I know you don't believe 100% of all I have been telling you. In the same way, I don't believe 100% of all you have told me over the months. You can make promises. I can make promises. What really matters is what takes place over the long term. Only then can trust be firmly established. (A comment purportedly made by former leader of the Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng to Malaysian police Chief Rahim Noor in 1989 [Chin Peng 2003, p. 503])
When the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver embarked on an exercise to measure changing trends in global security, no one expected the results to show a marked decline in the level of political violence. Yet the Centre's Human Security report reveals that over the past dozen years civil wars, genocides, and international crises have all declined sharply. With regard to internal conflict between 1991 and 2004, the Human Security Report, 2005 shows that 28 armed struggles for self-determination were started or re-started, while 43 were contained or ended. "There were just 25 armed secessionist conflicts under way in 2004, the lowest number since 1976", the report's Overview states. However, this dramatic change in the global security picture is not so evident in Southeast Asia, which remains afflicted by a number of lingering internal conflicts in marginal and border regions. From Aceh and Papua in Indonesia, to Mindanao in the Philippines, the three southernmost provinces of Thailand, and of course Myanmar, where more than a dozen ethnic groups are only held back from resisting central government authority by precarious ceasefire agreements.
Most of these conflicts pit weak but determined ethnic nationalist forces against central governments in a battle for autonomy or independence. Whilst irredentism is not uncommon in South Asia, and is latent in China's westernmost provinces, it is certainly a chronic irritant to the governments of Southeast Asia, where protracted conflict has killed tens of thousands and complicated moves to reform military and civil society institutions. For as well as sustaining the tragedy and blight of war in these areas, the conflicts themselves have exerted a drag on democratic development and drained resources that could be more usefully deployed elsewhere.
Whilst these conflicts have festered for decades, attempts to resolve them have acquired a new urgency in the wake of the global terrorist threat. The failure of the Philippine government to resolve the long-running confrontation with the Moro people of Mindanao has provided opportunities for international terrorists possibly linked to the militant Al-Qaeda organization to find refuge as well as a source of recruits and training for the execution of terrorist acts in the region and beyond. (1)
More broadly, pockets of lawless territory provide havens for criminal activities such as smuggling and gun running. They allow the region's entrenched web of corruption and organized criminal activity to survive more or less unchecked. As concerns for security have heightened in the wake of the Global War on Terror launched by the United States after September 2001, so tolerance of non-transparency, lawlessness, and abuse of authority has diminished. Old government practices of turning a blind eye to the paucity of law and order in conflict zones have been replaced by fears that a lack of security could invite international terrorists to the neighbourhood. These heightened security fears have made it imperative for governments of the region to make conflict resolution a policy priority. Fortunately, there are signs that this is happening in some of the worst-affected countries.
The signing in mid-August 2005 of an agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) offers the promise of a solution to the region's most protracted internal conflict, one that has claimed as many as 15,000 lives since its latest outbreak in 1976. The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has also signalled its intention to implement special autonomy arrangements for the restive province of Papua, where on 12 August 2005, by some reports, as many as 10,000 people took to the streets of the provincial capital of Jayapura demanding a revision of the government's proposed Papuan Assembly (Jakarta Post, 13 August 2005).
In the Philippines, the government has made some progress towards institutionalizing a peace process that has contained but not ended the conflict in Mindanao involving two major Moro nationalist groups, the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). And in mainly Malay Muslim Southern Thailand, where an upsurge of separatist violence has claimed more than 1,200 lives since the beginning of 2004, the government is actively looking for a solution to the conflict. Even in Myanmar there are signs that, despite the international focus on democratic reform, the military regime has made the reinforcement of more than a dozen ceasefire agreements with ethnic nationalist groups a policy priority.
Slow-moving Conflict Resolution
Despite historical traditions of inter-communal harmony and tolerance, conflict resolution in Southeast Asia is weak and prone to setbacks. There are several reasons for this. The strongly unitary nature of most states in Southeast Asia has acted as a barrier to local autonomy solutions. The bedrock convention on non-interference prevents states within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from becoming involved in regional efforts at conflict resolution. Strongly nationalist politics has tended to resist the involvement of third parties and international organizations. More recent attempts to develop regional security mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution are at an early stage of development and acceptance.
A ceasefire agreement in Aceh concluded in 2002 and facilitated by the Geneva-based Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue fell apart because of sustained conflict between the Indonesian military and GAM fighters on the ground. (2) On 15 August 2005 after only five rounds of talks over seven months brokered by former Finnish President Maarti Artisaari, the government of Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding with GAM representatives in Helsinki, which agreed to a phased demilitarization and more pronounced autonomy in return for a pledge to give up the struggle for independence. The agreement, which did not need ratifying by the Indonesian parliament, provided for a new law on the governing of Aceh based on the need for due importance for consultation and consent of the legislature of Aceh. The agreement gives Aceh the right to use regional symbols, including a flag, crest, and a hymn. Establishment of Aceh-based political parties was also agreed to. In economic terms, under the agreement Aceh is entitled to retain 70 per cent of the revenues from all current and future hydrocarbon deposits and other natural resources in the territory of Aceh. There are some other provisions on the right to raise funds with external loans, right to impose taxes for internal activities, development of sea ports and airports in the province, and free trade with all other parts of the country. The Indonesian government swiftly granted amnesty to jailed GAM members and hundreds of detainees were released. To oversee the implementation of the agreement and the phased demilitarization and surrender of weapons, an Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) was established by the European Union and ASEAN contributing countries. The AMM was given wide-ranging powers for resolving disputes.
