News is breaking of a plot to bomb the Burmese embassy in Indonesia. The on-going tensions demonstrate the complex politics within S.E. Asia. With religious, economic, and cultural differences becoming more apparent in a fast-changing and globalizing world, what do these events mean in the larger geopolitical picture?

Indonesia

Tensions rise in Indonesia

At the political level, Myanmar and Indonesia are both allies and members of ASEAN, a grouping of South East Asian nations. ASEAN came about as a way to pool resources and efforts to counter rising Chinese power and present American power in the region. Yet at the local level, citizens of ASEAN states hail from vastly different cultures and religions. These tensions have been brought into full view in light of the recent bombing plot.

Muslims have long been persecuted by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. The persecution of Muslims continues even in the wake of the nation’s recent opening up and pledges to improve on the nation’s human rights record. So far the Burmese government has failed to adequately protect Burmese Muslims, and has been accused of turning a blind eye.

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At the same time, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority nation. While Indonesia itself is a culturally-rich and complex nation with a large number of minorities, most economic power still rests with the Muslim majority. As the persecution of Burmese Muslims continues to dominate headlines, many Indonesians will be quick to voice their concerns and grievances. Indeed, some hard line Muslims in Indonesia have been calling for a “jihad” against Myanmar.

Indonesia’s anti-terrorist task force

Analysts may have previously been tempted to dismiss such talk as banter, given that most hard lined Muslim groups lack the resources to conduct a jihad. The recent bomb plot, however, proves that there are plenty of vulnerable targets at home. While Indonesia does have a strong anti-terrorist task force, it is conceivable that hard-lined radicals could still carry out devastating attacks.

So far, several individuals have been arrested by the Indonesia anti-terrorist task force. In the days to come, more plotters are likely to be arrested. One man, currently going only by the initials “IK” has been arrested and Indonesian police have noted that he previously served 8 years in jail due to previous terrorist activities. Police also believe that this group was previously involved in a bombing against a Buddhist temple in Jakarta, in which one person was injured.

These events point to growing tensions between the disparate populations found in South East Asia. Home to some 600 million people hailing from numerous different religions and cultures, relations have long remained tense. Now, unless national leaders in the region are able to assuage growing tensions, there is a risk that ASEAN itself could fracture, or at least cease to be as strong of a unified political actor.

ASEAN a potential ally against China

The United States will likely move to maintain peace in the region and pressure governments to reconcile their differences. ASEAN is a powerful potential ally against China. Further, moderate Muslim nations, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, have proven to be strong bulwarks against rising extremism in the Middle East. Still, the United States can do only so much and ultimately national leaders in the region will determine how to respond.

Myanmar has been a bright spot on the world stage. The long isolated nation has taken dramatic steps to open up and Western companies are now pouring in investments. Still, progress remains on the human rights front. Countless political dissidents remain in jail, corruption still plagues the economy, and Muslims in the Western regions of the country have faced severe persecution but local Buddhists, and allegedly even military and government officials. It is believed that a quarter million Burmese Muslims have already been displaced.

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If Myanmar is not able to improve its human rights record, there is a real risk that the United States and other Western countries will reimpose sanctions. Such a move would carry risks for the West, however, as China has been ramping up cooperation and investment in the country. If Myanmar is once again cut off from the world stage, the nation may fall into the fold of the rising Chinese power in the region.