Resolving Internal Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Domestic Challenges and Regional Perspectives

By Vatikiotis, Michael | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Resolving Internal Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Domestic Challenges and Regional Perspectives


Vatikiotis, Michael, Contemporary Southeast Asia


 
   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. …

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