SINGAPORE – Southeast Asian countries must step up their fight against religious militancy taking root in their region, including in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State, Singapore’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
The minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said the weakening of Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East and the recent occupation of the Philippine town of Marawi by IS-supporting gunmen had renewed concern that the region could become a magnet for militants.
“We saw some returning fighters to Marawi in the southern Philippines and there are other potential hotbeds for terrorists in our region,” Balakrishnan said in a lecture on Singapore’s priorities as it prepares to take over as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“Even our concern about the Rakhine state is also related to our anxiety that this becomes another sanctuary, another hotbed for extremism,” he said. “It is not just a Middle East phenomenon.”
ASEAN includes Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, mostly Muslim Malaysia and Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where a campaign of violence against members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State has brought UN accusations of ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar rejects the accusations. Nevertheless, both Indonesia and Malaysia have pressed it over the plight of the Rohingya, more than 600,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since late August.
Singapore has offered humanitarian help for those displaced by the violence.
ASEAN members have pledged greater cooperation and intelligence sharing to combat the threat of Islamic militancy.
The mostly Christian Philippines has over the past year faced the region’s most serious militant violence, which began when hundreds of gunmen, including some from elsewhere in the region, occupied Marawi, sparking the country’s most serious fighting since World War Two.
Indonesia and Malaysia say thousands of their citizens sympathize with IS and hundreds are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the group.
Indonesian authorities last year disrupted a plot by militants to launch an attack in multi-ethnic Singapore.
Singapore will be chair of the 10-member ASEAN in 2018.