The Helsinki agreement was born in a more favourable environment and therefore has a greater chance of success than its 2002 predecessor. The December 31 tsunami that devastated the Aceh coast killing almost 200,000 people left both the military and the Aceh rebels exhausted and weak. Indonesia's new president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had participated in the earlier peace process with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HDC), declared his commitment to peace and stuck to it. The former general's firm grip on the suspicious military and his vice-president's leadership of the largest political party Golkar also helped dilute and overcome domestic resistance to the deal.
In Aceh the near-term threat to lasting peace is the reluctance of Acehnese rebels to completely lay down their arms because of enduring suspicions about Indonesian military intentions. Longer term, it remains to be seen if the Indonesian government can effectively enfranchize ordinary Acehnese with a bigger share of the national economy--which is the major source of grievance in this proud former Muslim kingdom. It is quite possible that the August 2005 Helsinki agreement will end the current conflict in Aceh and that the leadership of the Aceh freedom movement will be absorbed and rehabilitated. But this is no guarantee that a new rebellion will not erupt some time in the future, especially if the Acehnese feel that they are not being given the share of economic wealth that they feel entitled to.
In the Philippines, peace agreements concluded with the Moro nationalist groups are hampered on the one side by factional splits within the nationalist groups, and on the other by the military's reliance on operations against the rebels to justify its budget. Apart from anything else, the sheer number of weapons and the lack of leadership over local clan groups in the region makes it very hard to control levels of violence (Kuppuswamy 2003). Political instability in the Philippines during the course of 2005 greatly jeopardized the government-backed peace process in Mindanao. The government and the MILF declared a breakthrough at talks held in Malaysia in April 2005 after reaching a consensus on the issue of ancestral domain--areas recognized as part of a Muslim homeland. But other issues such as the degree of autonomy for a new homeland and the role of the military and police remain critical sticking points. The MILF has since declared it is in no hurry to cement a peace deal. The separatist conflict in Mindanao has killed at least 120,000 people since the late 1960s.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a peace deal with the MILF as one of her ten priorities when she won a flesh term of office in May 2004, but more pressing political problems in Manila and the constant need for hands-on macroeconomic management have tested her government's commitment to dealing with the rebels and developing the south. At the root of the problem lies centuries of neglect and internal colonization that has imbued the strongly clan-based Muslim community with a deep suspicion of the Christian Filipino elite.
The characteristic feature of all these conflict resolution efforts is the fragmented and piecemeal approach. Neither Indonesia nor the Philippines has adopted a consistent strategy. In some cases third party help is taken on, in other cases it is not. Regional participation is sometimes welcomed, sometimes not. International mediation is patchy and inconsistent. The Philippines, for example, went to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to fashion a 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF in 1996, but has opted for Malaysian mediation to secure an agreement with the offshoot MILF. (3) Indonesia first accepted the HDC help as a third party then rejected any outside help to resolve Aceh and sent the army back in under martial law. Later through high-level business and political contacts coordinated by Indonesia's Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, former Finnish President Artisaari was brought in. Jakarta is said to favour an internal solution for resolving the incipient conflict in Papua.
This haphazard approach to conflict resolution produces only patchy results and leaves the region mired in protracted conflict. The problems associated with this approach are no better highlighted than in the case of Southern Thailand, where a long-running internal conflict has recently, and violently re-ignited.
Southern Thailand: A Conflict Reborn
Although not the newest of internal conflicts, Southern Thailand is attracting the most attention today because it is the most violent and threatening to regional stability. More than twelve hundred people have lost their lives since the beginning of 2004 and insurgents have mounted attacks targeting local people and security forces. The security forces have had almost no success identifying the ringleaders or penetrating the insurgency. By November 2005 there had been close to 200 bomb attacks and almost daily shootings. In one week at the end of October 2005 insurgents set off bombs underneath vehicles parked in government buildings, attacked a troop train, and used roadside bombs to target army convoys. In several instances coordinated attacks include the use of remotely detonated explosive devices, well-planned ambushes, and equally well-executed getaways. On 14 July 2005, for example, dozens of militants overran the provincial capital of Yala after first cutting power lines to the city. Thai intelligence officials, who were initially confident that they were winning hearts and minds on the ground, were by October 2005 less certain that they were winning much ground in the conflict. (4) A shadowy insurgent movement has been able to exploit popular anger over alleged disappearances and detentions by the government under cover of an emergency decree that replaced martial law in force since July.
