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Right-Wing Extremism Has Deep Roots in Southeast Asia

Right-Wing Extremism Has Deep Roots in Southeast Asia
14th July 2021 Munira Mustaffa
In Insights

The far right or right-wing extremism as an ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) is the least understood security threat in the Southeast Asian region. Since the colonial era, ASEAN’s (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) experience with political violence has been mainly centred on left-wing terrorism, communism and militant Islamism. With the emergence of Islamic State (IS) and the subsequent affiliations fostered between IS and regional militant Islamist groups, much of the security focus and resources in the region were dedicated to monitoring violent jihadism movements such as the pro-Al-Qaeda Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), (ASG, also known as the Islamic State – East Asia Province, ISEA), and the pro-IS Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Just like Western nations that were preoccupied with combating the threats of Islamist terrorism, Southeast Asian countries involved in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) also ignored signs of IMVE in their own backyard. The detention of a 16-year-old Singaporean inspired by the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand caught many people by surprise, but this was not the first time such an arrest had been made. In June 2020, a 19-year-old Singaporean man was arrested on suspicion of inciting violence, after posting on his Instagram about a violent and graphic dream of gunning down Muslims with an AR-15 assault rifle. These incidents appeared to signify a sudden increase in Western-style far-right extremism fuelled by anti-Muslim prejudice in this region; but this is misleading.

Some Southeast Asian observers only view far right extremism through the prism of their pre-existing focus on radical Islam, approaching it as ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ and treating fascism – particularly national socialism – as a new phenomenon in the region. This is an oversimplification of history, however, and obscures long-standing extremist tendencies and ties. While the varied political and social contexts across Southeast Asia make it dangerous to generalise, to suggest the region was completely isolated from ‘red-pilling’, Nazi influences or even fascist ideology would risk erasing an already neglected piece of history altogether. Long before the Imperial Japanese propagandised the pan-Asian concept of ‘Asia for Asians’ to unify the bloc it was governing in 1940, and signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fascist parties were already present in Indonesia. After Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933, Dutch-Indo Nazi sympathisers in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) established the Nederlandsche Indische Fascisten Organisatie (NIFO) in Batavia (now Jakarta) and found some traction with pribumi (natives). Later, Indonesian intellectual and Javanese aristocrat Dr. Raden Pandji Wirasmo Notonindito returned home after obtaining his doctorate in Economics and Commerce in Berlin and joined the Indonesian National Party. Inspired by both Hitler and Benito Mussolini, he later founded his own party in Bandung, Partai Fasis Indonesia (Indonesian Fascist Party), in 1933 to promote Javanese supremacy through an independent Java under a constitutional monarch. The party was short-lived when its ideology failed to attain any popular support. Across the strait, Thailand had just entered WWII as an Axis ally, and was undergoing a cultural revolution under the newly installed Prime Minister, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) in 1938. A fervent admirer of Mussolini, Phibun was keen to modernise and shape Thailand into his idealised militaristic fascist state. In an era of global expansionism and modernisation, fascism was just as attractive to Asian reformists as it was to the European imperialists they wished to compete with – it embodied national might, military power, ethnic supremacy and cultural superiority.

Southeast Asia’s flirtations with fascism did not end there. Decades after the end of World War II, Nazism enjoyed an unexpected revival in Southeast Asia in the form of Nazi chic and neo-Nazism. The lack of historical awareness of the European WWII experience contributed to many Asian teens’ fixation with Nazi aesthetics. The Neo-Nazi movement emerged in Malaysia’s heavy metal and punk music scene in the form of Malay power music bands from the 1990s. Similar to the US and UK music scenes in the late 1980s and 1990s, these national socialist bands reportedly would clash with the Malay anti-fascist skinhead community. In Myanmar, the nationalist Buddhist group known as the 969 Movement was formed as early as 2013 as part of an anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim movement. They are described as a neo-Nazi organisation for resorting to violent tactics and glorifying the belligerent British far-right group, the English Defence League (EDL). Similarly in Thailand, ultranationalist Thai Buddhist monks are subscribing to Islamophobic narratives in response to the National Revolutionary Front’s (BRN) targeting of Buddhist clergy in the Deep South and to prevent Buddhism from being undermined further.

