from an arbitral court in the Hague that deemed its claims in the area excessive and unjustified under international law. In the past two years, the risk of conflict has increased with the frequency of freedom of navigation operations by the United States Navy, which China aggressively denounces.

Meanwhile, China’s grand plans for investment and infrastructure development across 70 countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa under the Belt and Road Initiative, announced in 2013, have been accompanied by active diplomatic efforts to dominate regional forums such as in the greater Mekong basin on mainland Southeast Asia. The Chinese-funded Lancang-Mekong Cooperation platform, launched in 2016, has steadily displaced Western-funded forums such as the Mekong River Commission, established in 1995.

In Myanmar, official dialogue between the government and an array of ethnic armed organizations was initially supported by Western governments and the United Nations. Since 2012, China has asserted itself strongly in the process, facilitating armed group meetings across the border in China that have helped bring them to the table. Beijing has made it clear to both sides that the price of China’s help is the marginalization of Western involvement in the process.

Debate in China about these more forward diplomatic initiatives in the region has revolved around transitioning from the bedrock Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which eschewed involvement or intervention in the affairs of other countries, to an approach that permits and even encourages involvement where China’s interests need safeguarding. So far, international conflict has been avoided. Tension over boundary disputes in the Himalayan region and the South China Sea have been managed through consultation and dialogue, even if they steer clear of the kind of international arbitration that China’s neighbors would prefer to see used to settle these disputes.

The stakes have increased, however, as have the risks in the past four years, with a pronounced push by the United States and its allies in the region to counter China’s strategic expansion in Asia. To some degree this reflects regional demand for the United States to play a more muscular role in pushing back on China’s aggressive claims—for instance, in the South China Sea. But equally there is regional apprehension about Washington and Beijing pressuring states to make choices about alignment and cooperation that could impact economic and commercial interests. This is an uncomfortable position for leaders in a region that has been accustomed to a reasonable degree of balance in their relationships with external great powers.

Some have urged the United States and China to work together. “New international rules need to be made in many areas, including trade and intellectual property, cybersecurity, and social media,” Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong told a gathering of security officials in Singapore in 2019. “China will expect a say in this process, because it sees the present rules as having been created in the past without its participation. This is a reasonable expectation.”9 Yet the United States has actively campaigned against China’s bid to play a bigger role in international organizations at the United Nations. At gatherings where the two powers are represented, the talk is about decoupling more than collaboration. A survey conducted among respondents in ASEAN countries showed that people in the region trust neither great power.10

Going forward, there is an urgent need to replicate the myriad dialogues on economic and security issues between the United States and China that no longer take place because of the pronounced hostility between the two countries. There is hope that their common cause of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula could help sustain constructive diplomacy, not to mention the need to stave off mutually destructive trade sanctions. All the same, in many parts of Asia, the most proximate cause of conflict is increasingly seen as a miscalculation or accident that sparks an armed confrontation between the United States and China.

Coping with Disease and Climate Change

Both of the conflict trends highlighted here—the rise of identity politics, and the return of geopolitical competition—will be exacerbated as the world emerges from the global Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Most recently, U.S.-China tensions spiked dramatically as each country blamed the other for the virus’s uncontrolled spread.

At a national level across Asia, the social and economic gains of three decades of growth and development will be reversed. As governments in the region shut down their economies and imposed border restrictions, legions of migrant workers lost their jobs almost overnight and were forced to return home to their villages across South and Southeast Asia. And while many people were able to seek refuge in the rural economy when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, today the rural economies of the region have less absorptive capacity. In many areas, agricultural exports are less competitive and generate less income—the Philippines and Indonesia are net importers of rice, for example. Compounding the problem, drought and rising temperatures have put pressure on formerly fertile areas of production.

The expected social, economic, and political fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing drivers of conflict in Asia and generate new ones. Quite possibly the most significant will be that of human migration. Looking ahead, one of the most widely anticipated impacts of climate change will be the rendering uninhabitable of significant areas of the globe. This could be the result of rising sea levels, rising temperatures, or the absence of life-sustaining water. The ASEAN-wide survey mentioned above also showed that more than half of respondents considered climate change a bigger threat to their security than terrorism or military conflict.

One immediate impact will be the mass movement of people. As far back as 1990, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change noted that the greatest single impact of climate change could be human migration. In the Asian context, large areas of the central part of mainland Southeast Asia, the traditional rice-growing region, already suffer more frequent droughts and increases in daytime temperatures in the hot dry season beyond 43 degrees Celsius.11

Combined with monsoon failure and the reduced flow of major rivers like the Mekong, which recorded its lowest level in more than half a century in 2019, climate change could render a region that is home to more than 60 million people almost uninhabitable within the next 50 years. Well before then, agricultural output will fall and rural livelihoods will suffer. Where will people go? Almost certainly northwards and across the borders with China and India into more temperate climate zones. Similarly, in low-lying coastal areas in the Bay of Bengal, where sea levels are rising, the only escape route is westward into India.

In the future, conflict will arise when countries that migrants head for to escape rising temperatures and sea levels shut them out. We are already seeing the first signs of this in India, with its controversial national register of citizenship in Assam, which seeks to identify mainly Muslim Bengali migrants not eligible for Indian citizenship.

The irony is that China, which has spent the past two decades building dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong and strategic roads and railway lines out of Western China across Southeast Asia to establish alternative supply routes from the sea, may well see these same routes used by migrants escaping extreme climate change in the once fertile central plains of Thailand and Myanmar.


1 Jamie Davidson (2018), Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy (Cambridge University Press).

2 Marguerite Afra Sapiie (2017), “Government inaction creates space for rising intolerance in Indonesia,” Jakarta Post, February 1,

3 James Crabtree (2019), “South Asia’s Turn to Illiberal Democracy,” Chatham House website, November 18,

4 Carolyn Nash (2018), “Saudi Arabia’s Soft Power Strategy in Indonesia,” Middle East Institute website, April 3,

5 Thant Myint U (2019), The Hidden History of Burma (New York: W.W. Norton).

6 Bridget Welsh and Myat Thu (2020), “Survey reveals warning signs for democracy in Myanmar,” Frontier Myanmar, May 15,

7 Aljazeera (2020), “Alarm over Duterte’s new anti-terrorism bill for Philippines,” Aljazeera, June 1,

8 Lee Morgenbesser (2020), The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press).

9 CNA (2019), “In full: PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue,” video with transcript, CNA, June 1,

10 Tang Siew Mun et al. (2019), The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report (Singapore: ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute),

11 At current rates of climate change, the Asian Development Bank projects an average increase in temperatures across Asia of 2 degrees Celsius by 2013 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.