Unlike marginal Mindanao or Aceh, the three Malay Muslim provinces of Patani, Narathiwat, and Yala, with a combined population of 1.8 million, lie across the main north-south artery linking mainland and island Southeast Asia, as well as bordering on Malaysia. The region is also close to a proposed east-west land bridge traversing the Isthmus of Kra to the north that Thailand has proposed developing with China's help to reduce reliance on the Malacca Straits as a conduit for crude oil and natural gas coming from the Middle East.
The region is also one of Southeast Asia's most critical ethnic faultlines, lying as it does along the boundary of the Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist sociocultural and linguistic worlds. This makes for a potentially destabilizing mix of economic and ethno-religious upheaval at the core of ASEAN.
The insurgency has simmered since the late 1940s, based on local Malay Muslim calls initially for incorporation into the Malayan Federation and later on for autonomy or independence. The Thai defeated the semi-independent kingdom of Pattani in 1786, following which there were steadily more effective moves to bring the region under centralized Thai control. More recently in the 1940s, a strict assimilation policy was enforced under which there were attempts to replace Malay language and culture with Thai language and culture. The legacy of this policy, which met with violent resistance and was modified to accommodate local concerns, is reluctance on the part of Bangkok to recognize the importance of Malay language and culture. In modern times, whilst religious freedom is full and guaranteed, the teaching of Thai language is compulsory and many in the community strongly feel that the mainstream Malay culture and language has been sidelined. Ironically, despite having more liberal personal and religious freedoms than in neighbouring Malaysia, many Malay Muslims from the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat consider that they live under colonial rule. (5)
After Thailand successfully subdued the first secessionist movement of the 1960s, a fractured separatist movement was fairly active in the 1970s and 1980s and then subsided in the 1990s. The principal actors in the movement today, so far as is known, claim membership of several organizations that have operated and mutated for the past few decades. They are the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP), and an umbrella movement called the Barisan Bersatu Kemerdekaan Patani (BERSATU). Political leaders from these organizations are for the most part living in exile in Europe or hiding in Malaysia, but it is widely believed by the Thai authorities that military masterminds operate inside Thailand. Thai military and intelligence sources frequently attribute the most violent coordinated acts to a sub-group of BRN known as BRN Coordinate, which is believed to count local politicians, religious leaders, and government officials among its shadowy leadership.
Despite concerted attempts by international terrorist experts to link the violence in Southern Thailand to international Islamic radicals, there is very little evidence that this is a religiously inspired Islamic militant movement (Gunaratna, Acharya, and Chua 2005). Thai intelligence sources say there is evidence that well-known Islamic militants like Hambali passed through the region, and that there have been approaches by Islamic radical organizations to offer help to the movement. Members of the armed groups confirm these approaches, but say they were rejected. (6) Yet Thai army intelligence reports that religious schools have become fertile recruiting grounds for the armed separatist movement, and some of the local insurgent commanders are reportedly drawn from religious school backgrounds. But with the exception of a few marginal examples, much of the mainstream membership of the insurgent movement would appear to be avowedly nationalist. In August 2005 a spokesman for the PULO denied that his movement had ties to international Islamic militant groups like Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah. "We have no connection with those terrorists," the spokesman told Reuters, "Our struggle is for our own people, to get back what is rightfully ours. Pattani belongs to the Malays, just like Malaysia" (Cropley 2005). A document produced by BERSATU in 1997 does invoke the term "jihad", but only in the context of a struggle of the Malay Muslim population of Pattani to overthrow what it calls the "Thai colonial regime" (Hidup Mati Bangsa Melaya Patani, 1997). The Foreword of this document declares:
We the leaders of the Barisan Bersatu Kemerdekaan Patani (BERSATU) and the Consultative Committee of the Malay people of Patani (KPRMP) have formed the Consultative Council of the Malay people of Patani (MPRMP) on 14 and 15 June 1997 to declare a jihad for all the Islamic community and all those who support freedom and decolonization. (p. xiii)
It is fashionable and perhaps advisable in analyst circles to talk about the dangers of the conflict in Southern Thailand becoming fertile ground for Islamic militancy that could affect the whole region. But whilst this cannot be ruled out, it should be noted that the insurgents in Southern Thailand espouse fairly narrow ethnic nationalist aims, and have been reluctant so far to bring their campaign of violence to Bangkok or other places outside the South. They almost certainly do benefit though from ties to remnants of the old Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) insurgency that the Thai government helped broker an end to in 1989. It is quite possible that today's Malay Muslim insurgents have acquired weapons, and bomb-making technology from old veterans of this struggle--and that some of the underground jungle hideouts once used by the CPM are now in use again. (7)
The latest outbreak of violence, which dates back to 2001, appears to have been fuelled at the grassroots level by the Thai government's imprudent handling of local security, cultural, and political issues. (8) There are three commonly cited causes for growing popular discontent. First, there was the nationwide war against drugs launched by Thaksin Shinawatra in 2002. Many of the more than 2,200 alleged drug dealers found dead were from the South. Thai police have consistently denied conducting these killings. Second, the structure of security in the region was changed, dismantling a long-established Southern Security Command (SOPB), and replacing military-led management with the use of police. This resulted in a disruption of well-established contacts between local communities and security authorities. Thirdly, there were policy pronouncements such as promising scholarships funded by local lotteries that opposition politicians from the South say offended local Muslims.
