The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia 2021

Identity-based Conflict and Extremism

Introductory Chapter

The world has endured a tumultuous few years. Disenchantment with the political mainstream and economic stagnation facilitated the emergence of controversial leaders, identity politics rose to the fore, and public debate grew increasingly polarized. Global power struggles returned as China gained in confidence and stature, while violence and long-term fragility remained widespread in parts of the Middle East and Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic swept across this tense and confrontational terrain, adding fear and misery to an unstable setting.

Today, across Asia, political violence and organized conflicts persist. The war in Afghanistan continues to cause more fatalities than all other conflicts on the continent. Elsewhere, violence is less intense, but high-profile incidents and entrenched local tensions continue to affect several nations. In Myanmar, the military takeover of February 1, 2021, demonstrated the fragility of that country’s new democracy. The 2019 elections in Thailand controversially offered some legitimacy to the leadership installed by the 2014 military coup, while Hun Sen’s largely unopposed election victory in Cambodia extended his period of power beyond 35 years.

The trend towards more authoritarian governance, even in established democracies, is well established in many Asian countries, and indicators such as The Economist’s Democracy Index show a significant decline. The deterioration of political rights and civil liberties is reflected in the diminishing space for free media and growing restrictions on civil society.

Political leaders have appeared increasingly willing to tolerate or even encourage a resurgence of identity-based tensions in order to build support. Most Asian countries have diverse populations, and their governments continue to grapple with the enduring challenge of maintaining stability across ethnic or religious divides. Growing expressions of ethnic nationalism are evident in many countries as majoritarian political forces have both aggravated divisions and eroded democratic institutions. These trends, usually associated with each country’s dominant religion and with efforts to manipulate sentiments of group identity for electoral support, have repeatedly affected the rights of minorities. The most prominent and extreme example is the violent displacement of some 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, while deadly majoritarian violence perpetrated mainly by organized, and often politically connected, mobs has broken out in several countries.

Violent extremism also persists. In the Siege of Marawi, in the Philippines, militants seized the heart of a city renowned for Islamic faith and unique local traditions, precipitating a five-month-long bombardment, over 1,100 deaths, and the displacement of 350,000 people from their homes. While the greatest fears of security agencies over the uncontrolled spread of jihadist ideologies from the Middle East have not been realized, the interplay of international influences and local grievances remains a concern.

In Asia, as elsewhere, the term violent extremism is no longer applied solely to jihadist movements. Polarizing politics are associated with a growth in extremist perspectives and overt violence carried out by a radical fringe among Buddhist and Hindu as well as Muslim populations. These trends have been fueled by online disinformation sponsored by extremists and at times by political leaders.

The contraction of democratic space has generated mass protests. Intense and persistent demonstrations in Hong Kong and Thailand led to strong security responses and, on occasion, to violence. In Myanmar, the military takeover unleashed a wave of popular protest and a protracted, bloody crackdown. New technologies—especially smartphones—have changed how protesters organize and how governments try to maintain public order.

This second edition of The Asia Foundation’s State of Conflict and Violence in Asia explores recent events and patterns of events through regional assessments and country-specific overviews, in particular addressing contemporary concerns over political polarization and identity-based tensions. Following this introductory chapter, three keynote essays, featuring regional experts, offer closer assessments of recent conflict trends. Ten concise country summaries then present greater detail. Data is drawn from a range of primary and secondary sources, including country-level and regional datasets on violence and conflict, academic analyses, reporting on contemporary events, and other research conducted by The Asia Foundation.

Conflict Trends: What does the data show?