It is crucial to recognise that far right, alt-right or even red pill movements that exist in Southeast Asia are just as heterogenous and diverse as the people living in the region. As part of this, the extremist ideology adopted by the two detainees in Singapore should not be interpreted as an unprecedented phenomenon in Southeast Asia but one that has existed for some time and been generally accepted. The general hostility towards communism and socialism, mainly amongst the ASEAN 5 countries, can make it difficult to treat far right and alt-right ideas as potential problems, especially when many of the concepts were borrowed from recent Western far right thoughts to be reshaped and localised for mainstream appeal. Although it is tempting to conclude that both youths had adopted ‘Western-style far-right extremism’ in response to Islamist extremism, this is only a superficial interpretation. It is necessary to dive deeper into the ongoing politics of othering – be it in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or any other Southeast Asian states. Existing far-right movements in various states in Southeast Asia share ethno-religious aspirations to preserve the purity of their respective nations, separate from the presence of other religions or ethnicities that are not considered to have a legitimate claim in the state. Like white supremacist extremism in the West, ethnonationalists in the region desire authority over the legitimacy and sovereignty of their homeland. For instance, the Malay power movement “Nusantara Raya” (Malay Power), inspired by Ian Stuart and his Blood & Honour network, promotes the concept of Malay supremacy. And in Singapore, though not much is known about how deep or widespread far-right extremist ideology may be, the teenager who was arrested was a staunch Christian of Indian ethnicity whose decision to copy the Christchurch attacks was strongly motivated by his antipathy towards Islam. What these actors have in common is that they subscribe to a belief not too dissimilar to Brenton Tarrant’s Great Replacement ideology – that their existence, survival and privilege are being threatened in the presence of minorities who are seeking equality.

The idea that neo-Nazi thoughts, white-supremacist politics and red pill victimhood have been adopted by Asian youths who are active online users unbounded by geographical borders but are neither white nor Aryan themselves can be mystifying to outsiders. After all, the concept of neo-Nazism lies in the assertion that the white race, or the Aryan race, reigns supreme in the racial hierarchy. But these ideas are easily adaptable into local context, and the Internet has made them easier than ever for the latent fascist to access. There are three important aspects to this puzzle. First, scholars need to improve their understanding of how power is related to proximity to whiteness in a post-colonial state. This demands a deeper comprehension of the experiences of countries once colonised and impacted by European powers. One such example was that the earlier fascist movements that developed in Indonesia developed as an anti-colonial response, seeking statehood in the form of ultra-nationalism. Second, we need to unpack how chauvinistic impulses arise as a response to cultural pessimism. There is a deep inclination to reject ‘modernity’ and embrace what was considered as pure and traditional as a strategy for preserving loyalty to race and country. For instance, MaBaTha’s embrace of the Myanmar junta explicitly wants to roll back the globalisation that has transformed the country since 2015. Far right adherents and ultranationalists envision a nation where values such as equality and feminism are rejected and foreigners are driven out, while traditional masculine values are upheld, venerated, and remain visible. These are amongst the most immediately recognisable features of far right and right-wing populist ideologies. It is worth acknowledging that the 2014 Isla Vista alt-right killer Elliot Rodger had Malaysian roots – his mother is Malaysian with Chinese ethnicity while his father is white British. Rodger himself reportedly suffered from deep-seated social anxieties concerning his complex racial identity, and idealised masculinity while harbouring intense misogyny. His manifesto revealed an unhealthy fixation with the concept of racial hierarchy, along with his rejection of his Asian identity and internalisation of white supremacy. The third aspect is the most crucial piece and focuses on these extremists’ preoccupation with the idea of a conservative utopia of the ‘homeland’ – a territorial space where authentic nationalists would dwell, where their chosen religion would be held supreme, and traditional values would endure unchallenged, untainted and uneroded by any outside influence.