Rising public discontent breathed new life into the separatist movement, which has reorganized and conducted bombings and shootings across the three provinces in the Deep South. It seems clear though that the armed groups were quietly preparing for a return to the armed conflict. In a June 2005 interview, BERSATU leader Wan Kadir Che Man, who now lives in Malaysia in exile, told Malaysian researcher Farish A. Noor:
The quiet ten years were really a period of training for those separatist groups that preferred the path to violence. Ten years ago, when more than thirty schools were burned by some militant groups, the leaders of these groups claimed to me personally that in ten years time they would intensify the violence to an unprecedented level. (9)
In January 2004 a well-organized raid on a Thai military camp managed to get away with hundreds of automatic weapons which have been used in insurgent attacks in the ensuing months. Members of the movement have told the author that the breakdown of an earlier period of dialogue between the movement and a colonel from the Thai 4th Army Command that took place in 1994 was the spark for a return to the armed struggle. The secret talks, which were held in Damascus and Cairo, generated a list of demands from PULO which focused on granting more autonomy to the three provinces and fell short of asking for independence. PULO presented a memorandum to the army colonel who conducted the talks in which the government was asked to consider allowing the region to have its own elected assembly (styled on the Malaysian federal system of state assemblies), Islamic law, and the right to collect revenues and shape economic policy. (10) It is not clear if the memorandum containing these demands was ever delivered to the Thai government or the parliament as promised. PULO accuses the Thai government of not negotiating in good faith. A further round of talks, which were to be held in Malaysia, led in fact to the arrest and extradition of three key PULO leaders to Thailand in 1998.
Today the violence in Southern Thailand appears to be driven by a hybrid and rather fluid insurgent movement. Old established groups like PULO and BRN have plugged into rising popular anger (members of the movement describe it as an "intifadah". (11) Newer groups like BRN Coordinate and GMIP have successfully recruited members from the larger private Islamic schools. All the groups have conducted fund-raising activities among expatriate Pattani people, mostly living in Malaysia. Armed group members say that the Pattani shopkeepers association in Kuala Lumpur arranges for donations of RM1,000 from each of its members on a monthly basis. (12) It is also believed that the campaign of intimidation involving the killing and beheading of immigrant Buddhist Thai rubber tappers has left many rubber plantations empty, allowing the separatist movement to sell the rubber. (13)
However, the different groups within the separatist movement are fractured and weakly led. Unlike the case for Aceh or Mindanao, there is no overall titular leader for the movement like Hassan Di Tiro in the case of Aceh or Nur Misuari in the case of the MNLF. The titular head of PULO, Tunku Biro is ageing, infirm, and living in exile in Damascus. Below him there are contending claims to PULO leadership. Wan Kadir Che Man of BERSATU, although influential, cannot claim overall leadership of the movement either. Among the next tier of leaders aged around 50 there is intense competition and rivalry. BRN Coordinate, the largest and most active insurgent group on the ground in Southern Thailand, has effectively disguised its leadership and organizes operations using a cell-based structure in which ordinary members and local commanders have no knowledge of the central leadership or even one another. Although shadowy, BRN Coordinate is commonly characterized as well plugged into the Islamic religious hierarchy through a related group known as BRN Ulama. Unlike PULO, which has negotiated with the Thai government in the past, BRN Coordinate is committed to winning independence for Pattani through armed struggle.
Discussions the author has had with armed group members in exile suggest that there does appear to be a high degree of horizontal cooperation between the insurgent groups. Amongst the older generation of political leaders, mostly in exile, there is BERSATU, which calls itself an umbrella organization. Among younger, more militarily active tier there are horizontal ties grouped under the banner of "Pemuda" or the youth wing, which actively enables PULO, BRN, and other groups to conduct joint operations in the field. As for religiously inspired movements, there have been reports of radical movements among Pattani student populations in Khartoum, Cairo, and Songkhla, but their numbers are small and mainstream insurgent groups have resisted tying up with them. (14)
One major obstacle to managing and resolving the conflict in Southern Thailand has been the Bangkok government's unwillingness to recognize the nature of the conflict as one involving deep-rooted social and cultural issues, preferring to initially blame criminal elements and religious militants and banking on tough security measures to extinguish the violence. Bangkok's inability to suppress the conflict and address public grievances has been compounded by a number of incidents that have inflamed public anger and driven more young people into the arms of the separatists. The worst of these took place in October 2004, when a sizeable demonstration gathered outside a police station in the border town of Tak Bai. Government officials initially tried negotiating with the angry crowd, who had allegedly come to demand the release of some local youths in custody. Television footage of the incident shows that troops used water cannon and later fired over and allegedly into the crowd. Six people were shot dead at the protest and more than 1,000 arrested and herded into army trucks for transport to an army camp in Pattani. Along the way 78 detainees died of suffocation in the trucks.
The military at first adopted a tough security policy, which resulted in many deaths and a public outcry. So after Tak Bai and an earlier assault on Kruesue Mosque in which 32 militants were killed in April 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin declared that his government would adopt a softer approach. Shortly after winning a landslide re-election in March 2005 Thaksin appointed respected former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun to head up a National Reconciliation Commission tasked with engaging with the people of the South and finding social and economic solutions to the problem. The formation of the NRC was greeted with initial relief in the South, but it has since been considered too weak to have any real impact. Anand himself pointed out that he had no executive authority and that the commission's recommendations could not be forced on the government. (15) All the same the body of 40 or so experts, senior officials, and prominent social activists Anand assembled were able to gather useful information and views that helped generate a better understanding of the dynamics of the conflict. A small group of local journalists was brought together to write more objective stories on the social and economic problems of the South, and there have been a number of prominent members of the NRC willing to float possible solutions based on political compromise and special autonomy. (16)
Flying in the face of the NRC's formation, and the confidence-building this implied, was a return to tough security policy. The Thaksin government's softly-softly security approach lasted until July 2005, when a series of tougher measures were re-imposed under the umbrella of an emergency decree prepared by Thaksin's advisers and signed by the King. The decree, which includes some legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest, nonetheless widens the definition of potential suspects and gives the security forces broad powers to detain suspected insurgents beyond the scope of court scrutiny. None of these varied approaches has helped improve overall security, which has steadily worsened over time. By November 2005 the insurgents were capable of launching coordinated attacks over wide areas of the region, they had forced civilian government officials to withdraw from rural areas out of fear for their lives, and some districts of Narathiwat province were virtual no-go areas. (17)
Fresh Approaches to Conflict Resolution
The problematic record of conflict resolution in Southeast Asia, and in particular the flare up of Southern Thailand in such a strategic and sensitive part of the region, calls for a consideration of flesh approaches. There would appear to be two major needs, one at the intra-state level, the other within the political establishments of Southeast Asia. First, governments of the region need to cooperate more closely and formulate policies and initiatives that address these conflicts jointly. Something like the spirit of cooperation that helped resolve the armed conflict in Cambodia in the late 1980s, or the involvement of ASEAN peacekeepers in East Timor and Aceh more lately needs to be revived. However, one of the biggest obstacles to conflict resolution in Southeast Asia is the long-held ASEAN convention of non-interference. Secondly, there is a need for a change of political mindset regarding concepts of autonomy and self-government. Many of these conflicts have festered over long periods and grown worse simply because initial demands for limited degrees of self-administration could not be met by governments favouring strong centralized authority which stamped on local cultures and deprived local communities of the economic returns of growth.
There is a third imperative arising out of more recent concerns about the spread of Islamic militancy. Since a good many of these conflicts are situated in Muslim communities, there is a tendency to favour harsh security measures to deal with them and limit the opportunities for external militant groups. And yet with the exception of the Philippines, where there is solid evidence of that Islamic militancy with international links has found refuge, none of the Muslim irredentist groups have really shown any inclination to associate with the global jihadist cause. Aceh is a case in point, so is Southern Thailand. To confuse ethnic irredentist demands with religious militancy only complicates the path to conflict resolution by provoking unnecessary fears and prejudices.
So what needs to be done? In the first place, there is a need for closer regional cooperation. The example of Southern Thailand illustrates the problem well.
Thailand and Malaysia: Obstacles to Conflict Resolution
Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat nestle up against the border with Malaysia. The Malay Muslim community, which comprises around 85 per cent of this region's population, have close family ties across the border in Malaysia. The Kelantan royal family has married into Pattani society, and when it comes to local politics residents of Southern Thailand voters who carry Malaysian citizenship are eligible to vote in Malaysia. The two governments have a long history of uneasy security cooperation dating back to the CPM insurgency of the 1950s that was settled with the help of Thailand in 1989. But for Malaysia's Malay Muslim political establishment it has proved difficult to return the favour. There have been intermittent instances where the authorities in Kuala Lumpur handed over suspected separatists to the government in Bangkok. In 1998 two key leaders from the PULO were handed over to Thai authorities. In December 2005 a suspected separatist named as Hamzah Saud who had fled to Malaysia with a group of 131 alleged refugees was deported back to Thailand because of a pre-existing Thai warrant for his arrest. In the same month another PULO member was arrested in Kuala Lumpur under less official circumstances and deported to Thailand. (18) But Thailand cannot rely on full Malaysian cooperation all the time because of domestic political sensitivities.
In 1998 Kuala Lumpur was criticized in domestic political circles and overseas, principally in the OIC, for handing over suspects who were then allegedly mistreated by the Thai authorities. Bangkok is understandably frustrated and regards Malaysia's reluctant stance as tantamount to tacit support for the rebels. To the Thai government it is clear that members of the Malay Muslim separatist movements have easy access to safe haven in Malaysia and operate reasonably freely in the neighbouring state of Kelantan. Many of course are dual nationals. Other analysts reason that Malaysia is out to use sympathy for the Pattani separatist cause to curry favour in the wider Muslim world.