The recent media spotlight on Western far right movements and hate groups has also helped to amplify public awareness of IMVE and shed light on the growth of violent movements that are rooted in Internet subcultures with unaddressed grievances. The shifting political landscape with increased polarisation and divisive populist movements encouraging the use of violence to achieve political ends is not a security problem that should be seen as a uniquely Western-centric issue, but a global one. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and 4Chan, is important for these movements to burgeon. Digital technology and the way the digital ecosystem is structured have helped facilitate cross-pollination of violent ideas and rhetoric. Furthermore, ungoverned cyberspace is where these actors can freely sow propaganda and disseminate relentless misinformation and incessant conspiracy theories in the form of incendiary Facebook posts, provocative Twitter tweets, attractive Instagram photos, and highly stylised subversive memes. Although tech giants put a lot of effort into removing jihadi content from their platforms, the same cannot be said about their hate-speech management, especially at regional level. Big social media companies have forsaken their free speech commitment to appease their Southeast Asian government stakeholders. Consequently, they deflect their social responsibilities towards the communities they are catering to through censorship, inevitably silencing voices of dissent. In this regard, they are just as complicit in deepening these social fractures in the region.

Importantly, just as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) learned from other global conflicts to improve their combat skills through newsletters and Islamist militants studied bomb-making techniques online, far-right actors from various countries also learn from one another. File storages on messaging platforms such as Telegram act as an archive for training materials, making them accessible for extremist users anywhere in the world. The most significant aspect of this information exchange is also the way Western far-right extremists’ ‘anti-woke’ language is being adopted and co-opted by ethno-nationalists across the world to shape their own narratives and messages to encourage violence. Arguably, some parallels can be drawn with Islamic State’s appropriation of Arabic language as a tool of indoctrination to establish their brand and global appeal for achieving unification goals. Additionally, far right actors and ultranationalists in Southeast Asia are trying to discursively construe that ‘wokeness’, ‘feminism’ and human rights values are a ‘liberal Western’ scourge that do not conform to traditional Asian values and are incompatible with them. Patriarchal ultranationalist and ultraconservative values often overlap with efforts by authoritarian political entities to control and censor any views that oppose their own political agenda. Because of this, a symbiotic relationship is formed between the state and these ultranationalists where the state actor’s interests are protected, and the ultranationalists’ agendas are forwarded. An example of this would be the ruthless pro-government troll armies, colloquially known as ‘cybertroopers’, that operate on social media solely to protect the state actor’s interest. The introduction and instrumentalisation of fake news laws in some countries in the region complicate matters even more in providing government more oversight in their unequal application of the law. This has emboldened some extremists even more on these platforms, providing them with greater power and control of the narrative.

This argues for a re-evaluation of the role of online space in contextualising action and its consequences on the ‘real world’. In other words, violent online culture can be translated into a violent grassroots movement anywhere in the world. It is crucial to appreciate how easily oppressive ideologies and tyrannical thoughts that purport to project common values can be co-opted and adopted to galvanise a hateful movement, as much in Southeast Asia as in any other region of the world. The reason why movements and ideologies of this nature have prevailed in Southeast Asia is because not only was their presence never seen as a potential security threat – but because they were severely underestimated, downplayed and even tolerated and, to a certain extent, encouraged. Social media platforms have also been complicit; their inadequate moderation especially of non-English and regional content allows many hateful ideologies and movement to propagate and thrive. The inherent culture of anonymity in extremist spaces along with the ideology’s transnational appeal makes it accessible for anyone to inhabit them, which reshapes our understanding of ideologically motivated violent extremists. The reshaping of digital ecosystems with a shift to alt-tech platforms should have been the pivotal moment for them to reassess their role in this problem.