The uneasy relationship between these two ASEAN neighbours has been compounded in recent months by a series of incidents in Southern Thailand where the security forces acted harshly and large numbers of Malay Muslims lost their lives. The Tak Bai incident in October 2004 prompted Kuala Lumpur to effectively halt all further security cooperation. Tak Bai precipitated a high degree of enmity between Prime Minister Thaksin of Thailand and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in Malaysia. Abdullah was offended that only nine days after he had embraced Thaksin on the bridge over the Golok River straddling the two countries, more than 85 Muslims died in Thai army custody. The situation worsened when 131 Malay Muslims from Narathiwat province sought refuge across the border in Malaysia on 30 August 2005. Bangkok immediately sought reassurances from Kuala Lumpur that the issue would be dealt with quietly. Kuala Lumpur then promptly facilitated a visit by the United Nations Commission for Refugees, a move that Bangkok regarded as needlessly provocative. Since then relations between these two ASEAN leaders has been all but severed.
The way out of this current impasse is for the two countries to focus on repairing seemingly normal but in reality seriously damaged bilateral ties. Both countries notionally support a strategy of joint economic development of the troubles region. But relations between Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are fraught with mutual mistrust. When Thailand mounted a diplomatic campaign in May 2005 to influence the OIC to limit criticism of Bangkok's handling of the Muslim community in the Deep South, Malaysia, which chairs the international body was unwilling to help. All the same, Thailand succeeded in lobbying the Muslim gathering in Yemen that saw a conservatively worded report on Southern Thailand emerge.
The Thai-Malaysian impasse shows just how badly wrong a bilateral relationship can go within ASEAN because of an unresolved internal conflict. Outside powers feel powerless to help for fear of being accused of interfering, and there are no multilateral mechanism short of the ASEAN High Council in which to resolve intra-ASEAN disputes institutionally. The danger is that if unchecked, a long-lasting rift between the two countries will evolve. This is dangerous for ASEAN, because as pointed out earlier, this will not just mean that Thai-Malaysian ties sour; it potentially divides the Muslim and non-Muslim world in Southeast Asia.
New Regional Thinking
The major obstacle to collective regional conflict resolution is Southeast Asia's slow pace of integration. Member states of ASEAN place sovereignty before collective security considerations and tiptoe delicately around each other's internal conflicts. The United Nations has always had a low profile and the ASEAN Secretary General is not fully empowered to use his good offices to intervene and help resolve conflicts. Yet Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has floated an interesting idea that could help address the wider problem of regional cooperation in conflict resolution. During a recent conference in Tokyo the Malaysian Prime Minister proposed an Asian Infrastructure Development Initiative (AIDI) that could be funded by the region's excess financial reserves. The idea is that a small portion, no more than 1 per cent of the region's US$2.5 trillion in financial reserves could be diverted to build infrastructure in marginal regions prone to conflict. The idea has potential because of the marginalization of conflict zones from mainstream economic planning and investment. (19) There is already an institutional framework in the shape of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle that was set up in the early 1990s, which could provide a suitable basis for channelling funds. One major reason for sustained grievances in places like Papua, Aceh, Mindanao, and Southern Thailand that fuel insurgencies, is the failure to allocate sufficient resources for local development. Aid or investment is also unlikely to reach areas where security and other issues hamper supervision and make conditions difficult for private sector enterprise.
Economic development and cooperation across borders faces fewer of the political obstacles than cooperation in the security realm. The fundamental sticking point has been the convention among ASEAN members on non-interference in one another's domestic affairs. All the same, there are signs of a modest shift in thinking on this issue. Indonesia has floated the idea of an ASEAN regional peacekeeping and security force. Indonesian officials like to say that it has been their willingness to discuss internal conflicts that is helping to change the political culture within ASEAN. First with East Timor, then with Aceh and now Papua, Jakarta has tolerated regional discussion of these situations, and now expects neighbouring states like Myanmar and Thailand to reciprocate with similar candour. (20) There is also the notion, floated at the July 2005 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Vientiane, of an ASEAN charter that could adopt a rules-based regime and hold member countries to certain standards of human rights and democracy. Both these moves could help enhance the capacity of ASEAN states to facilitate mediation in one another's internal conflicts, as well as promote the general role of third-party mediation. There is the possibility, for example, that the charter could empower the ASEAN Secretary General to provide good offices in the mediation of conflicts in the region. In recent years, a number of ASEAN countries have contributed personnel to peacekeeping and monitoring operations in places like East Timor, Aceh, and Mindanao. This is all very encouraging, but is still subject to delicate and time-consuming deliberation. Indonesia's idea of an ASEAN security force has been met with a lukewarm response and an ASEAN charter is probably some years off. Thailand, for example, which has sent peacekeepers twice now to Aceh, is vehemently opposed to external involvement of any kind in Southern Thailand.
An even bigger obstacle to resolving Southeast Asia's internal conflicts is the region's aversion to decentralized and autonomous self-government. With the exception of Malaysia, none of the countries of Southeast Asia have embraced federalism. Nationalism and notions of a unitary state were embraced in the early years of state formation to help assimilate the region's heterogeneous societies. In the case of Aceh, Indonesia has resisted the notion of self-rule and under Indonesian law all legal political parties must have a national membership. Special autonomy arrangements worked out in the past have offered a minimal amount of actual autonomy. It remains to be seen what compromises will ultimately be made under the 15 August agreement, which allows for Aceh to have its own flag and political representation. In the case of Southern Thailand the principal demand of the separatists is for a form of autonomy that recognizes the unique cultural identity of the Malay Muslims. Common demands among the separatist groups, including PULO, include a separate state assembly, local elections, and the freedom to implement Islamic law. Working against this federalist proposal is the fact that Thai society, despite a considerable degree of ethnic diversity, is organized around an assimilation principle; whilst ethnic and religious differences are respected and liberally tolerated, embrace of the Thai language and culture is demanded. Under Thailand's quite liberal 1997 Constitution a high degree of local self-administration is promised at the provincial and district level. But these decentralization measures have been poorly implemented. And in the Deep South there is still the feeling among local people that they are under direct rule from Bangkok.
Indonesia has perhaps made the most progress in recent years towards granting genuine forms of regional autonomy under broad-ranging autonomy laws passed in the reform era post-1998. More important than perhaps the simple notion of decentralization, which can appear alarming and a threat to sovereignty in principle, has been the way in which ordinary people have managed to allay these concerns by exercising their new-found autonomy responsibly. During local elections held in Indonesia in 2005 for governors and mayors under the more direct and transparent electoral system, voters focused their attention on issues like corruption and honesty rather than parochial local identity. Still, the central government needs to make greater efforts to share revenues and fulfill obligations to return a larger percentage of royalties from primary resource extraction to the regions where they are earned--particularly in the case of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). In both the case of Papua and Aceh there are political moves to divide the contested territory and make it harder for irredentists to make viable claims. In Papua, plans for division have sown the seeds of renewed conflict since, under the partition plan, the regional capital of Jayapura would be cut off from more resource-rich areas of the sprawling territory.
In all the conflict zones of Southeast Asia, offering tangible forms of self-administration would go a long way to defuse and settle internal conflict, even though they face considerable nationalist-driven resistance. No one would have believed in 1998 that an autonomy solution was possible for Aceh, but in the wake of the decentralization legislation that was implemented in 1999, there is a higher degree of comfort with the notion of special autonomy because so many areas of the country have acquired a high degree of autonomy for themselves legally. For the armed groups in Southern Thailand autonomy and self-administration is a specific demand across all factions. The Aceh peace agreement settled on a form of special autonomy that provides the Aceh Freedom Movement with the opportunity to form a local political party. Mindanao notionally has an autonomous government. But the problem is that for security forces in all these countries, regional conflict is often a major source of income and budgetary justification. Localized security regimes that often amount to forms of martial law are all that remains of the political empowerment armed forces the region once had. As a result the threat of secession and the need for a tighter rein on local participation is often deeply ingrained in national policy. The threat to peace agreements and special autonomy arrangements stems as much from recalcitrant military commanders as it does from stubborn rebel movements. Haunting central governments in Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok is the spectre of external intervention and the precipitation of independence, as was the case for East Timor in 2000. This makes them averse to offering local people the choice for self-rule in case they opt for separation.
The best solution in the longer term is really to take the risk with derivative federalist arrangements that notionally provide for opting out, and gamble that most outlying regions would not sever links with the centre. While this may seem unacceptable to many governments, the case of Indonesia proves that entrenched mindsets towards autonomy solutions can change. As the noted Southeast Asian scholar Anthony Reid points out, the August 2005 Aceh agreement was really a turning point in this regard for Indonesia. "If the terms are successfully implemented, it will represent a victory for pragmatic common sense, and for democratic inclusiveness, over the 'unitary state' mentality which has dominated Indonesian politics since 1945". (21) The example of Sri Lanka, which in the early years rejected all early proposals for a federal arrangement and saw the Tamil conflict grow from a low-intensity insurgency into a full-blown war, is worth bearing in mind as a case where unitary state rigidity has allowed a full-scale conflict to grow and fester. Thailand is reaching the point where some must begin to wonder whether the unitary state concept embodied by the notion of "Thai-ness" is worth upholding in the face of a tenacious and protracted insurgency in the Malay Muslim South. Unlike Indonesia's more flexible republic, where decentralization and regional autonomy have already been officially sanctioned, Thailand's conservative elite jealously guards its unitary definition of the nation under the banner of "nation, religion, and monarchy". The more positive example of Indonesia, where decentralization is taking root, suggests that state disintegration is not an automatic by-product of genuine autonomy.
Finally, there is the impact of global trends on internal conflicts in Southeast Asia. The region's restive margins have received new and more urgent attention in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and Washington's declared Global War on Terror. The hunt for Islamic terrorists led to the discovery that Southeast Asia was not just a haven for Islamic militants but was home to a dangerous affiliate of Al Qaeda popularly known as Jemaah Islamiyah. Naturally a lot of attention has focused on internal conflict zones that embrace Muslim communities as potential sources of militancy. Following the 1 October 2005 bombing of three Bali tourist spots, the Indonesian military warned that Mindanao was a safe haven to up to 20 dangerous Indonesian Islamic militants. Whilst these fears are not entirely groundless, especially in the case of Mindanao, they do pose problems for conflict management and resolution.
In the case of Thailand, whipped up fears of Islamic militancy allowed the government to initially paint an essentially ethnic struggle as one generated by religious fanaticism. There is no doubt that elevated Islamic consciousness has helped motivate young Muslims in the Deep South and recruit them to the separatist cause. Private Islamic schools have become a fertile breeding ground for hardline separatist groups such as BRN Coordinate, which uses a network of junior Islamic teachers or ustaaz to indoctrinate young pupils who are educated outside the Thai national system when they attend these religious schools. But this kind of recruitment represents an opportunistic exploitation of religion, rather than the conviction of a holy cause. In fact, Thai intelligence knows full well that Al Qaeda's advances in the Muslim Deep South were rebuffed at an early stage in the latest upsurge of violence. (22) Yet by attributing the violence to Islamic militancy the government has managed to sidestep awkward questions about ethnic and cultural identity that lie at the heart of the conflict. Outside observers of the conflict have wasted a lot of time trying to trace linkages to international jihadist groups instead of urging the government to address deep-rooted social and economic grievances.
Now this is not to say that the dangers of infection by Islamic militancy are not there. Left to escalate, conflicts in Muslim communities are bound to attract a range of extremist groups and activities. In the case of Aceh, the central government even introduced conservative Islamic shariah law in an attempt to appease the staunchly Muslim Acehnese. Just as these conflicts attracted communist support in the heyday or international socialist revolution back in the 1960s and 1970s, so today's available anarchistic ideology is Islamic jihad. All the more reason therefore to accelerate moves towards conflict resolution, and every reason to hope that some of the more optimistic trends outlined above will continue.
Chin Peng. 2003. My Side of History. Singapore: Media Masters, 2003.
Croissant, Aurel. 2005. "Unrest in Southern Thailand: Contours, Causes and Consequences since 2001". Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 1 (April 2005).
Cropley, Ed. 2005. "Malay Separatists Say Behind Southern Thai Unrest", Reuters, 28 August 2005.
Gunaratna, Rohan, Arabinda Acharya, and Sabrina Chua. 2005. Conflict and Terrorism in Southern Thailand. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic.
Hidup Mati Bangsa Melayu Patani. 1997. Patani Malay Consultative Congress.
Huber, Konrad. 2004. The HDC in Aceh: Promises and Pitfalls of NGO Mediation and Implementation. Washington, DC: East West Centre.
Human Security Report, 2005. Human Security Centre, University of British Columbia.
Ibrahim Syukri. 2005. History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani (Sejarah Kerajaan Melayu Patani), translated by Conner Bailey and John N. Miksic. Silkworm Books/Ohio University Press.
Kuppuswamy, C.S. 2003. "The Moro Islamic Liberation Front Imbroglio". South Asia Analysis Group Paper, no. 765, 18 August 2003.
(1) For example, see International Crisis Group report on the Southern Philippines, "Terrorism and the Peace Process", 13 July 2004.
(2) For a critical account of the HDC experience in Aceh, see Huber (2004).
(3) The MILF was formed in 1977 when Hashim Salamat, supported by ethnic Maguindanaos from Mindanao, split from the Moro National Liberation Front, advocating a more moderate and conciliatory approach towards the government. In early February 2006 Malaysian mediators declared after talks in Kuala Lumpur that they had reached a preliminary deal on the controversial issue of ancestral lands.
(4) Author's confidential discussions with Thai intelligence officials in Bangkok, October 2005.
(5) For an indigenous account of the early years of Thai rule and its impact down to the modern period, see Ibrahim Syukri (2005).
(6) Author's confidential discussions with members of the Armed Groups in Northern Malaysia (March and April 2005).
(7) Author's confidential discussions with Armed Group Members in Pattani and Kelantan (October 2005).
(8) For a good summary of the causes of the conflict in Southern Thailand, see Croissant (2005).
(9) Discussions with Farish Noor, 16 June 2005.
(10) PULO documents in the possession of the author.
(11) Author's confidential discussions in Kuala Lumpur and Kota Bharu, June-October 2005.
(13) Discussions with Panitan Wattanayagorn, Bangkok, 8 November 2005.
(14) The data for this section was compiled from discussions held by the author with members of the armed groups in exile along the Thai border in Malaysia and in Europe in the course of 2005.
(15) Discussions with Anand Panyarachun, October 2005.
(16) In November 2005, first former prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and then NRC Secretary General Gothom Arya floated the idea of a self-administered municipality centred on Pattani that could be given the name Pattani Mahanakorn, which means "great city of Pattani".
(17) Author's discussions with NRC members in Pattani, November 2005.
(18) This information was obtained from a confidential source of the author in Bangkok and discussions with members of armed groups in exile in December 2005.
(19) The author obtained details of the proposal from the Malaysian Prime Minister's Office in October 2005.
(20) Author's discussions with Indonesian foreign ministry officials, Jakarta, January 2006.
(21) "Aceh Reflects New Thinking in Asia", Straits Times (Singapore), 23 August 2005.
(22) Author's discussions with Thai intelligence officials in Bangkok.
MICHAEL VATIKIOTIS is Regional Representative of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.…